Aaron Copland (/ /; November 14, 1900 – December 2, 1990) was an American composer, composition teacher, writer, and later in his career a conductor of his own and other American music. Instrumental in forging a distinctly American style of composition, in his later years he was often referred to as “the Dean of American Composers” and is best known to the public for the works he wrote in the 1930s and 1940s in a deliberately accessible style often referred to as Populist and which the composer labeled his “vernacular” style. Works in this vein include the ballets Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid and Rodeo, his Fanfare for the Common Man and Third Symphony. The open, slowly changing harmonies of many of his works are archetypical of what many people consider to be the sound of American music, evoking the vast American landscape and pioneer spirit. In addition to his ballets and orchestral works, he produced music in many other genres including chamber music, vocal works, opera and film scores.
After some initial studies with composer Rubin Goldmark, Copland traveled to Paris, where he studied at first with Isidor Philipp and Paul Vidal, then with noted pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. He studied three years with Boulanger, whose eclectic approach to music inspired his own broad taste in that area. Determined upon his return to the U.S. to make his way as a full-time composer, Copland gave lecture-recitals, wrote works on commission and did some teaching and writing. He found composing orchestral music in the “modernist” style he had adapted abroad a financially contradictory approach, particularly in light of the Great Depression. He shifted in the mid-1930s to a more accessible musical style which mirrored the German idea of Gebrauchsmusik (“music for use”), music that could serve utilitarian and artistic purposes. During the Depression years, he traveled extensively to Europe, Africa, and Mexico, formed an important friendship with Mexican composer Carlos Chávez and began composing his signature works.
During the late 1940s Copland felt a need to compose works of greater emotional substance than his utilitarian scores of the late 1930s and early 1940s. He was aware that Stravinsky, as well as many fellow composers, had begun to study Arnold Schoenberg’s use of twelve-tone (serial) techniques. In his personal style, Copland began to make use of twelve-tone rows in several compositions. He incorporated serial techniques in some of his later works. Among them, his Piano Quartet (1951), Piano Fantasy (1957), Connotations for orchestra (1961) and Inscape for orchestra (1967). From the 1960s onward, Copland’s activities turned more from composing to conducting. He became a frequent guest conductor of orchestras in the U.S. and the UK and made a series of recordings of his music, primarily for Columbia Records.
Aaron Copland was born in Brooklyn into a Conservative Jewish family of Lithuanian origins, the last of five children, on November 14, 1900. Before emigrating from Russia to the United States, Copland’s father, Harris Morris Copland, Anglicized his surname “Kaplan” to “Copland” while waiting in Scotland en route to the US. Throughout his childhood, Copland and his family lived above his parents’ Brooklyn shop, H.M. Copland’s, at 628 Washington Avenue (which Aaron would later describe as “a kind of neighborhood Macy’s”), on the corner of Dean Street and Washington Avenue, and most of the children helped out in the store. His father was a staunch Democrat. The family members were active in Congregation Baith Israel Anshei Emes, where Aaron celebrated his Bar Mitzvah. Not especially athletic, the sensitive young man became an avid reader and often read Horatio Alger stories on his front steps.
Copland’s father had no musical interest at all, but his mother, Sarah Mittenthal Copland, sang and played the piano, and arranged for music lessons for her children. Of his siblings, oldest brother Ralph was the most advanced musically, proficient on the violin, while his sister Laurine had the strongest connection with Aaron, giving him his first piano lessons, promoting his musical education, and supporting him in his musical career. She attended the Metropolitan Opera School and was a frequent opera goer. She often brought home libretti for Aaron to study. Copland attended Boys’ High School and in the summer went to various camps. Most of his early exposure to music was at Jewish weddings and ceremonies, and occasional family musicales.
At the age of eleven, Copland devised an opera scenario he called Zenatello, which included seven bars of music, his first notated melody. From 1913 to 1917 he took music lessons with Leopold Wolfsohn, who taught him the standard classical fare. Copland’s first public music performance was at a Wanamaker’s recital.
By the age of 15, after attending a concert by composer-pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Copland decided to become a composer. After attempts to further his music study from a correspondence course, Copland took formal lessons in harmony, theory, and composition from Rubin Goldmark, a noted teacher and composer of American music (who had given George Gershwin three lessons). Goldmark gave the young Copland a solid foundation, especially in the Germanic tradition, as he stated later: “This was a stroke of luck for me. I was spared the floundering that so many musicians have suffered through incompetent teaching.” But Copland also commented that the maestro had “little sympathy for the advanced musical idioms of the day” and his “approved” composers ended with Richard Strauss.
Copland’s graduation piece from his studies with Goldmark was a three-movement piano sonata in a Romantic style. But he had also composed more original and daring pieces which he did not share with his teacher. In addition to regularly attending the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Symphony, where he heard the standard classical repertory, Copland continued his musical development through an expanding circle of musical friends. After graduating from high school, Copland played in dance bands. Continuing his musical education, he received further piano lessons from Victor Wittgenstein, who found his student to be “quiet, shy, well-mannered, and gracious in accepting criticism.” Copland’s fascination with the Russian Revolution and its promise for freeing the lower classes drew a rebuke from his father and uncles. In spite of that, in his early adult life Copland would develop friendships with people with socialist and communist leanings.
Studying in Paris
From 1917 to 1921, Copland composed juvenile works of short piano pieces and art songs. Copland’s passion for the latest European music, plus glowing letters from his friend Aaron Schaffer, inspired him to go to Paris for further study. His father wanted him to go to college, but his mother’s vote in the family conference allowed him to give Paris a try. On arriving in France, he studied at the Fontainebleau School of Music with noted pianist and pedagogue Isidor Philipp and with Paul Vidal. But finding Vidal too much like Goldmark, Copland switched to famed teacher Nadia Boulanger, then aged thirty-four. He had initial reservations: “No one to my knowledge had ever before thought of studying with a woman.” She interviewed him, and recalled later: “One could tell his talent immediately.”
