Aaron Copland (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
Article abstract: Copland advanced the cause of music in America through a lifetime of musical composition and an unending concern for and promotion of a distinctly American music.
Aaron Copland, the fifth and youngest child of Harris and Sarah Mittenthal Copland, was born on November 14, 1900, in Brooklyn, New York, to a family neither musically gifted nor extraordinarily devoted to music. Both of Copland’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, each emigrating to the United States as a child; they met and married in Brooklyn in 1885. Two years later, Copland’s father opened a family-run department store, above which the Copland family lived and where Aaron was to spend the first twenty years of his life.
Copland led a fairly typical childhood, attending public grammar school, working part-time in the family store, and attending summer camp. From 1914 to 1918, he attended and was graduated from Boys’ High School. His musical training began rather late for one who was to go on to become an accomplished composer and musician. Since Copland’s parents had provided each of his four older siblings with music lessons and believed that none had derived any benefit from them, they were less than willing to make a similar expenditure for their youngest child. Consequently, when Copland was eleven years old, he began to learn the piano from his older sister, Laurine. This experiment lasted...
(The entire section is 2644 words.)
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Copland, Aaron (Contemporary Musicians)
"To a composer, music is a kind of language," Aaron Copland opens the first volume of his autobiography, Copland: 1900 Through 1942. "Behind the written score, even behind the various sounds they make when played, is a language of the emotions. The composer has it in his power to make music speak of many things: tender, harsh and lively, consoling and challenging things." With his language, Copland has given America its language, a language of its land and its people, of its history and its myths. It is an indigenous American language spoken with emotion and understanding for the common American man.
Aaron Copland was born on November 14, 1900, in Brooklyn, New York. He showed an affinity with music early in life, composing songs when he was only eight-and-a-half years old. His formal training, however, did not begin until he was thirteen. Although this is an "old" age at which to begin musical studies, Copland's desire and tenacity expedited his musical training. At fifteen, he took piano lessons from Leopold Wolfsohn, and at seventeen began studying composition with Rubin Goldmark, remaining under his tutelage for the next four years.
The young Copland's modernist tendencies conflicted with Goldmark's conservatism, however, and in 1921 Copland escaped to France to study at the newly formed Conservatoire American at Fountainebleau. Composition studies there with Paul Vidal continued along the same musical idiom as Goldmark's, and Copland didn't find release until, upon a friend's urging, he visited the harmony class of Nadia Boulanger. It was a pivotal moment, one that wasn't lost on the perceptive budding composer. He recounts in Copland: "[Boulanger's] sense of involvement in the whole subject of harmony made it more lively than I ever thought it could be. She created a kind of excitement about the subject, emphasizing how it was, after all, the fundamental basis of our music, when one really thought about it. I suspected that first day that I had found my composition teacher."
While Copland studied in Paris for the next three years with Boulanger, his senses developed amid what Donald Henahan, writing for the New York Times Book Review, labeled "an artistic hotbed." Figures like the surrealist Andre Breton, expatriate writers T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, painters Georges Braque and Max Ernst, and composers Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud eschewed the past in search of a new aesthetic voice. Copland relates in his autobiography: "The air was charged with talk of new tendencies, and the password was originalitynything was possible. . . . Tradition was nothing; innovation everything." This thoroughly modernist atmosphere pervaded Copland, and informed his first orchestral work, Grogh (1922-25).
Upon returning to the United States in 1924, Copland intended to compose music in an American voice. "I was very conscious of how French composers sounded in comparison with the Germans, and how Russian [Igor] Stravinsky was," Copland explained many years later to Edward Rothstein of the New York Times. "I became very preoccupied with writing serious concert music that would have a specifically American flavor." Before he left France, Copland had been asked by Boulanger to compose an orchestral piece for organ for her upcoming tour as soloist with several American orchestras. The completed piece, Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, raised more than a few eyebrows at its premiere in New York. It was a time when, as Arthur Berger in his biography on Copland explained, "the public at large regarded a modern composer as something of a naughty boy by whom it was both amused and shocked." Walter Damrosch, conductor of the New York Symphony, turned to the audience at the completion of the symphony and gave the now famous remark, "If a young man at the age of twenty-three can write a symphony like that, within five years he will be ready to commit murder." Although critics both praised and panned the new work, Copland subsequently found that it had more of a European style than an American one. For his next two works, Music for the Theater (1925) and the Piano Concerto (1926), he incorporated American jazz. But this attempt at an American sound was too manufactured, and Rothstein admitted that "however influenced [Copland] was by cross rhythms and metrical freedom, one can hear, particularly in the concerto, how much more jazz was a 'sign' of things American, rather than a personal expression."
