Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990)

Aaron Copland is one of the most famous and popular American composers of the last 100 years. He is often called the “Dean of American Composers” and was one of the first (and still few) composers in the U.S. to be able to earn a living as a composer with out a university teaching position.

Copland was born in Brooklyn into a Russian Jewish family. His first composition teacher was Rubin Goldmark, who also taught George Gershwin. Goldmark gave Copland a fundamentally sound training in composition, but his conservative tastes were somewhat out of step with the times. Seeking to expand his training and opportunities, Copland left for Paris to study at the National Conservatory. Initially, he found it to be the same, until he began studies with famed teacher Nadia Boulanger. He became one of her first American students and studied with her for three years. (Boulanger also taught Americans Roy Harris, Virgil Thompson, Walter Piston, Elliott Carter, Philip Glass, and jazz composer Quincy Jones, as well as other composers such as Igor Markevitch, Jean Françaix, Lennox Berkeley, Michel Legrand, and tango master Astor Piazzolla.) While there, he was part of an artistic community of American expatriates and European natives that included Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Marcel Proust, Jean-Paul Sartre and André Gide.

Copland’s music can be somewhat divided into three different eras. During the first, he composed several works influenced by either jazz or the European avant-garde, with an emphasis on popular rhythms and colorful dissonance, such as his early Piano Concerto and Symphony for Organ and Orchestra. His second phase, during which he wrote his most successful and popular scores is characterized by the establishment of a distinctly American sound, often evoking images of the Midwestern prairies and Old West frontiers. Typical works from this era include the ballet scores for Rodeo, Billy the Kid, and Appalachian Spring. After a later period of study in Rome in 1950, Copland was influenced by the post-War European composers and adopted the 12-tone technique of Arnold Schoenberg and his students, (much as Stravinsky did at the same time), in works like the Piano Quartet, the Piano Fantasy, and Connotations for Orchestra. Throughout these style periods, Copland maintained a divided composition style, producing works in two categories, which he called his “popular” and “severe” styles. Copland was a pragmatist and recognized that the market and audience for his “severe” works was limited and unlikely to provide much of an income. This does not, however, denote any commercialization or cheapening of the works that he wrote in his more “popular” style, which are still highly regarded and firmly established in the orchestral repertory.

Copland often highlighted the difference in his styles and tried out new techniques first in his works for solo piano, all of which were recorded by his friend Leo Smit under his supervision. (The two had previously recorded some of his music for two pianos.) Some of his piano works include the Four Piano Blues, Night Thoughts, (written for the Van Cliburn competition in 1972), Down a Country Lane, and the Piano Variations. (The last two were orchestrated by the composer, the latter renamed Orchestral Variations.)

In addition to the popular ballets he wrote, some of Copland’s other works for orchestra include his early El Salón Mexico, Lincoln Portrait, the almost ubiquitous Fanfare for the Common Man, and the landmark Third Symphony, (which includes a version of the Fanfare for the Common Man in its finale), as well as the Clarinet Concerto, written for jazz virtuoso Benny Goodman. Copland also wrote dozens of scores for the stage, radio, television, and movies, including Quiet City, Our Town, John Henry, and two films based on novels by John Steinbeck: Of Mice and Men and The Red Pony. Many of his film music were turned into orchestral suites. He even tried his hand at writing an opera, The Tender Land.

Copland maintained his divided compositional style in his vocal and chamber works, producing popular works such as the Old American Songs and 12 Poems of Emily Dickinson, as well as more abstract pieces such as the Clarinet Sextet, Vitebsk Trio, and Duo for Flute and Piano. 

In the final decades of his life, Copland found his ability to compose more difficult and turned to conducting. He led many of the world’s great orchestras and produced dozens of recordings of his own works, performances that are only exceeded by his protegé, Leonard Bernstein. Although he never held an official university post, he was greatly interested in musical promotion and education in the U.S. He produced several works for student groups, including the Outdoor Overture for high school orchestra, Emblems for college bands, and the early Second Hurricane, a musical play/opera composed for high school performers. He often gave lectures on music and adapted several of them into books, including The New Music and his book on music appreciation, What to Listen For in Music. He spent many summers teaching and conducting at the Boston Symphony’s Tanglewood Institute, where in addition to Bernstein, some of his notable students included Samuel Adler, Paul Bowles, Alberto Ginastera, musical composer Charles Strouse, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and Robert Ward. He also maintained close friendships and helped support other composers, such as Carlos Chávez and Roger Sessions.

Copland’s achievements in music include the Pulitzer Prize, an Academy Award (and three other nominations), the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, the National Medal of Arts, and a Kennedy Center honoree. He died from Alzheimer’s Disease and respiratory failure in 1990. By his death, he had accumulated a large fortune from his music royalties and left much of it in the form of an annual endowment for American composers. He remains one of the most important and influential composers in American musical history.

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