Boulanger had as many as forty students at once and employed a formal regimen that Copland had to follow, too. Copland found her incisive mind much to his liking and stated: “This intellectual Amazon is not only professor at the Conservatoire, is not only familiar with all music from Bach to Stravinsky, but is prepared for anything worse in the way of dissonance. But make no mistake … A more charming womanly woman never lived.” Though he planned on only one year abroad, he studied with her for three years, finding her eclectic approach inspired his own broad musical taste.
Adding to the heady cultural atmosphere of the early 1920s in Paris was the presence of expatriate American writers Paul Bowles, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound, as well as artists like Picasso, Chagall, and Modigliani. Also influential on the new music were the French intellectuals Marcel Proust, Paul Valéry, Sartre, and André Gide, the latter cited by Copland as being his personal favorite and most read. Travels to Italy, Austria, and Germany rounded out Copland’s musical education. During his stay in Paris, Copland began writing musical critiques, the first on Gabriel Fauré, which helped spread his fame and stature in the music community. Instead of wallowing in self-pity and self-destruction like many of the expatriate members of the Lost Generation, Copland returned to America optimistic and enthusiastic about the future.
1925 to 1950
Upon returning to the U.S., Copland was determined to make his way as a full-time composer. He rented a studio apartment on New York City’s Upper West Side in the Empire Hotel, which kept him close to Carnegie Hall and other musical venues and publishers. He remained in that area for the next thirty years, later moving to Westchester County, New York. Copland lived frugally and survived financially with help from two $2,500 Guggenheim Fellowships—one in 1925 and one in 1926. Lecture-recitals, awards, appointments, and small commissions, plus some teaching, writing, and personal loans kept him afloat in the subsequent years through World War II. Also important were wealthy patrons who supported the arts community during the Depression, underwriting performances, publication, and promotion of musical events and composers.
Copland’s compositions in the early 1920s reflected the prevailing “modernist” attitude among intellectuals: that they were a small vanguard leading the way for the masses, who would only come to appreciate their efforts over time. In this view, music and the other arts need be accessible to only a select cadre of the enlightened. Toward this end, Copland formed the Young Composer’s Group, modeled after France’s “Six”, gathering together promising young composers, acting as their guiding spirit.
Soon after his return, Copland was introduced to the artistic circle of Alfred Stieglitz and met many of the leading artists of that time. Stieglitz’s conviction that the American artist should reflect “the ideas of American Democracy” influenced Copland and a whole generation of artists and photographers, including Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Walker Evans.Evans’ photographs inspired portions of Copland’s opera The Tender Land.
In his quest to take up Stieglitz’s challenge, Copland had few established American contemporaries to emulate apart from Carl Ruggles and the reclusive Charles Ives, although the 1920s were Golden Years for American popular music and jazz, with George Gershwin, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong leading the way. Later, however, Copland joined up with his younger contemporaries and formed a group termed the “commando unit,” which included Roger Sessions, Roy Harris, Virgil Thomson, and Walter Piston. They collaborated in joint concerts showcasing their work to new audiences.
Copland’s relationship with the “commando unit” was one of both support and rivalry, and he played a key role in keeping them together. The five young American composers helped promote each other and their works but also had testy exchanges, inflamed by the assertion of the press that Copland was the “truly American” composer. Going beyond the five, Copland was generous with his time with nearly every American young composer he met during his life, later earning the title the “Dean of American Music.”
Mounting troubles with the Symphonic Ode (1929) and Short Symphony (1933) caused him to rethink the paradigm of composing orchestral music for a select group, as it was a financially contradictory approach, particularly in the Depression. In many ways, this shift mirrored the German idea of Gebrauchsmusik (“music for use”), as composers sought to create music that could serve a utilitarian as well as artistic purpose. This approach encompassed two trends: first, music that students could easily learn, and second, music which would have wider appeal, such as incidental music for plays, movies, radio, etc. Copland undertook both goals, starting in the mid-1930s.
Hear the Music
Opening: Appalachian Spring, original version for 13 instruments
Sample of the opening movement in Copland’s ballet
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Perhaps motivated by the plight of children during the Depression, around 1935 Copland began to compose musical pieces for young audiences, in accordance with the first goal of American Gebrauchsmusik. These works included piano pieces (The Young Pioneers) and an opera (The Second Hurricane).
During the Depression years, Copland traveled extensively to Europe, Africa, and Mexico. He formed an important friendship with Mexican composer Carlos Chávez and would return often to Mexico for working vacations conducting engagements. During his initial visit to Mexico, Copland began composing the first of his signature works, El Salón México, which he completed four years later in 1936. This and other incidental commissions fulfilled the second goal of American Gebrauchsmusik, creating music of wide appeal.
During this time, he composed (for radio broadcast) “Prairie Journal,” one of his first pieces to convey the landscape of the American West. Branching out into theater, Copland also played an important role providing musical advice and inspiration to The Group Theater—Stella Adler’s and Lee Strasberg’s “method” acting school. The Group Theater followed Copland’s musical agenda and focused on plays that illuminated the American experience. After Hitler and Mussolini’s attacks on Spain in 1936, leftist parties had united in a Popular Front against Fascism. Many Group Theater members were influenced by Marxism and other progressive philosophies, and several had joined the Communist Party, including Elia Kazan and Clifford Odets. Copland also had contact later with other major American playwrights, including Thornton Wilder, William Inge, Arthur Miller, and Edward Albee, and considered projects with all of them. During the 1930s, Copland wrote incidental music for several plays, including Irwin Shaw’s “Quiet City” (1939), considered one of his most personal and poignant scores.
In 1939, Copland completed his first two Hollywood film scores, for Of Mice and Men and Our Town, and received sizable commissions. In the same year, he composed the radio score “John Henry”, based on the folk ballad. But it wasn’t until the worldwide market for classical recordings boomed after World War II that he achieved economic security. Even after securing a comfortable income, he continued to write, teach, lecture, and, eventually, conduct.