In addition to his own music, Copland propagated the American voice by championing the works of other young American composers at the time. He joined the League of Composers, became good friends with the eminent composer and proponent of modern music Serge Koussevitzky, and maintained and enhanced contacts with fellow composers such as Virgil Thomson and Roy Harris. In 1928, along with Roger Sessions, he founded the Copland-Sessions Concerts, which for several years offered New York audiences an opportunity to hear contemporary American music. In Copland, Thomson succinctly defined Copland's activities at that time: "Aaron was president of young American music, and then middle-aged American music, because he had tact, good business sense about colleagues, and loyalty."
With his increased activity in the modern music society came an increasingly complex quality in his music. Audiences were perplexed by his Symphonic Ode (1929) and subsequent works, not because of their dense structuring, but, ironically, because of their leanness, angularity, and spaciousness. Copland points out in his autobiography that "one can hear in the Ode the beginnings of a purer, non-programmatic style, an attempt toward an economy of material and transparency of texture that would be taken much further in the next few years in the Piano Variations, the Short Symphony, and Statements for Orchestra." Julia Smith, in her biography Aaron Copland, argued that this shift occurred because Copland was "a man of his time, reflecting the spirit and mood of his age through his music," its sparseness reflecting "the disillusion-filled depression years of the early thirties."
This "abstract" period did not last long, however, as Copland continued to change his style (a characteristic he maintained throughout his career). Influenced by the social and political climate of the 1930s, he sought a way to lift the spirits of the American public, as well as heighten its musical knowledge. Some forty years later Copland told John Rockwell of the New York Times, "There was a problem with the public then. Composers were writing music that people were lost with. Writing music with a greater appeal was a kind of challenge for me. The usual assumption is that if you're working with simple materials, it's very easy. But that's not necessarily true."
His first work in the new "popular" style was El Salon Mexico (1936). Inspired by a trip to Mexico, specifically a dance hall in Mexico City, the work was grounded on Mexican folk melodies. This marked the beginning of his movement toward the incorporation of regional melodies in an attempt to capture, as he says in Copland, "that electric sense one gets sometimes in far-off places, of suddenly knowing the essence of a peopleheir humanity, their shyness, their dignity and unique charm." Copland next looked to New England and Shaker hymnody and cowboy songs to capture the American "essence" that he had sought since his return from France in the early 1920s. The consequent simpler, plainer style that brought wide public approval also resulted in derisive comments from colleagues who felt Copland was betraying his art. In a letter to Arthur Berger, reprinted in Copland, the composer explained and defended his movement: "What I was trying for in the simpler works was only partly a larger audience; they also gave me a chance to try for a home-spun musical idiom similar to what I was trying for in a more hectic fashion in the earlier jazz works.... I like to think that I have touched off for myself and others a kind of musical naturalness that we have badly needed."
In this new style Copland composed works for such diverse settings as high schools, The Second Hurricane (a play-opera, 1937) and Outdoor Overture (1938); plays, The Five Kings (1939) and Quiet City (1939); and radio broadcasts, Music for Radio (1937) and Letter From Home (1944). In addition, he tried to educate the public musicallyn general and to his own effortsy publishing two books, What to Listen for in Music (1939) and Our New Music (1941). But two areas for which he is most widely recognized, which yield the Coplandesque sound most often associated with him, are film scores and ballets.
After having written the score for the documentary film The City (1939), Copland attracted the attention of Hollywood. He scored five movies: Of Mice and Men (1939), Our Town (1940), North Star (1943), The Red Pony (1948), and The Heiress (1949). His determination to provide quality music that enhanced the action on the screen without overwhelming it has given a touchstone for film music since. He admits in his autobiography that for "some in Hollywood my music was strange, lean, and dissonant; to others it spoke with a new incisiveness and clarity." For Wilfrid Mellers of the London Times Literary Supplement, Copland's film scores were more than just incisive: "There's point in the fact that in his film scores for Of Mice and Men and Our Town he produced perhaps the finest film music ever, honouring rural America by way of an intelligent subservience to a mechanized medium." Hollywood didn't fail to recognize these achievements. Copland received an Academy Award nomination for best dramatic film score for his first three motion pictures and was eventually given the Oscar for The Heiress.
