Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland is one of America’s most treasured composers, and is renowned for his ability to simultaneously evoke the exciting expanses of the frontier and the industrious bustle of his native New York. His music is earthy and lyrical, with a folksy populism that came to define the sound of America.

Aaron Copland was born in Brooklyn, New York to a family of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. His musical endeavors began at the piano early in his teenage years, with his older sister providing the initial instruction. Copland never went to college but instead took lessons with the leading classical pianists and composers he could find, and augmented these by attending as many performances by his musical contemporaries as he could. His main instructor at the time was Rubin Goldmark, who introduced him to the basics of composition.  

In 1921 Copland moved to Paris to continue his musical education, studying with renowned teachers including Nadia Boulanger and Ricardo Viñes. The three years he spent in France exposed Copland to a huge variety of European music. Not only did he gain valuable insights into and appreciation for what many of his contemporaries, such as Igor Stravinsky and Darius Milhaud, were doing, he also made many connections with living legends, most notably the double bassist and composer Serge Koussevitzky.

Copland returned to the United States in 1925 with vastly heightened compositional expertise and the inspiration and perspective to forge his own path. His first major work upon returning was Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, which debuted that year and was written on Koussevitzky’s request for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. During this period Copland still showed a definite influence by his counterparts in Europe, particularly Stravinsky. However, Copland was determined to break out of this mold. He was convinced that there was a way to create classical music with a distinctly American aesthetic, wholly separate from the European tradition.

'Is there a meaning to music?' My answer would be, 'Yes.' And 'Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?' My answer to that would be, 'No'.

At first, Copland attempted to accomplish this by integrating the harmonic and rhythmic language of jazz into his compositions, à la George Gershwin. This experiment produced some of his first famous works including Music for Theater (1925) and Piano Concerto (1926). However, Copland himself was dissatisfied with this symphonic jazz experiment, claiming that it left him emotionally limited and reliant on musical tropes.

Copland continued his search for the classic American sound throughout the 1920s and 30s. As his inspiration moved on from an overt jazz source he began to incorporate more diverse influences, notably the music from Latin America and the Caribbean, which resulted in El Salon Mexico (1935) and Danzón Cubano (1942). El Salon Mexico was rooted in Mexican folk music and became his most popular work at the time. Meanwhile, Copland was branching out into an increasingly broad array of musical contexts. This included ballets and several film scores including “Of Mice and Men” (1939) and “The Heiress” (1949), for which he won an Academy Award for best score.

So long as the human spirit thrives on this planet, music in some living form will accompany and sustain it and give it expressive meaning.

It wasn’t until the late 1930s that Copland began to finally reach the form of expression he was looking for, a style of music that was distinct from the European trajectory while also not being too dependent and derivative of the jazz coming from his own country. Copland’s unique blend contains a folk-inspired simplicity while also evoking the grandiose, even epic, mythology of the American West. No work of his is more representative of this than the infamous Fanfare for the Common Man (1942). Written for a bare-bones instrumentation of brass and percussion, it is Copland’s musical tribute to all the ideals he holds so dear: elegance and simplicity of expression, compositional expertise, and drama. Fanfare has transcended the status of a simple musical statement with its adoption into a veritable anthem for the cause of the working-class, and is frequently employed by populist politicians or candidates.

One of Copland’s lifelong goals was to create classical compositions for the masses: music that was at once unpretentious and accessible. Copland himself remarked, “I occasionally had the strange sensation of being divided in half—the austere, intellectual modernist on the one side; the accessible, popular composer on the other.” This is hardly a new struggle for classical composers, but by the mid-1940s Copland had chosen his path and was regularly writing works that fit the latter half of his description.

Copland’s greatest work from this period, and arguably one of the greatest works of American music from the 20th century, was Appalachian Spring (1944). Written as the score to Martha Graham’s ballet of the same name, it earned him a Pulitzer Prize and worldwide recognition, and the orchestral suite is an immensely popular piece to this day. Compositionally, the work is heavily influenced by American folk melodies, including one that was co-opted almost verbatim: the legendary rendition of the Shaker spiritual “Simple Gifts” which appears near the end of the ballet. Copland had also written ballet music to Rodeo, two years previously.

Why call Copland a great American composer? He's a great composer.

In 1947, the clarinettist Benny Goodman commissioned Copland to write a clarinet concerto, during which time Copland was conducting and lecturing in Rio de Janeiro. The elegiac Concerto for Clarinet, Strings and Harp was completed by December 1948. Notable performances include those of Benny Goodman and the NBC Symphony Orchestra, Ralph McLane and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Stanley Drucker and the New York Philharmonic (conducted by Leonard Bernstein) and Martin Fröst and the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

Perpetually restless, Copland deviated once again from his earlier pastoral path and began writing serial music in the 1950s, albeit in a highly individual style. He soon retired almost completely from composition, preferring to focus on traveling the whole world to conduct his own pieces, teaching at the Tanglewood institute, and writing several books on music. Although he was no longer an active composer Copland was still very much in the public eye, and was a huge influence on his contemporaries, such as Igor Stravinsky, as well as on future generations, notably Leonard Bernstein.

As Stravinsky famously remarked: "Why call Copland a great American composer? He's a great composer."

I occasionally had the strange sensation of being divided in half—the austere, intellectual modernist on the one side; the accessible, popular composer on the other.

Leonard Bernstein

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