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. Copland was born in Brooklyn into a Conservative Jewish family of Lithuanian origins, the last of five children, on November 14, 1900. Before emigrating from Russia to the United States, Copland’s father, Harris Morris Copland, Anglicized his surname “Kaplan” to “Copland” while waiting in Scotland en route to America. Throughout his childhood, Copland and his family lived above his parents’ Brooklyn shop, H.M. Copland’s. Copland’s father had no musical interest at all, but his mother, Sarah Mittenthal Copland, sang and played the piano, and arranged for music lessons for her children. Copland attended Boys’ High School and in the summer went to various camps. Most of his early exposure to music was at Jewish weddings and ceremonies, and occasional family musicales.
At the age of eleven, Copland devised an opera scenario he called Zenatello, which included seven bars of music, his first notated melody. From 1913 to 1917 he took music lessons with Leopold Wolfsohn, who taught him the standard classical fare. Copland’s first public music performance was at a Wanamaker recital. By the age of 15, after attending a concert by composer-pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Copland decided to become a composer. After attempts to further his music study from a correspondence course, Copland took formal lessons in harmony, theory, and composition from Rubin Goldmark, a noted teacher and composer of American music. Goldmark gave the young Copland a solid foundation, especially in the Germanic tradition, Copland’s graduation piece from his studies with Goldmark was a three-movement piano sonata in a Romantic style. But he had also composed more original and daring pieces which he did not share with his teacher. In addition to regularly attending the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Symphony, where he heard the standard classical repertory, Copland continued his musical development through an expanding circle of musical friends.
After graduating from high school, Copland played in dance bands. Continuing his musical education, he received further piano lessons from Victor Wittgenstein. From 1917 to 1921, Copland composed juvenile works of short piano pieces and art songs. His passion for the latest European music, plus glowing letters from his friend Aaron Schaffer, inspired him to go to Paris for further study. On arriving in France, he studied at the Fontainebleau School of Music with noted pianist and pedagogue Isidor Philipp and with Paul Vidal. But finding Vidal too much like Goldmark, Copland switched to famed teacher Nadia Boulanger, then aged thirty-four. Though he planned on only one year abroad, he studied with her for three years, finding her eclectic approach inspired his own broad musical taste. Travels to Italy, Austria, and Germany rounded out Copland’s musical education. Copland returned to America optimistic and enthusiastic about the future.
Upon returning to the U.S., Copland was determined to make his way as a full-time composer. He rented a studio apartment on New York City’s Upper West Side, which kept him close to Carnegie Hall and other musical venues and publishers. He remained in that area for the next thirty years, later moving to Westchester County, New York. Copland lived frugally and survived financially with help from two $2,500 Guggenheim Fellowships—one in 1925 and one in 1926. Lecture-recitals, awards, appointments, and small commissions, plus some teaching, writing, and personal loans kept him afloat in the subsequent years through World War II. Also important were wealthy patrons who supported the arts community during the Depression, underwriting performances, publication, and promotion of musical events and composers.
Copland’s compositions in the early 1920s reflected the prevailing “modernist” attitude among intellectuals: that they were a small vanguard leading the way for the masses, who would only come to appreciate their efforts over time. In this view, music and the other arts need be accessible to only a select cadre of the enlightened. Toward this end, Copland formed the Young Composer’s Group, modeled after France’s “Six”, gathering together promising young composers, acting as their guiding spirit. They collaborated in joint concerts showcasing their work to new audiences. Mounting troubles with the Symphonic Ode (1929) and Short Symphony (1933) caused him to rethink the paradigm of composing orchestral music for a select group, as it was a financially contradictory approach, particularly in the Depression, and he sought to create music that could serve a utilitarian as well as artistic purpose. This approach encompassed two trends: first, music that students could easily learn, and second, music which would have wider appeal, such as incidental music for plays, movies, radio, etc. Copland undertook both goals, starting in the mid-1930s. Around 1935 he also began to compose musical pieces for young audiences, in accordance with the first goal of American Gebrauchsmusik. These works included piano pieces (The Young Pioneers) and an opera (The Second Hurricane).
