Sunday, November 14, 8900

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

Aaron Copland (November 14, 1900 – December 2, 1990) was an American composer of concert and film music, as well as an accomplished pianist. Instrumental in forging a distinctly American style of composition, he was widely known as “the dean of American composers.” Copland's music achieved a difficult balance between modern music and American folk styles, and the open, slowly changing harmonies of many of his works are said to evoke the vast American landscape. He incorporated percussive orchestration, changing meter, polyrhythms, polychords and tone rows. Aside from composing, Copland taught, presented music-related lectures, wrote books and articles, and served as a conductor (generally, but not always) of his own works.

Aaron Copland was born in Brooklyn, New York, of Lithuanian Jewish descent. Before emigrating to the United States from Scotland, Copland's father Anglicized his surname “Kaplan” to “Copland.” Throughout his childhood, Copland and his family lived above his parents' Brooklyn shop and were active members of Congregation Baith Israel Anshei Emes, where Aaron celebrated his Bar Mitzvah. At the age of 15 he took an interest in music and aspired to be a composer, even though his parents had never encouraged him or directly exposed him to it. His musical education included time with Leopold Wolfsohn, Rubin Goldmark (who also taught George Gershwin), and Nadia Boulanger at the Fontainebleau School of Music in Paris from 1921 to 1924.

Aaron Copland greatly admired Igor Stravinsky, who was in many ways his model.

Stravinsky's rhythm and vitality is apparent in many of his works.

As a result of his training by Nadia Boulanger, he had a special affection for French composers, including Debussy, Ravel, and the members of Les Six. He claimed Gabriel Fauré to be his favorite composer.

Another inspiration for much of Copland's music was jazz. His earlier works especially demonstrate the influence of jazz rhythmic, timbral, and harmonic practices.

One of Copland's first significant works upon returning from his studies in Paris was the neoromantic ballet Grohg. This ballet, suggested to Copland by the film Nosferatu, provided the source material for his later Dance Symphony.

Copland composed the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra in 1924, whose Boston premiere brought him into contact with

Serge Koussevitzky, another figure who would prove to be influential in Copland’s life. A composer with a penchant for promoting the promising work of others, 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.

Symphony No. 1 ("Organ") (1924)

Music for the Theatre (1925)

I. Prologue

II. Dance

III. Interlude

[Josephine Baker (1906-1975)]

IV. Burlesque

V. Postlude


Burlesque refers to theatrical entertainment of broad and parodic humor, which usually consists of comic skits (and sometimes a strip tease). While some authors assert that burlesque is a direct descendant of the Commedia dell'arte, the term "burlesque" for a parody or comedy of manners appears about the same time as the first appearance of commedia dell'arte.

With its origins in 19th-century music hall entertainments and vaudeville, in the early twentieth century burlesque emerged as a populist blend of satire, performance art, and adult entertainment, that featured strip tease and broad comedy acts that derived their name from the low comedy aspects of the literary genre known as burlesque.

In burlesque, performers, usually female, often create elaborate sets with lush, colorful costumes, mood-appropriate music, and dramatic lighting, and may even include novelty acts, such as fire-breathing or demonstrations of unusual flexibility, to enhance the impact of their performance.

Put simply, burlesque means "in an upside down style." Like its cousin, commedia dell'arte, burlesque turns social norms head over heels. Burlesque is a style of live entertainment that encompasses pastiche, parody, and wit. The genre traditionally encompasses a variety of acts such as dancing girls, chanson singers, comedians, mime artists, and strip tease artistes, all satirical and with a saucy edge. The strip tease element of burlesque became subject to extensive local legislation, leading to a theatrical form that titillated without falling foul of censors.


During this period in Copland’s life, he sought to support himself through teaching and lecturing, before attaining financial security through grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, in 1925 and 1925.

