the genius of aaron copland -- 12/17/15

Today's encore selection -- from The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold C. Schonberg. Aaron Copland, the composer who at first followed the influences of jazz and abstract music, but ultimately became the most powerful voice in American music by composing deeply personal music "in the simplest possible terms" resulting in such enduring masterpieces as Appalachian Spring and Fanfare for the Common Man:

"The com­poser who best represented the United States in the public and professional eye [in the mid-20th century] was Aaron Copland, born in Brooklyn on November 14, 1900. Copland made the break that took American music away from the faded provincialism of Edward MacDowell into a powerful, modern, very personal kind of speech. He also helped break the stranglehold of the German domination on American music. As a young pianist and aspiring composer, he first studied with Rubin Goldmark, but abruptly shifted and went to Paris in 1921. ...

Aaron Copland in Paris early 1920s. Copland's
note on the back of the photo reads "On a breezy
day in March on my way to a concert the River
Seine in the background.

"Copland was in Paris at a good time, and was intellectually stimulated. Stravinsky, Ravel, Prokofiev, Les Six [a group of Montparnasse composers reacting against Wagner], the Ballets Russes all had their headquar­ters there. Picasso, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and her circle, Joyce, and the other heroes of the Left Bank made Paris in the 1920s the most exciting city in the world. Copland, brash, breezy and confident, full of ideas about music, interested in American jazz, started turning out a kind of music that was his own. It was a music that reflected the new age. Copland was not the only American to work in an avant-garde style, ... [but he] was the one who had the brains, determination, and skill to arrive at his goal.

"At first he was influenced by Stravinsky and Les Six, and composed polyrhythmic music that played with jazz elements. After 1927, Copland dropped jazz. 'With the Piano Concerto I felt I had done all I could with the idiom, considering its limited emotional scope. True, it was an easy way to be American in musical terms, but all American music could not possibly be confined to two dominant jazz models: the 'blues' and the snappy number.' Many other composers of the period had come to the same conclusion. During the 1920s some of the international stars, including Stravinsky, had a brief fling with jazz, but nothing much came of it.

"After the Piano Concerto, Copland turned to a completely different form of expression, one that stimulated every young American composer. With the Piano Variations (1930), the Short Symphony (1933, later reduced to a Sextet), and Statements for Orchestra (1935), Copland became the leader of the new American school.

"These new products from Copland's pen were stripped-down scores, dissonant, percussive, powerful, abstract. ... 'They are difficult to perform, and difficult for an audience to comprehend,' Copland said of this music. The public did not respond; it seldom does to abstract music -- that is, music in which the rigorous development of an idea occupies more importance than melody (in the traditional sense of the word). These were the days when everybody was desperately anxious to be 'modern,' and Copland was most modern of all the Americans.

"Suddenly Copland changed his style once again. He shifted from abstractionism to a more popular idiom. Copland felt that the new music could be dangerous in that it might end up completely alienating the public. In The New Music he pointed out that...

An entirely new public for music had grown up around the radio and the phonograph. It made no sense to ignore them and to continue writing as if they did not exist. I felt that it was worth the effort to see if I couldn't say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms.

"Thus came into being the music by which Copland is best known and best loved. With The Second Hurricane (1935), El Salon Mexico (1936), and above all with his three 'American' ballets -- Billy the Kid (1938) for Eugene Loring, Rodeo (1940) for Agnes de Mille, and Appalachian Spring (1944) for Martha Graham -- he moved out of a small circle into a position as not only the most respected American composer but also the most popular, by far."


Harold C. Schonberg


The Lives of the Great Composers


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 1997, 1981, 1970 by Harold C. Schonberg


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