A handful of compositions by Aaron Copland (1900-1990) written in the late 1930s and early 1940s—El Salón México and A Lincoln Portrait for orchestra, Fanfare for the Common Man for brass and percussion, and the orchestral suites from the ballets Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring—rank among the most popular and revered American works ever written for the concert stage. “It’s the best we’ve got, you know,” stated his admirer and champion Leonard Bernstein. But the full extent of Copland’s achievement—which includes a striking diversity of output, from thorny piano pieces to popular film scores; the creation of a highly individual voice that came to represent a distinctly American sound at home and abroad; ancillary careers as critic, pianist, conductor, educator, and cultural ambassador; and momentous activities in the service of contemporary music—remains rather obscure, even to professional musicians.
Copland was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, although his mother for the most part had grown up in Dallas, Texas. Rather than attend college, he studied privately in New York with the composer Rubin Goldmark (who also taught George Gershwin), and in 1921, left for Paris, where he worked for three years with Nadia Boulanger, then at the start of her remarkable teaching career. For a number of years after returning to New York, even with the championship of such eminences as conductor Serge Koussevitzky and music critic Paul Rosenfeld, Copland barely managed to eke out a living as a little-known composer, pianist, teacher, and writer. However, the works mentioned above beginning with El Salón México (1936)—in particular, the Pulitzer Prize winning ballet Appalachian Spring (1944), written in collaboration with choreographer Martha Graham—helped consolidate his reputation as one of the most successful serious American composers of his time, a reputation fairly inured to some stigmatization during the McCarthy period, including a cancelled performance of A Lincoln Portrait scheduled for President Eisenhower’s 1952 inauguration.
Copland enhanced his popularity—and improved his finances—with an acclaimed series of Hollywood film scores beginning with Of Mice and Men (1939) and ending with The Heiress (1948), which earned him an Academy Award after a number of other such nominations. He subsequently composed one final film score, Something Wild (1961), for an independent production.
Meanwhile, his postwar concert compositions included a Clarinet Concerto (1948) written for Benny Goodman as well as several epic accomplishments: the towering Third Symphony (1946) for orchestra; the splendid song cycle Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson (1950) for voice and piano; his only full-scale opera, The Tender Land (1954); and his most ambitious work for piano, the Piano Fantasy (1957). Although widely performed and admired to various degrees, none of these later efforts achieved quite the success of Copland’s most popular earlier pieces, as was true even more so of his work from the 1960s, some of which featured, as did a few former compositions, a personal adaptation of Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method. In the 1970s, citing a lack of inspiration, Copland essentially stopped composing, devoting himself largely to his conducting career. He died in 1990 after a long decline from dementia.
Commentators have discerned in Copland’s output four periods familiarly designated as “jazzy,” “modernist,” “populist,” and “twelve-tone.” Without minimizing Copland’s ability to develop along with the times, it seems more to the point to say that he cultivated varying styles and techniques in response to different needs and aims; so that, for instance, he employed a less daring and complex and more picturesque and accessible style for his ballets and film scores than, say, his serious piano pieces. In this way, Copland managed to work successfully in a wide range of mediums for a broad spectrum of listeners, from elite aficionados of modernist music to the big public for Hollywood films.
But perhaps more astonishingly, Copland maintained, in everything he wrote, an immediately recognizable voice, very likely the most distinctive compositional voice in the history of American music. In part, he accomplished this through a style that featured jazzy rhythms, sharp attacks, lean textures, open harmonies, and vibrant colors, all of which distinguished his music from the warmer, smoother, more luxuriant sound of many European and American composers alike, and which warranted comparison sooner with such compatriots in the other arts as novelist Ernest Hemingway, poet E. E. Cummings, painter Stuart Davis, sculptor Alexander Calder, photographer Paul Strand, and choreographer Martha Graham. Copland even came to epitomize, both at home and abroad, an American sound, for even more than Ives or Gershwin, his music seemed to encompass, not just a New England village or the Manhattan skyline, but an entire nation of prairies and deserts, towns and cities. And if his music seemed to make only a modest impact overseas (with the British composer Benjamin Britten a notable exception), it exerted an enormous influence not only among American composers, but, as with the Mexican Carlo Chávez and the Argentinian Alberto Ginastera, Latin-American composers as well, to the point that the adjective “Coplandesque” became a familiar term. “Copland has created American music in the same way Stravinsky did Russian music, or Falla Spanish, or Bartók Hungarian,” stated Ginastera, “because he’s an artist with a great personality.”
At the same time, Copland possessed an extremely polished technique that showed a thorough absorption of European art music, insights about which he shared with the general public in his music appreciation texts, What to Listen For in Music and The New Music; his Norton lectures, Music and Imagination; a television series he wrote and hosted, Music in the Twenties; and his two-volume autobiography.
Copland’s style and finesse represented only two facets of his accomplishment, for these served the communication of emotions and ideas. As early as his Three Moods for piano from 1921, he vividly set forth three memorable sides of his personality: the first movement, “Embittered,” his visionary passion, sometimes associated with Hebraic prophecy, other times with progressive political ideals; the second movement, “Wistful,” his tender yearning, sometimes associated with his gay romantic life; and the third movement, “Jazzy,” his bouncy humor, sometimes associated with his American background—three moods, heard over and again in his work, that go to the heart of his appeal.
Finally, no assessment of Copland’s achievement would be complete without some mention of his work on behalf of contemporary music. From the start of his career, recognizing the relative isolation of the American composer (in the case of Charles Ives, an isolation of the most deplorable sort), he worked unstintingly to get the music of his colleagues played and published, offering constructive criticism and staunch support in equal measure, and taking an effective leadership role in such matters even while in his twenties, thanks in part to his charismatically warm and winning personality. In later years, he conducted the works of dozens of contemporary composers around the world. He further helped to found and for many years direct the summer music academy at Tanglewood, and became both an official and unofficial cultural ambassador with regard especially to Latin America. “He feels as though the advancement of the art is his responsibility,” stated one of his Tanglewood students, the distinguished composer and teacher Jacob Druckman, “and this is a wonderful influence on many of us.” This legacy continues posthumously with the activities of the Copland House, which provides composers short-term residency at Copland’s house in Peekskill, New York; and the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, which promotes public appreciation of American music. Such generosity of spirit well honors both the man and his music.