Copland’s compositions in the early 1920's reflected a prevailing attitude among intellectuals that they were “chosen” in a way, and that music, like other art, need not be accessible to anyone but a select cadre of individuals who could appreciate it. Toward this end, Copland formed the Young Composer’s Group, modeled after France's “Six,” gathering together promising young composers and acting as a sort of benevolent dictator for their interests.

Other major works of his first period include the Music for Theater in 1925 and the Piano Concerto in 1926. However, this jazz-inspired period was brief, as his style evolved toward the goal of writing more accessible works.

He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1925 and again in 1926.

Piano Concerto (1926)

Symphonic Ode (1929)

Piano Variations (1930)

Mounting troubles with the Short Symphony (1933) caused him to rethink this paradigm, as the idea of orchestral music for a select group was financially contradictory. In many ways, this shift mirrored the German idea of Gebrauchsmusik, as composers sought to create music that could serve a utilitarian as well as artistic purpose.

Statements (1935)

Impressed with the success of Virgil Thomson’s Three Saints in Four Acts, Copland wrote El Salón México in 1936, which was met with popular acclaim, in contrast to the relative obscurity of many of his previous works. This work also marked the return of jazz patterns to Copland’s compositional style, though they appeared in a more subdued form than before, as part of a whole rather than as a centerpiece. At a time when conservatories were teaching more astringent methods of composition, Copland held on to the respect of academics by reasoning that he wanted to see if he couldn't say what he had to say in the simplest possible terms.

En Salon Mexico (1936)

The Second Hurricane (1936)

Copland defended the Communist Party USA during the 1936 presidential election.

Copland exerted a major influence on the compositional style of his friend and protegé Leonard Bernstein, from their first meeting in 1937. Bernstein was considered the finest conductor of Copland's works.

Billy the Kid (1938)

An Outdoor Overture (1938)

Of Mice and Men (1939)

While his ballets found success on the stages of America, Copland sought to enter another arena, the emerging industry of motion pictures. He saw this as both a challenge for his abilities as a composer and an opportunity to expand his reputation and audience. However, the tendency of studios to edit and cut movie scores went against Copland’s desire for creative control over his work. Copland found a kindred spirit in director Lewis Milestone, who recognized the benefits of allowing Copland to supervise his own orchestration and refrained from interfering with his work. This collaboration resulted in the notable film Of Mice and Men (1939) that earned Copland his first nomination for an Academy Award. In a departure from other film scores of the time, Copland’s work largely reflected his own style, instead of borrowing from the late Romantic period. Additionally, he rejected the common practice of using leitmotiv to identify characters with their own personal themes.

His scores for Of Mice and Men (1939) received an Academy Award nomination.

It is difficult to overestimate the influence Copland has had on film music. Virtually every composer who scored for western movies, particularly between 1940 and 1960, was shaped by the style Copland developed.

Quiet City (1939)

Our Town (1940, Academy Award nominee)

Danzon Cubano (1942)

Fanfare for the Common Man (1942)

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.

Lincoln Portrait (1942)

The same year Copland wrote A Lincoln Portrait which became popular with a wider audience, leading to a strengthening in his association with American music.

Rodeo (1942)

The ballet Rodeo, a tale of a ranch wedding, written around the same time as Lincoln Portrait in 1942 is another enduring composition for Copland, and the "Hoe-Down" from the ballet is one of the most well-known compositions by any American composer, having been used numerous times in movies and on television.

The North Star (1943, Academy Award nominee)

Appalachian Spring (1944)

Very Slowly


Doppio movimento (Shaker Tune Variations)

Copland was commissioned to write a ballet, Appalachian Spring, originally written using 13 instruments, which he ultimately arranged as a popular orchestral suite. The commission for the work came from

[Martha Graham in 1948]

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. Graham created a ballet she called Appalachian Spring (from a poem by Hart Crane), which was an instant success, and the music acquired the same name. Copland was amused and delighted later in life when people would come up to him and say: "You were so right -- it sounds exactly like spring in the Appalachians," as he had no particular program in mind while writing the music.