Demonstrating his broad range, Copland in the 1930s began composing music for ballet, including his highly successful Billy the Kid (1939), the second of four ballets he scored (after Hear Ye! Hear Ye! (1934)). In an interview with Vivian Perlis, Eugene Loring said of the ballet, “In our western states, there were still a few old-timers who remembered Billy. One came backstage in San Francisco to tell us that it was all fine, except that Billy really shot left-handed!” Copland’s ballet music established him as an authentic composer of American music much as Stravinsky’s ballet scores connected the composer with Russian music. Copland’s timing was excellent; he helped fill a vacuum for the American choreographers who needed suitable music to score their own nationalistic dance repertory.
In keeping with the wartime period, Copland’s “Piano Sonata” (1941) was a piece characterized as “grim, nervous, elegiac, with pervasive bell-like tolling of alarm and mourning.” It was later adapted to “Day on Earth,” a landmark American dance by Doris Humphrey.
Copland started to publish some of his lectures in the 1930s, “What to Listen for in Music” being one of the most notable of his writings. He also took a leading role in the American Composers Alliance, whose mission was “to regularize and collect all fees pertaining to performance of their copyrighted music” and “to stimulate interest in the performance of American music.” Copland eventually moved over to rival ASCAP. Through royalties and with his great success from 1940 on, Copland amassed a multi-million dollar fortune by the time of his death.
The decade of the 1940s was arguably Copland’s most productive, and it firmly established his worldwide fame. His two ballet scores for Rodeo (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1944) were huge successes. His pieces Lincoln Portrait and Fanfare for the Common Man have become patriotic standards (See Popular works, below). Also important was the Third Symphony. Composed in a two-year period from 1944 to 1946, it became Copland’s best-known symphony.
In 1945, Copland contributed to Jubilee Variation, a work commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony in which ten American composers collaborated, but the piece is seldom heard in the concert hall. Copland’s In the Beginning (1947) is a choral work using the first chapter and the first seven verses of the second chapter of Genesis from the King James Version of the Bible and is a masterpiece of the choral repertory.
Copland’s Clarinet Concerto (1948), scored for solo clarinet, strings, harp, and piano, was a commission piece for bandleader and clarinetist Benny Goodman and a complement to Copland’s earlier jazz-influenced work, the Piano Concerto (1926).His “Four Piano Blues” is an introspective composition with a jazz influence.
Copland finished the 1940s with two film scores, one for William Wyler’s 1949 film The Heiress and one for the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel The Red Pony.
In 1949, he returned to Europe to find Pierre Boulez dominating the group of post-war avant-garde composers. He also met with proponents of twelve-tone technique, based on the works of Arnold Schoenberg, and found himself interested in adapting serial methods to his own musical voice.
1950s and 1960s
In 1950, Copland received a Fulbright scholarship to study in Rome, which he did the following year. Around this time, he also composed his Piano Quartet, adopting Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method of composition, and Old American Songs (1950), the first set of which was premiered by Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, the second by William Warfield.
Because of the political climate of that era, A Lincoln Portrait was withdrawn from the 1953 inaugural concert for President Eisenhower. That same year, Copland was called before Congress, where he testified that he was never a communist.
Despite the difficulties that his suspected Communist sympathies posed, Copland nonetheless traveled extensively during the 1950s and early 1960s, observing the avant-garde styles of Europe while experiencing the new school of Soviet music. In addition, he was rather taken with the work of Toru Takemitsu while in Japan and began a correspondence with him that would last over the next decade. Copland wrote of the Japanese composer: “He has the ‘pure gold’ touch, he chooses his notes carefully and meaningfully.” Copland also gained exposure to the latest musical trends in Poland and Scandinavia. In observing these new musical forms, Copland revised his text “The New Music” with comments on the styles that he encountered. In particular, while Copland explained the importance of the work of John Cage and others (in his chapter titled “The Music of Chance”), he found that these radical trends in music which appealed to those “who enjoy teetering on the edge of chaos” were less likely to gain the appreciation of a wider audience “who envisage art as a bulwark against the irrationality of man’s nature.” As he summarized: “I’ve spent most of my life trying to get the right note in the right place. Just throwing it open to chance seems to go against my natural instincts.”
In 1954, Copland received a commission from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein to create music for the opera The Tender Land, based on James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Copland had been wary of writing an opera, being especially aware of the pitfalls of that form, including weak libretti and demanding production values. Nevertheless, Copland decided to try his hand at “la forme fatale,” especially as the 1950s were boom times for American playwrights, with Arthur Miller, Clifford Odets and Thornton Wilder doing some of their best work. Originally two acts, The Tender Land was later expanded to three. As Copland feared, critics found the libretto to be the opera’s weakness, and he later stated: “I admit that if I have one regret it is that I never did write a ‘grand opera’.” In spite of its flaws, the opera has established itself as one of the few American operas in the standard repertory.
In 1957, 1958, and 1976, Copland was the Music Director of the Ojai Music Festival, a classical and contemporary music festival in Ojai, California.
Copland exerted a major influence on the compositional style of an entire generation of American composers, including his friend and protégé Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein was considered the finest conductor of Copland’s works and cites Copland’s “aesthetic, simplicity with originality” as being his strongest and most influential traits.
For the occasion of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Centennial, Copland composed Ceremonial Fanfare For Brass Ensemble to accompany the exhibition “Masterpieces Of Fifty Centuries.” Leonard Bernstein, Walter Piston, William Schuman, and Virgil Thomson also composed pieces for the Museum’s Centennial exhibitions.
From the 1960s onward, Copland’s activities turned more from composing to conducting. Though not enamored with the prospect, he found himself without new ideas for composition, saying: “It was exactly as if someone had simply turned off a faucet.” Copland was a frequent guest conductor of orchestras in the U.S. and the UK. He made a series of recordings of his music, primarily for Columbia Records. In 1960, RCA Victor released Copland’s recordings with the Boston Symphony Orchestra of the orchestral suites from Appalachian Spring and The Tender Land; these recordings were later reissued on CD, as were most of Copland’s Columbia recordings (by Sony).
From 1960 to his death, he resided at Cortlandt Manor, New York. His home, known as Rock Hill, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. It was further designated a National Historic Landmark in 2008. Copland’s health deteriorated through the 1980s, and he died of Alzheimer’s disease and respiratory failure on December 2, 1990, in North Tarrytown, New York (now Sleepy Hollow). Much of his large estate was bequeathed to the creation of the Aaron Copland Fund for Composers, which bestows over $600,000 per year to performing groups.
