Aaron Copland

Copland represents a first in our studies: an American-born composer.  Born in Brooklyn, NY, Aaron Copland studied in Paris then returned to the United States where he was influenced by the composer Aaron Stieglitz.  Stieglitz felt that American artists should create work that gave expression to American democracy.  Copland certainly did this in several popular ballets that made use of American folk tunes, particularly cowboy songs.  The ballet Rodeo and the movement from that work featured on our playlist, “Hoedown,” is unmistakeable in its reference to the American West.  This American nationalism stands in stark contrast to the modernist music of Copland’s contemporaries.


Figure 1. Aaron Copland as subject of a Young People's Concert, 1970

Figure 1. Aaron Copland as subject of a Young People’s Concert, 1970

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, including 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.

Popular Works

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.

Figure 2. Martha Graham in 1948

Figure 2. Martha Graham in 1948

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 calledAppalachian 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.