His achievements in film music were not only matched by his work for ballets but were surpassed. Smith declared that "by means of the ballet form, Aaron Copland has expressed the strength, power, and conviction of our American traditions, marking them with a definitiveness of contemporary musical language never before achieved by an American composer. In so doing, he has laid the cornerstone of an American national art, established a recognizably American musical idiom." Copland's most famous works are the two cowboy balletsBilly the Kid (1938) and Rodeo (1942)nd his masterpiece, Appalachian Spring (1944). This work, composed for choreographer Martha Graham (who chose the title from a Hart Crane poem), won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1944 and the New York Music Critics' Award as the outstanding theatrical composition of 1944-45. Of it, S. L. M. Barlow, quoted by Smith, wrote, "Here were the tart herbs of plain American speech, the pasture, without the flowers of elocution,... the clean rhythms .. . the irony and the homespun tenderness that, in a fine peroration, reached a sustained exaltation."
During this time of simplicity, Copland also produced worksPiano Sonata (1941 ), Violin Sonata (1943), and Third Symphony (1946)n a more severe tone. As Copland indicated throughout his career, he never abandoned one style for another. And as Henahan explained, "He still wanted to be respected by what he called 'the cultivated audience that understands a sophisticated musical language.'" Copland's subsequent works of the 1950s and 1960s, works like Piano Fantasy (1957), Connotations (1962), and Inscape (1967), pleased only a small following. In the early 1970s, he left composing for the conductor's podium. Joseph McLellan, in the Washington Post Book World, defined Copland's stature: "At that point, Copland had become a sort of national monument status that requires one simply to exist, to be visible and to do what has been done before."
According to Copland's long-time friend Harold Clurman, quoted in Copland, the composer's only uttered ambition was "to be remembered." In his autobiography Copland states that Stravinsky was important to him because "Stravinsky proved it was possible for a twentieth-century composer to create his own tradition." Copland is important for this very reasone has created and given America its tradition. Mellers declared: "There is no music which conveys the big-city experience more honestly than Copland's; which is more compassionately human in its acceptance of spiritual isolation while being responsive to the thoughts and feelings of average men and women; which attains, through tension, a deeper calm. In his music, we can detect the neat, bland-eyed, rugged-souled early Americans of a Copley portrait, after they have lived through the physical and nervous stresses to which a machine age has submitted them."
What to Listen for in Music, 1939.
Our New Music, 1941.
Music and Imagination, 1952.
Copland on Music, 1960.
The New Music 1900-1960, 1968.
Copland: 1900 Through 1942, 1984.
Grog/7 (ballet), 1922-25.
Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, 1924.
Music for the Theater, 1925.
Dance Symphony, 1925.
Piano Concerto, 1926.
First Symphony, 1928.
Symphonic Ode, 1929.
Piano Variations, 1930.
Short Symphony, 1933.
Statements for Orchestra, 1935.
El Salon Mexico, 1936.
The Second Hurricane (play-opera), 1937.
Music for Radio, 1937.
Billy the Kid (ballet), 1938.
Outdoor Overture, 1938.
The Five Kings (incidental music for play), 1939.
The Quiet City (incidental music for play), 1939.
The City (documentary film), 1939.
Of Mice and Men (film), 1939.
Our Town (film), 1940.
Piano Sonata, 1941.
Lincoln Portrait, 1942.
Rodeo (ballet), 1942.
Fanfare for the Common Man, 1942.
North Star (film), 1943.
Violin Sonata, 1943.
Appalachian Spring (ballet), 1944.
Letter from Home, 1944.
Third Symphony, 1946.
The Red Pony (film), 1948.
Concerto for Clarinet, 1948.
The Heiress (film), 1949.
Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson, 1950.
The Tender Land (opera), 1954.
Symphonic Ode, 1955.
Piano Fantasy, 1957.
Orchestral Variations, 1958.
Music for a Great City, 1963.
Emblems for a Band, 1964.
Duo for Flute and Piano, 1971.
Three Latin American Sketches, 1971.
Night Thoughts for Piano, 1972.
Berger, Arthur, Aaron Copland, Oxford University Press, 1953.
Copland, Aaron and Vivian Perlis, Copland: 1900 Through 1942, St. Martin's, 1984.
Smith, Julia, Aaron Copland: His Work and Contribution to American Music, Dutton, 1955.
New York Times, November 12, 1975; November 9, 1980; September 9, 1984.
New York Times Book Review, September 30, 1984.
Times Literary Supplement, November 2, 1984.
Washington Post Book World, September 30, 1984.