Deciding not to follow the example of his father, a solid Democrat, Copland never enrolled as a member of any political party, but he espoused a general progressive view and had strong ties with numerous colleagues and friends in the Popular Front, including Odets. Copland supported the Communist Party USA ticket during the 1936 presidential election, at the height of his involvement with The Group Theater, and remained a committed opponent of militarism and the Cold War, which he regarded as having been instigated by the United States. He condemned it as “almost worse for art than the real thing”. Throw the artist “into a mood of suspicion, ill-will, and dread that typifies the cold war attitude and he’ll create nothing”. In keeping with these attitudes, Copland was a strong supporter of the Presidential candidacy of Henry A. Wallace on the Progressive Party ticket. As a result, he was later investigated by the FBI during the Red scare of the 1950s and found himself blacklisted.
Copland was included on an FBI list of 151 artists thought to have Communist associations. Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn questioned Copland about his lecturing abroad and his affiliations with various organizations and events, neglecting completely Copland’s works which made a virtue of American values. Copland made several denials on record of any serious involvement with a list of political/cultural organizations identified as subversive by the House of Un-American Activities (HUAC). Copland has also been on record saying he does not think music has political importance despite having composed some of the most iconic American art music of the 20th century.
Given the nature of the hearings, Copland was asked to prepare explanations for his seemingly large involvement in explicitly communist and communist leaning organizations. The danger Copland potentially presented was not in belonging to communist organizations, but in the possibility of spreading those ideas in the Latin American countries he was paid by the state to lecture in. The U.S, at the time, still had an interest with overseeing the continuation of democracy in Latin America.
Outraged by the accusations, many members of the musical community held up Copland’s music as a banner of his patriotism. The investigations ceased in 1955 and were closed in 1975. Though taxing of his time, energy, and emotional state, the McCarthy probes did not seriously affect Copland’s career and international artistic reputation. In any case, beginning in 1950, Copland, who had been appalled at Stalin’s persecution of Shostakovich and other artists, began resigning from participation in leftist groups. He decried the lack of artistic freedom in the Soviet Union, and in his 1954 Norton lecture he asserted that loss of freedom under Soviet Communism deprived artists of “the immemorial right of the artist to be wrong.” He began to vote Democratic, first for Stevenson and then for Kennedy.
Copland was an agnostic. However, Copland has had various encounters with organized religious thought, which have influenced some of his early compositions. Copland was once close with the Zionist movement during the Popular Front movement, when it was endorsed by the left. In relation to his compositions one of his earliest musical interests was with klezmer music. the music of his childhood synagogue would be one of the early influences of his fresh musical aesthetic.
Copland is documented as gay in author Howard Pollack’s biography, Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man. Like many of his contemporaries he guarded his privacy, especially in regard to his homosexuality, providing very few written details about his private life. However, he was one of the few composers of his stature to live openly and travel with his intimates, most of whom were talented, much younger men. Among Copland’s love affairs, most of which lasted for only a few years yet became enduring friendships, were ones with photographer Victor Kraft (photographer), artist Alvin Ross, pianist Paul Moor, dancer Erik Johns, and composer John Brodbin Kennedy.
Victor Kraft would prove to be the one constant romantic relationship in Copland’s life. Originally a student of music under Copland, Kraft gave up music in pursuit of a career in photography on Copland’s urging. Kraft would leave and re-enter Copland’s life, often bringing much stress with him: their relationship would fluctuate from contentedness to erratically confrontational on Kraft’s part. Kraft fathered a child to whom Copland later provided financial security, through a bequest from his estate.
Copland’s earliest musical inclinations as a teenager ran toward Chopin, Debussy, Verdi and the Russian composers. Some of his preferences might also have been formed by the anti-German feelings during World War I, as later he studied German music. Copland’s curiosity about the latest music from Debussy and Scriabin was frustrated by the fact that the scores of “avant-garde” works were expensive at that time and hard to come by. So he borrowed these works from a music library and studied them intensely. Some of his earliest compositions were songs and piano pieces inspired by these European influences.
Copland’s teacher and mentor Nadia Boulanger was his most important influence. In gratitude for the immense support and promotion on his behalf, he stated to her in 1950: “I shall count our meeting the most important of my musical life … Whatever I have accomplished is intimately associated in my mind with those early years, and with what you have since been as inspiration and example.” Of all her students, she listed Copland first. Copland especially admired Boulanger’s total grasp of all classical music, and he was encouraged to experiment and develop a “clarity of conception and elegance in proportion.” Following her model, he studied all periods of classical music and all forms—from madrigals to symphonies. This breadth of vision led Copland to compose music for numerous settings—orchestra, opera, solo piano, small ensemble, art song, ballet, theater and film. Boulanger particularly emphasized “la grande ligne” (the long line), “a sense of forward motion … the feeling for inevitability, for the creating of an entire piece that could be thought of as a functioning entity.”
In discovering Johann Sebastian Bach, Copland pointed out: “[Bach has an] inexhaustible wealth of musical riches, which no music lover can afford to ignore … What strikes me most markedly about Bach’s work is the marvelous rightness of it. It is the rightness not merely of a single individual, but a whole musical epoch.” Copland stated that an ideal music might combine Mozart’s “spontaneity and refinement” with Palestrina’s “purity” and Bach’s “profundity”.
Copland was excited to be so close to the new post-Impressionistic French music of Ravel, Roussel, and Satie, as well as Les six, a group that included Milhaud, Poulenc, and Honegger. Webern, Berg, and Bartók also impressed him. Copland was “insatiable” in seeking out the newest European music, whether in concerts, score reading or heated debate. These “moderns” were discarding the old laws of composition and experimenting with new forms, harmonies and rhythms, and including the use of jazz and quarter-tone music. Serge Koussevitzky had just arrived in Paris and was adding to the ferment by conducting and promoting the new music of Russia and France. Later he would conduct many Copland premieres in New York. Among the first performances that Copland attended was Milhaud’s La création du monde, which caused riots in Paris. Milhaud was Copland’s inspiration for some of his earlier “jazzy” works. He was also exposed to Schoenberg and admired his earlier atonal pieces, thinking Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire a landmark work comparable to Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” Copland even tried out Schoenberg’s innovative twelve-tone system and adapted it to his style.