Copland was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in composition for Appalachian Spring.

Symphony No. 3 (1946)

The fanfare was also used as the main theme of the fourth movement of Copland's Symphony No. 3, where it first appears in a quiet, pastoral manner, then in the brassier form resembling the original.

Copland composed three numbered symphonies, but applied the word “symphony” to more than just symphonies. He rewrote his early three-movement Organ Symphony omitting the organ, calling the result his Symphony No. 1. His 15-minute Short Symphony was the Symphony No. 2, though it also exists as the Sextet. The Symphony No. 3 is in the most traditional format of the three (four movements; second movement, scherzo; third movement, adagio) with a run-time of approximately 45 minutes. Copland's Dance Symphony was hurriedly extracted from the earlier unproduced ballet Grohg to meet an RCA Records commission deadline.

Clarinet Concerto (1948)

I. Slow

II. Rather Fast

Jazz influence is again apparent in later works such as the Clarinet Concerto commissioned by

Benny Goodman. Certainly this aspect of his work as much as any other contributed to the common identification of his music as representative of a burgeoning school of uniquely American art music in the 20th Century.

The Red Pony (1948)

Copland’s work in the late 1940's included experimentation with Schoenberg’s 12-tone system, a development that he recognized the importance of without fully embracing. However, 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.”

Also, he found the atonality of serialized music to run counter to his desire to reach a wide audience. He would later adapt the 12-tone system into a ten- or 11-tone system, reserving one or two notes as tonal anchors.

His score for William Wyler's 1949 film, The Heiress won an Academy Award. Several themes he created are encapsulated in the suite Music for Movies, and his score for the film adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel The Red Pony was given a suite of its own. This suite was one of Copland's personal favorites.

Old American Songs (1950)

Copland was investigated by the FBI during the Red scare of the 1950's and found himself blacklisted. 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. 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. Copland was never shown to have been a member of the Communist Party.

The Tender Land (1954)

Despite the difficulties that his suspected Communist sympathies posed, Copland nonetheless traveled extensively during the 1950's and early 1960's, observing the avant-garde styles of Europe while experiencing the new school of Soviet music. Additionally, he was rather taken with the work of Toru Takemitsu while in Japan, and began a correspondence that would last over the next decade. 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 appreciated the importance of the work of John Cage and others, he found these trends in music to render it impersonal and inaccessible to a wider audience.

Later in life, Copland found himself composing less as his career as a conductor expanded. Though not enamored with the prospect, Copland found himself without new ideas for composition, saying “It was exactly as if someone had simply turned off a faucet.”

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).

His score for the 1961 independent film Something Wild was released in 1964 as Music For a Great City.

Connotations (1962)

Music for a Great City (1964)

Copland was a frequent guest conductor of orchestras in the U.S. and the UK. He made a series of recordings of his music, especially during the 1970's, primarily for Columbia Records.

In 1976, the composer toured US universities conducting their orchestras in concerts comprising his own works.

Copland is documented as a gay man in Howard Pollack's biography, Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man. A moral conservative by nature, Copland was an affable, modest and mild-mannered man. Like many of his contemporaries he guarded his privacy, especially in regard to his homosexuality, but was one of the few composers of his stature to live openly and travel with his lovers, 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 Viktor Kraft, artist Alvin Ross, pianist Paul Moor, dancer Erik Johns, and composer John Brodbin Kennedy.

Copland died of Alzheimer's disease and respiratory failure in North Tarrytown, New York (now Sleepy Hollow), on December 2, 1990.

Notable students

Elmer Bernstein
Paul Bowles
Mario Davidovsky
Jacob Druckman
Alberto Ginastera
Elliot Goldenthal
Alvin Lucier
Einojuhani Rautavaara
Charles Strouse
Michael Tilson Thomas

[8901 Loewe / 8900 Copland / 8900 Weill]