The Copland Story: An Artistic Biography
by Andy Trudeau
Early Life | Modernism & Jazz | The Populist | Folk Style | The Hollywood Years
Patriotism | The Great American Symphony | Later Life | Overview
When Aaron Copland was born in 1900, America's classical-music masters were composers that, today, are fairly obscure -- Edward MacDowell, Ethelbert Nevin, George Whitefield Chadwick, Amy Beach, and Arthur Foote. The spirit of their music was indisputably romantic, its language accented in German, its standards largely imitative of European models. Original and strong voices, such as that of polytonalist Charles Ives, did exist; but the force of convention lay with the Old World, not the New.
It was this milieu that initially nurtured a budding composer who, in his own words, was born “on a street in Brooklyn that can only be described as drab.” His family was utterly unmusical; therefore, Copland was an Outsider from the beginning, a perspective that served him well throughout the struggle to find his own compositional voice. His early studies and compositional exercises were grounded in conventional practice, but curiosity, and a feeling that the right sounds for him were not those around him, took Copland to Paris where he fell under the sway of the extraordinary pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, and, through her, the ground-breaking music of Igor Stravinsky. In many ways Stravinsky became Copland’s first important model. In his early important works like the piano Passacaglia (1921-22) and Organ Symphony (1924) one hears a leanness of texture, starkness of color, and driving, angular rhythm. Also present are the spirit and distinctively open intervals (the distances between chords and notes) that epitomize the American sound.
Modernism & Jazz
Copland’s return to this country found him with a split personality. On one hand, there was the steely modernist who produced challenging, loud, declamatory pieces like the orchestral Statements (1932-35) or the powerfully original Piano Variations (1930). On another, Copland turned to jazz with a vengeance, making aggressive use of its colors, rhythms, and attitudes in the Piano Concerto (1926) and Music for the Theater (1925). Copland later admitted that as a fruitful journey of discovery, his jazz period proved a dead end, but as with all experiences, he picked up elements that would stay with him for the rest of his creative life.
No composer lives in a vacuum and a mix of world events and personal values began to move Copland in the direction that would result in some of his most popular and enduring works. As the United States fought its way through the Great Depression, massive government programs extended into the arts world, creating a powerful impetus for "art for the people." Finding the right mix of quality and mass appeal became a guiding principal for many of the different artists of the late 1930s and early 40s. Copland’s political affinities to movements that emphasized appeal to the masses, also helped shape his decision to craft a style that would appeal to many. (He was also canny enough to recognize that the new technologies of commercial recording and radio created the possibility for an individual composer to reach thousands more than could ever squeeze into a concert hall.)
Perhaps not surprisingly, Copland began his journey through the filter of American myth. His ballet music for Billy the Kid drew craft from his previous work; the inspiration stemmed from his enthusiastic embrace of a historical landscape rendered better imaginatively. Copland showed ingenuity in his ability to seamlessly incorporate pre-existing folk material (in this case, cowboy songs) into music with sophistication. Unlike other notable modern composers who utilized folk materials either by imitating or merely orchestrating them, Copland absorbed them into the total texture of his work. It was something to which he returned in his subsequent ballets Rodeo (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1943-44), as well as in some charming orchestral miniatures like John Henry (1940).
The Hollywood Years
Always media savvy, Copland entered the world of film-music composition at a time when that industry was still fairly young. The Hollywood standard then was that of loud, big, and ultra-romantic scores. Copland brought simplicity, directness, and economy to his scores for Of Mice and Men (1939), Our Town (1940) and The Heiress (1948). The latter brought him an Oscar, making him one of the few who could point to a wall-shelf displaying both an Academy Award and a Pulitzer Prize (this for an orchestral suite of Appalachian Spring). Copland never saw film scoring as more than a part of his overall resume, so he, in turn, scored few. (Copland finished eight scores in his lifetime -- this at a time when a major studio composer like Max Steiner would turn out that many and more in a single year!)
The period of the Second World War saw Copland rise to a patriotic occasion with several works that became part of regular concert life -- and one which has come to symbolize in music the essential American spirit: the Fanfare for the Common Man. His work for narrator and orchestra, Lincoln Portrait (1942), uses the utmost economy to link a Norman Corwin-inspired text of Copland’s crafting (using portions of Lincoln's words tied together by Copland's commentary) to a powerful evocation of American ideals. The result? Lincoln Portrait has become one of the very few pieces for speaker and orchestra still regularly performed. For a slight, seemingly throw-away commission from the Cincinnati Symphony for a suitably patriotic miniature, Copland provided his Fanfare for the Common Man which, in its three-minute length, manages to encapsulate everything that is noble, proud, and hopeful about the American spirit. In later years, no one was more surprised at the work’s increasing popularity than the composer himself.
The Great American Symphony
Copland emerged from the war years with an intentionally atypical piece. As someone who always seemed to always write best in short forms, Copland long aspired to write something grand and expansive in the manner of the late-19th-century symphonist Gustav Mahler. He labored for two years to create a work which was his sincerely felt contribution to the pursuit of “The Great American Symphony.” Copland’s Third Symphony (1944-46) came after two that he did not number until this one (the first was a version of his Organ Symphony without organ; the second was his Short Symphony of 1932-33; another similar work called Dance Symphony was never numbered). The Third Symphony speaks to the breadth of the American landscape and evokes a stirring spirit that is triumphantly made in the U.S.A. (It is also a reflection of Copland’s thought that his Fanfare for the Common Man already enjoyed its short happy life, since he incorporated it into the finale.) Critics remain divided on how well the work succeeds but it was to be Copland’s last effort in the symphonic form.
Copland remained active as a composer well into his 70s. His post-World War II efforts saw him, to some extent, revisiting his past compositional stopping points. Copland, the stern ironed modernest, re-emerged though his powerful Piano Fantasy (1952-57), the unabashedly twelve-tone Connotations, and the equally compromising Inscape (1967). A populist, musical color was never far away in Down a Country Lane (1964) and the Three Latin American Sketches (1972). Copland even renewed his early marriage to jazz in the Benny Goodman-inspired Clarinet Concerto (1947-48).
This brief and subjective overview has necessarily passed over many of Copland’s works including his music for concert band (Emblems of 1964, several fanfares and alternate versions created by Copland's orchestral works), and his vocal/choral works (including the superb song cycle on poems of Emily Dickinson, the moving Old American Songs of the 1950s, and his low-key prairie opera The Tender Land, 1954). Also overlooked is his work organizing the business of American music, his efforts as author/teacher to general audiences and future composers, his work as a conductor, and as an international spokesperson for American culture in general.
Those concerns notwithstanding, one would be hard-pressed to find a more complete composer than Aaron Copland. His “popular” works achieve their honest success without compromising compositional quality; his “modern” works, though never memorable monuments, reveal a wide-ranging intellect in full command of a 20th century palette. For the best summary, one can only echo Leonard Bernstein’s off-hand comment about Copland. For Bernstein, Aaron Copland was “the best we’ve got.”
-- Andy Trudeau is NPR's Executive Producer for Cultural Programming and a Copland admirer.