Above all others, Copland named Igor Stravinsky as his “hero” and his favorite 20th-century composer. Stravinsky was in many ways his premiere model. Stravinsky’s rhythm and vitality is apparent in many of his works. Copland especially admired Stravinsky’s “jagged and uncouth rhythmic effects,” “bold use of dissonance,” and “hard, dry, crackling sonority.” In a 1950 radio interview, Copland is quoted saying that there is a “freshness of atmosphere; a freshness of personality–which looks very attractive to American composers. Europeans are not seeking freshness of music as much as American composers. The reason being that through their long tradition in music–they already know in advance what they are supposed to write.” As a publicly identified composer of iconic American music, Copland’s claim that American composers are still in search for a certain freshness to composition—found in Stravinsky—show they continuing uncertainty of the American art music scene in the 1950s. Despite using folk themes as a tool for signifying Americanness, Copland continued to find “freshness” in Stravinsky’s work—especially in his usage of rhythm. Copland was similarly but not quite as strongly impressed by Sergei Prokofiev’s “fresh, clean-cut, articulate style.”
Another inspiration for much of Copland’s music was jazz. Although familiar with jazz back in America—having listened to it and also played it in bands—he fully realized its potential while traveling in Austria: “The impression of jazz one receives in a foreign country is totally unlike the impression of such music heard in one’s own country … when I heard jazz played in Vienna, it was like hearing it for the first time.” He also found that the distance from his native country helped him see the United States more clearly. Beginning in 1923, he employed “jazzy elements” in his classical music, but by the late 1930s, he moved on to Latin and American folk tunes in his more successful pieces. His earlier works especially demonstrate the influence of jazz rhythmic, timbral and harmonic practices. That influence is apparent in a few later works, such as the Clarinet Concerto commissioned by Benny Goodman. During the late 1920s and 1930s, Copland sought out jazz at the Cotton Club and heard Duke Ellington, Benny Carter and Bix Beiderbecke, among others. Of Duke Ellington among other jazz composers, Copland said he was “the master of them all.”
Although Copland was intrigued by the idea of a “jazz concerto” and “symphonic jazz,” his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra did not succeed in that form as had those of Maurice Ravel and George Gershwin, who was praised by such eminent musical exiles as Schoenberg, Bartók, and Stravinsky (Gershwin had recently died at 38 and so was no longer a potential rival). Copland would go on to write extensively and deliver the Norton lectures about jazz in America, especially the big band sound (1930s) and cool West Coast jazz (1950s). Yet, enthusiastic as he was about jazz throughout his life, Copland also recognized its limitations:
With the [Piano] Concerto I felt I had done all I could with the idiom, considering its limited emotional scope. True, it was an easy way to be American in musical terms, but all American music could not possibly be confined to two dominant jazz moods – the blues and the snappy number.
Jazz played an important role for some of Copland’s compositions. What constituted as Jazz was contested by many musicians and scholars. Copland believed that the essence of Jazz was rooted in rhythm. Copland identified any sort of syncopation as metrical phenomenon. He called ragtime Jazz’ closest ancestor, while also citing the foxtrot rhythm—and later the usage of poly-rhythms as the basis for modern jazz. By the 1950s,Copland had come to see the possibilities of Jazz less and less in his compositions, though the idea of syncopated rhythm would continue to feature prominently in many of his works.
Although his early focus of jazz gave way to other influences, Copland continued to make use of jazz in more subtle ways in later works. But it was the synthesizing of all his influences and inclinations which create the “Americanism” of his music. Copland pointed out in summarizing the American character of his music, “the optimistic tone”, “his love of rather large canvases”, “a certain directness in expression of sentiment”, and “a certain songfulness”. As he advanced in his career (by 1941), he said of himself and advised other composers:
I no longer feel the need of seeking out conscious Americanisms [folksongs and folk rhythms]. Because we live here and work here, we can be certain that when our music is mature it will also be American in quality.
In contradiction to this statement, however, he continued to look for and employ folk material for several more years.
Copland’s work from the late 1940s onward included experimentation with Schönberg’s twelve-tone system, resulting in two major works, the Piano Quartet (1950) and the Piano Fantasy (1957).
Copland’s earliest compositions before leaving for Paris were short works for piano and some art songs, inspired mostly by Liszt and Debussy. He experimented with ambiguous beginnings and endings, rapid key changes, and the frequent use of tritones. His first published work was The Cat and the Mouse (1920), a piano solo piece based on a fable by Jean de la Fontaine. In Three Moods (1921), Copland’s final movement is entitled “Jazzy”, which he noted “is based on two jazz melodies and ought to make the old professors sit up and take notice”.
One of Copland’s first significant works upon returning from his studies in Paris was the necromantic ballet Grohg. This ballet, suggested to Copland by the film Nosferatu, a free adaptation of the Dracula tale, provided the source material for his later Dance Symphony. Originally intended as an orchestral exercise while he was studying in Paris, Copland completed it as a full orchestral score after returning to New York in 1925. It too had “jazz elements” as did many of Copland’s works in the 1920s.
Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (1924) brought him into contact with Serge Koussevitzky, a conductor known as a champion of “new music”, and another figure who would prove to be influential in Copland’s life, perhaps the second most important after Boulanger. Koussevitzky performed twelve Copland works during his tenure as conductor of the Boston Symphony. Copland’s relationship with Koussevitzky was apparently unique, as his interpretations of Copland’s works reflected the particular admiration that the latter had for the young composer. Copland’s Music for the Theatre (1925) and the Piano Concerto (1926) were both composed for Koussevitzky.