During the Depression years, Copland traveled extensively to Europe, Africa, and Mexico. On his initial visit to Mexico, Copland began composing the first of his signature works, El Salón México, which he completed four years later in 1936. During this time, he composed for radio broadcast “Prairie Journal,” one of his first pieces to convey the landscape of the American West. Branching out into theater, Copland wrote incidental music for several plays, including Irwin Shaw’s “Quiet City” (1939), considered one of his most personal and poignant scores. In 1939, Copland completed his first two Hollywood film scores, for Of Mice and Men and Our Town, and received sizable commissions. In the same year, he composed the radio score “John Henry”, based on the folk ballad. But it wasn’t until the worldwide market for classical recordings boomed after World War II that he achieved economic security. Even after securing a comfortable income, he continued to write, teach, lecture, and, eventually, conduct.
Demonstrating his broad range, Copland in the 1930s began composing music for ballet, including his highly successful Billy the Kid (1939), the second of four ballets he scored (after Hear Ye! Hear Ye! (1934). In keeping with the wartime period, Copland’s “Piano Sonata” (1941) was a piece characterized as “grim, nervous, elegiac, with pervasive bell-like tolling of alarm and mourning.” It was later adapted to “Day on Earth,” a landmark American dance by Doris Humphrey. The decade of the 1940s was arguably Copland’s most productive, and it firmly established his worldwide fame. His two ballet scores for Rodeo (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1944) were huge successes. His pieces Lincoln Portrait and Fanfare for the Common Man have become patriotic standards. Also important was the Third Symphony. Composed in a two-year period from 1944 to 1946, it became Copland’s best-known symphony.
In 1945, Copland contributed to Jubilee Variation, a work commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony in which ten American composers collaborated. In the Beginning (1947) is a choral work using the first chapter and the first seven verses of the second chapter of Genesis from the King James Version of the Bible and is a masterpiece of the choral repertory. The Clarinet Concerto (1948), scored for solo clarinet, strings, harp, and piano, was a commission piece for bandleader and clarinetist Benny Goodman and a complement to Copland’s earlier jazz-influenced work, the Piano Concerto (1926). His “Four Piano Blues” is an introspective composition with a jazz influence. Copland finished the 1940s with two film scores, one for William Wyler’s 1949 film The Heiress and one for the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel The Red Pony. In 1950, Copland received a Fulbright scholarship to study in Rome, which he did the following year. Around this time, he also composed his Piano Quartet, adopting Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method of composition, and Old American Songs (1950), the first set of which was premiered by Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, the second by William Warfield.
In 1954, Copland received a commission from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein to create music for the opera The Tender Land, based on James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In 1957 and 1958, Copland was the Music Director of the Ojai Music Festival, a classical and contemporary music festival in Ojai, CA. From the 1960s onward, his activities turned more from composing to conducting. A self-taught conductor, Copland developed a very personal style. Copland was a strong advocate for newer music and composers, and his programs always included heavy representation of 20th century music and lesser-known composers. Instrumental in forging a distinctly American style of composition, in his later years he was often referred to as “the Dean of American Composers.” Copland’s health deteriorated through the 1980s, and he died of Alzheimer’s disease and respiratory failure on December 2, 1990, in North Tarrytown, New York (now Sleepy Hollow).
My collection includes the following works by Copland:
Appalachian Spring Ballet (1944).
Appalachian Spring: Variations on a Shaker Melody.
Billy the Kid Ballet Suite (1938).
Ceremonial Fanfare (1969).
Concerto in One Movement for Piano and Orchestra, Jazz (1926).
Danzon Cubano (1944-1946).
El Salon Mexico (1936-7).
Fanfare for the Common Man (1943).
John Henry, a Descriptive Fantasy of Variations on a Railroad Ballad for Orchestra (1940).
Jubilee Variations on a Theme of Goosens (1945).
Lincoln Portrait (1942).
Old American Songs, Set 1 (1959).
An Outdoor Overture (1938).
Quiet City (1939).
Rodeo (1942): Four Dance Episodes (1943).
Sextet (Symphony) for Strings, Clarinet, and Piano (1937).
Symphony No. 3 (1946).
The Tender Land (1954) Concert Suite: The Promise of Living (finale of Act 1).
Two Pieces for String Orchestra (1923).