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Fanfare for an Uncommon Man

Aaron Copland lived a paradoxical life, full of what his biographer Howard Pollack calls "startling dichotomies." Says Pollack, "A participant in the avant-garde, he wrote works of popular appeal; respectful of the great European traditions, he embraced the musics and cultures of the Americas; a Jewish, homosexual, liberal New Yorker, he created an American Musical language; sensitive to life's tragic reality he remained resiliently optimistic." NPR has produced a one-hour documentary exploring the very complex man behind the universally appealing music. Melinda Whiting is host.

As an introduction to the program, we present an brief essay written exclusively for NPR by respected Copland scholar Jennifer DeLapp, Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Maryland.

Aaron Copland and America
American composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990) composed his way through the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression and the New Deal, World War II, and the Cold War. Best known for his accessible, popular works like Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and Fanfare for the Common Man, Copland began and ended his career with lesser-known, modernist works written for a specialized audience. Copland portrayed not only the American West, the American past, and the Common Man, but also Latin America, and the Modern City.

Paris Years
Later in his life, Copland recalled that he discovered America in Europe. A student in Paris throughout the early 1920s, Copland witnessed the vital interaction of French theater, music, dance, and literature. American jazz was also in vogue. Hence the works written after his New York return--Music for the Theatre (1925) and the Piano Concerto (1926). These pieces combined elements of jazz with a dissonant, modernist sound. Others, like the Piano Variations (1930), had a lean, forceful, angular construction that reminded some critics of American skyscrapers and continue to breathe an urban air.

Music for Everyone
The Great Depression and rise of mass media led Copland to, as he put it, "say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms." The Second Hurricane (1936), a children's play opera, Music for the Radio (1937), and the populist ballets Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944) soon followed. The desire to reach a broad audience, coupled with the need for income, led Copland to Hollywood. There, he scored films linking his musical images of America to the those of authors John Steinbeck, Thornton Wilder, Lillian Hellman, and Henry James in Of Mice and Men (1939), Our Town (1940), The North Star (1943), The Red Pony (1948), and The Heiress (1950). Patriotic works like Lincoln Portrait (1942) encouraged wartime listeners. Much of Copland's music from the 1930s and 1940s used folk tunes borrowed from diverse American sources, whether Latin American dance music, cowboy tunes, or Shaker songs.

American Politics and Tradition
During the Cold War, Copland's populist and patriotic impulses came under the suspicion of the Red Scare. Because of his earlier involvement in politically liberal causes, the FBI investigated and blacklisted him. In 1953, Senator Joseph McCarthy called him to Washington to testify. Much of his output at this time was abstract, detached from potentially damaging associations. It did, though, contain recognizable imprints of the Copland style. But these later, modernist, works--Piano Fantasy (1957) and Connotations (1962), for instance--have yet to achieve the recognition of his populist compositions.

By the mid-1970s, as his earlier works continued to shape American musical identity, Copland stopped composing. Based in the European, Western art-music tradition--in spite of its debts to jazz, Latin American, and North American folk traditions--his work endures as a collective emblem of American pluralism. In movies, on television, at political rallies, and ceremonial events, Copland's music evokes an open, independent American spirit.

-- Jennifer DeLapp

Photos © New York Philharmonic Archives
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