Visits to Europe in 1926 and 1927 brought him into contact with the most recent developments there, including Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, which greatly impressed him. In August 1927, while staying in Königstein, Copland wrote Poet’s Song, a setting of a text by E. E. Cummings and his first composition using Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique. This was followed by the Symphonic Ode (1929) and the Piano Variations (1930), both of which rely on the exhaustive development of a single short motive. This procedure, which provided Copland with more formal flexibility and a greater emotional range than in his earlier music, is similar to Schoenberg’s idea of “continuous variation” and, according to Copland’s own admission, was influenced by the twelve-tone method, though neither work actually uses a twelve-tone row.
Other major works of his first period include the Piano Variations (1930), and the Short Symphony (1933). However, this jazz-inspired period was relatively brief, as his style evolved toward the goal of writing more accessible works using folk sources.
Impressed with the success of Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts, Copland wrote El Salón México between 1932 and 1936, which met with a popular acclaim that contrasted the relative obscurity of most of his previous works. It appears he intended it to be a popular favorite, as he wrote in 1955: “It seems a long long time since anyone has written an España or Bolero—the kind of brilliant orchestral piece that everyone loves.” Inspiration for this work came from Copland’s vivid recollection of visiting the “Salon Mexico” dancehall where he witnessed a more intimate view of Mexico’s nightlife. For Copland, the biggest impact came, not from the music of the people dancing, but from the spirit of the environment. Copland said that he could literally feel the essence of the Mexican people in the dance hall. This prompted him to write a piece celebrating the spirit of Mexico using Mexican Themes. Copland derived freely from two collections of Mexican folk tunes, changing pitches and varying rhythms. The use of a folk tune with variations set in a symphonic context started a pattern he repeated in many of his most successful works right on through the 1940s. This work also marked the return of jazz patterns to Copland’s compositional style, though they appeared in a more subdued form than before and were no longer the centerpiece. Chávez conducted the premiere, and El Salón México became an international hit, gaining Copland wide recognition.
Copland achieved his first major success in ballet music with his groundbreaking score Billy the Kid, based on a Walter Noble Burns novel, with choreography by Eugene Loring. The ballet was among the first to display an American music and dance vocabulary, adapting the “strong technique and intense charm of Astaire” and other American dancers. It was distinctive in its use of polyrhythm and polyharmony, particularly in the cowboy songs. The ballet premiered in New York in 1939, with Copland recalling “I cannot remember another work of mine that was so unanimously received.” John Martin wrote, “Aaron Copland has furnished an admirable score, warm and human, and with not a wasted note about it anywhere.” It became a staple work of the American Ballet Theatre, and Copland’s twenty-minute suite from the ballet became part of the standard orchestral repertoire. When asked how a Jewish New Yorker managed so well to capture the Old West, Copland answered “It was just a feat of imagination.”
In the early 1940s, Copland produced two important works intended as national morale boosters. Fanfare for the Common Man, scored for brass and percussion, was written in 1942 at the request of the conductor Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. It would later be used to open many Democratic National Conventions, and to add dignity to a wide range of other events. Even musical groups from Woody Herman’s jazz band to the Rolling Stones adapted the opening theme. Emerson, Lake & Palmer recorded a “progressive rock” version of the composition in 1977. The fanfare was also used as the main theme of the fourth movement of Copland’s Third Symphony, where it first appears in a quiet, pastoral manner, then in the brassier form of the original. In the same year, Copland wrote A Lincoln Portrait, a commission from conductor André Kostelanetz, leading to a further strengthening of his association with American patriotic music. The work is famous for the spoken recitation of Lincoln’s words, though the idea had been previously employed by John Alden Carpenter’s “Song of Faith” based on George Washington’s quotations. “Lincoln Portrait” is often performed at national holiday celebrations. Many Americans have performed the recitation, including politicians, actors, and musicians and Copland himself, with Henry Fonda doing the most notable recording.
Continuing his string of successes, in 1942 Copland composed the ballet Rodeo, a tale of a ranch wedding, written around the same time as Lincoln Portrait. Rodeo is another enduring composition for Copland and contains many recognizable folk tunes, well-blended with Copland’s original music. Notable in the final movement, is the striking “Hoedown”. This was a recreation of Appalachian fiddler W. H. Stepp’s version of the square-dance tune “Bonypart” (“Bonaparte’s Retreat”), which had been transcribed for piano by Ruth Crawford Seeger and published in Alan Lomax and Seeger’s book, Our Singing Country (1941). For the “Hoedown” in Rodeo Copland borrowed note for note from Seeger’s piano transcription of Stepp’s tune. This fragment (lifted from Ruth Crawford Seeger) is now one of the best-known compositions by any American composer, having been used numerous times in movies and on television, including commercials for the American beef industry. “Hoedown” was given a rock arrangement by Emerson, Lake & Palmer in 1972. The ballet, originally titled “The Courting at Burnt Ranch”, was choreographed by Agnes de Mille, niece of film giant Cecil B. DeMille. It premiered at the Metropolitan Opera on October 16, 1942, with de Mille dancing the principal “cowgirl” role and the performance received a standing ovation. A reduced score is still popular as an orchestral piece, especially at “Pops” concerts.
Copland was commissioned to write another ballet, Appalachian Spring, originally written using thirteen instruments, which he ultimately arranged as a popular orchestral suite. The commission for Appalachian Spring came from Martha Graham, who had requested of Copland merely “music for an American ballet”. Copland titled the piece “Ballet for Martha”, having no idea of how she would use it on stage but he had her in mind. “When I wrote ‘Appalachian Spring’ I was thinking primarily about Martha and her unique choreographic style, which I knew well … And she’s unquestionably very American: there’s something prim and restrained, simple yet strong, about her which one tends to think of as American.” Copland borrowed the flavor of Shaker songs and dances, and directly used the dance song Simple Gifts. Graham took the score and created a ballet she called Appalachian Spring (from a poem by Hart Crane which had no connection with Shakers). It was an instant success, and the music later acquired the same name. Copland was amused and delighted later in life when people would come up to him and say: “Mr. Copland, when I see that ballet and when I hear your music I can see the Appalachians and just feel spring.” Copland had no particular setting in mind while writing the music, he just tried to give it an American flavor, and had no knowledge of the borrowed title, in which “spring” refers to a spring of water, not the season Spring.
Copland composed three numbered symphonies, but applied the word “symphony” to more than just symphonies of typical structure. He re-orchestrated his early three-movement Organ Symphony omitting the organ, calling the result his First Symphony. His fifteen-minute Short Symphony was the Second Symphony, though it also exists as the Sextet. His Dance Symphony was hurriedly extracted from the earlier unproduced ballet Grohg to meet an RCA Records commission deadline.
The Third Symphony is in the more traditional format (four movements; second movement, scherzo; third movement, adagio) and is his most famous symphony. At forty minutes, it is his longest orchestral composition. He composed it with Koussevitzky’s unique character in mind, “I knew exactly the kind of music he enjoyed conducting and the sentiments he brought with it, and I knew the sound of his orchestra, so I had every reason to do my darnedest to write a symphony in the grand manner.” Among the details of interest in the work is Copland’s use of palindromic structure—whole movements as well as melodies end as they began. Completing the work after World War II was won by the Allies, he stated that the symphony was “intended to reflect the euphoric spirit of the country at the time.” The work received generally strong acclaim. Koussevitzky “declared it simply the greatest American symphony ever written.” Arthur Berger stated that it achieved “a kind of panorama of all the musical resources that have through the years formed his musical language.” While Leonard Bernstein “deemed it the epitome of a decades-long search by many composers for a distinctly American music.” It is the best known, most performed, and most recorded American symphony of the 20th Century.
Copland’s work in the late 1940s and 1950s included use of Schönberg’s twelve-tone system, a development that he recognized as important, but which he did not fully embrace. His first result was his “Piano Quartet” (1950). However, he found the atonality of serialized music to run counter to his desire to reach a wide audience. So, in contrast to the Second Viennese School, Copland’s use of the system emphasized the importance of the “classicalizing principles”, in order to prevent the material from falling into “near-chaos”.
In 1951, Copland undertook one of his most challenging works, the “Piano Fantasy” (1957) which he labored over for several years. It was a commission for the young virtuoso pianist William Kapell, who died in an aircraft crash in 1953 during the years of the work’s development. The piece adapted the twelve-tone system as a ten-note row, reserving the last two notes as a tonal resolution and anchor. Critics lauded the effort, calling the piece “an outstanding addition to his own oeuvre and to contemporary piano literature” and “a tremendous achievement”. Jay Rosenfield stated, “This is a new Copland to us, an artist advancing with strength and not building on the past alone.”
Other late works include: “Dance Panels” (1959, ballet music), “Something Wild” (1961, his last film score, much of which would be later incorporated into his “Music for a Great City”), “Connotations” (1962, for the new Lincoln Center Philharmonic hall), “Emblems” (1964, for wind band), “Night Thoughts” (1972, for the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition), and “Proclamation'” (1982, his last work, started in 1973).
By the 1930s, Hollywood began to beckon “serious” composers with promises of better films and higher pay. The reality, however, was that few found good projects. Copland sought to enter that arena, as both a challenge for his abilities as a composer and an opportunity to expand his reputation and audience for his more serious works. Unlike the total attention he would hope to get from a concert-goer, Copland wrote that film music had to achieve a balance. It should be “secondary in importance to the story being told on the screen” while notably adding to the dramatic and emotional content of the film—but without diverting the viewer’s attention from the action.
Upon arriving in Hollywood in 1937, he had high hopes: “It is just a matter of finding a feature film that needs my kind of music.” What he found, however, was the ongoing tendency of studios to edit and cut movie scores, which often subverted a composer’s intentions. No projects seemed suitable at first. But his patience paid off two years later when Copland found a kindred spirit in director Lewis Milestone, who allowed Copland to supervise his own orchestration and who refrained from interfering with his work. Copland composed three of his five film scores for Milestone.
This collaboration resulted in the notable film Of Mice and Men (1939), from the novel by John Steinbeck, that earned Copland his first nomination for an Academy Award ( he actually received two nominations, one for “best score” and another for “original score”). He considered himself lucky with his first film score: “Here was an American theme, by a great American writer, demanding appropriate music.” Having accepted small sums for other projects in the past, especially to help out cash-strapped productions involving friends, this time Copland would capitalize on his efforts: “I thought if I was to sell myself to the movies, I ought to sell myself good.” From then on, he became one of Hollywood’s highest paid film composers, earning as much as $15,000 per film.
In a departure from other film scores of the time, Copland’s work largely reflected his own style, instead of the usual borrowing from the late-Romantic period. Many silent and early talking films used classical music themes directly, both in the credit sequences and during the action. But with Copland, the film score’s purpose was more comprehensive and subtle, setting the atmosphere of time and place, illustrating the thoughts of the actors, providing continuity and filler, and shaping the emotion and drama. He often avoided the full orchestra, and he rejected the common practice of using a leitmotiv to identify characters with their own personal themes. He instead matched a theme to the action, while avoiding the underlining of every action with exaggerated emphasis.
Another technique Copland employed was to keep silent during intimate screen moments and only begin the music as a confirming motive toward the end of a scene. Virgil Thompson wrote that the score for Of Mice and Men established “the most distinguished populist musical style yet created in America.” Many composers who scored for western movies, particularly between 1940 and 1960, were influenced by Copland’s style, though some also followed the “Max Steiner” approach, which was more bombastic and obvious. As a commentator on film scores, Copland singled out Bernard Herrmann, Miklós Rózsa, Alex North and Erich Wolfgang Korngold as innovative leaders in the field.
Copland’s score for The North Star (1943) was nominated for an Academy Award, and his score for William Wyler’s 1949 film, The Heiress won the award. Several themes from his scores are incorporated in the suite Music for Movies. His score for the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel The Red Pony was arranged by commission of the Houston Symphony Orchestra as a suite for their performance in October 1948 and became widely popular. His score for the 1961 independent film Something Wild was released in 1964 as Music For a Great City. Copland also composed scores for two documentary films, The City (1939) and The Cummington Story (1945).
When commenting on the effectiveness of film scores, Copland said: “I’d love to be able to have audiences see a film with the music, then see it a second time with the music turned off, and then see it a third time with the music turned on. Then, I think they’d get a much more specific idea of what the music does for a film.”.
Critic, writer, and teacher
Copland had a large following of pupils—oftentimes mixing his personal life with them. Of notable students, Leonard Bernstein and Victor Kraft were two with whom he continued having intimately personal relationships. Bernstein would go on to champion Copland as one of the greatest American composers of all time while being one of the few people Copland opened up to.
Copland also wrote prolifically on the subject of music. Across decades, Copland has published pieces on music criticism analysis on musical trends, and on his own compositions. Starting with his first critiques in 1924, Copland began a long career as music critic, teacher, and observer, mostly of contemporary classical music. He was an avid lecturer and lecturer-performer. He wrote reviews of specific works, trends, composers, festivals, books about music, and recordings. He took on a wide range of issues from the most general (“Creativity”) to the most practical (“Composer Economics”). Copland also wrote three books, “What to Listen for in Music (1939)”, “Our New Music (1941)”, and “Music and Imagination” (1952). He had a long list of notable students (see below). Copland put a good deal of time and energy into supporting young musicians, especially through his association with the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, both as a guest conductor and teacher. In working with young composers, Copland thought it more important to focus on expressive content than on technical points.
Copland studied conducting in Paris in 1921, but not until his involvement conducting his own Hollywood scores, did he undertake it except out of necessity. On his international travels in the 1940s, however, he began to make appearances as a guest conductor, performing his own works. By the 1950s, he was conducting the works of other composers as well. From the 1960s on, he conducted far more than he composed.
A self-taught conductor, Copland developed a very personal style. He occasionally asked friend Leonard Bernstein for advice. Copland took an understated and unpretentious approach to conducting and modeled his style after other composer/conductors such as Stravinsky and Hindemith. Observers of Copland noted that he had “none of the typical conductorial vanities”. Though his friendly and modest persona, and his great enthusiasm, were appreciated by professional orchestra musicians, some criticized his beat as “unsteady” and his interpretations as “unexciting”. Some of his peers, like Koussevitzky, went even further, advising him to “stay home and compose”. Copland thoroughly enjoyed conducting but admitted that he did it in part because in the last seventeen years of his life he felt little inspiration to compose. He was offered “permanent” conducting posts but preferred to operate as a guest conductor. Nearly all of Copland’s conducting appearances included his own works, which added to the intoxication of conducting. As he stated, “Conducting puts one in a very powerful position … Best of all, it is a use of power for a good purpose.” It also allowed him the freedom to travel which he always enjoyed.
Copland was a strong advocate for newer music and composers, and his programs always included heavy representation of 20th-century music and lesser-known composers. Performers and audiences generally greeted his conducting appearances as positive opportunities to hear his music as the composer intended, but sometimes found his efforts with other composers to be lacking. From Copland’s point of view, he found both the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra to be “tough” groups, resistant to newer music. Newton Mansfield, violinist with the New York Philharmonic, stated, “The orchestra didn’t take him too seriously. It was like going out to a nice lunch.” Copland also found resistance from European orchestras; however, he was warmly received and respected in England. Copland recorded nearly all his orchestral works with himself conducting.
- On September 14, 1964, Aaron Copland was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson.
- In honor of Copland’s vast influence on American music, on December 15, 1970 he was awarded the prestigious University of Pennsylvania Glee Club Award of Merit. Beginning in 1964, this award “established to bring a declaration of appreciation to an individual each year that has made a significant contribution to the world of music and helped to create a climate in which our talents may find valid expression.”
- Copland was awarded the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize in composition for Appalachian Spring. His scores for Of Mice and Men (1939), Our Town (1940), and The North Star (1943) all received Academy Award nominations, while The Heiress won Best Music in 1950.
- He was a recipient of Yale University’s Sanford Medal.
- In 1986, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
- He was awarded a special Congressional Gold Medal by the United States Congress in 1987.
- He was made an honorary member of the Alpha Upsilon chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia in 1961 and was awarded the fraternity’s Charles E. Lutton Man of Music Award in 1970.
See also: List of compositions by Aaron Copland
- Aaron Copland: A Self-Portrait (1985). Directed by Allan Miller. Biographies in Music series. Princeton, New Jersey: The Humanities.
- Appalachian Spring (1996). Directed by Graham Strong, Scottish Television Enterprises. Princeton, New Jersey: Films for the Humanities.
- Copland Portrait (1975). Directed by Terry Sanders, United States Information Agency. Santa Monica, California: American Film Foundation.
- Fanfare for America: The Composer Aaron Copland (2001). Directed by Andreas Skipis. Produced by Hessischer Rundfunk in association with Reiner Moritz Associates. Princeton, New Jersey: Films for the Humanities & Sciences.
- Copland, Aaron (1939; Revised 1957), What to Listen For in Music, New York, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, reprinted many times.
- Copland, Aaron (2006). Music and Imagination, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-58915-5
- Copland House
- American Masters “Aaron Copland” at www.pbs.org
- The Aaron Copland Collection, 1900–1990, Music Division, Library of Congress
- Review of “Howard Pollack, Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man” by R. James Tobin
- Who Was That Masked Composer? by David Schiff
- Aaron Copland and His World
- Aaron Copland On Film Music
- Aaron Copland discography at MusicBrainz
- Brief Copland Bio
- Music and Imagination (1952)
- The short film Copland Portrait (1975) is available for free download at the Internet Archive [more]
- Keeping Score: Copland and the American Sound – Multimedia website produced by the San Francisco Symphony
- Aaron Copland Meets The Shakers
- Aaron Copland at NPR Music
- Aaron Copland at Find a Grave
- Aaron Copland’s personal library on LibraryThing
- The Presidency Project – Remarks at the Presentation of the 1964 Presidential Medal of Freedom Awards.
- Lifetime Honors – National Medal of Arts
- Art of the States: Aaron Copland
- Audio (.ram files) of a 1961 interview for the BBC
- Audio (.smil files) of a 1980 interview for NPR
- Fanfare for America (video)