Sei sulla pagina 1di 15

12/12/2016 Aaron Copland

Americas Composer

Heather Scott

Aaron Copland, a name known by many as one of the fathers of American classical music. Despite his

fame for many of his more popular works such as Appalachian Spring, Quiet City, Fanfare for the

Common Man, Music for Theatre, and many more, Coplands history is surrounded with little pieces of

controversy that would lead one to believe that he was not a likely candidate for being such a profound

impact on American Music. Some of these controversies surround his personal life and sexual

orientation, as well as his love of travel outside of the United States and his once suspected ties to the

communist party. Despite these controversies, Copland creates an American idiom for music through

the use of folk tunes, hymn songs, and jazz. In this paper I discuss how Copland created the American

idiom and the controversies surrounding his personal life through the use of detailed research of his life

and his music.

In the history of American composers there are a few names that stick out most profoundly to

both the musical informed and musically uniformed. Leonard Bernstein is one, Aaron Copland is

also one. Aaron Copland, while most known for works such as Fanfare for the Common Man,

Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring, has become the center point of the idea of an American


For this paper, I shall examine what things make Coplands music considered

American as well as examining his own background. In order to do this I shall study

Coplands background and examine his own works through books and biographies. Ultimately I

will discuss Coplands own background that would make him an odd choice as Americas

composer as well as the compositional devices within his music that does in fact make him

Americas composer.

Life and Controversy

Harold Schoenberg once described Aaron Copland as a Counselor and elder Statesman

as well as a respected symbol of half a century of American music.1 However, before looking

at Copland as an older man, we must first discuss his beginnings in music. Both of his parents,

Sarah Copland and Harris Copland, emigrated from Russia to the United States as Jewish

immigrants. Neither of his parents had any sort of musical training nor the desire to pursue

music. Copland was born the youngest child in his family and his family, having spent money on

the rest of his siblings for piano study, did not want to finance what could be another potential

dead end in music study for Copland. However, Copland was determined. At the age of eleven,

his sister Laurine taught his first piano lessons, using books that she had been taught from. Soon

Neil Butterworth, The Music of Aaron Copland (New York: Universe books, 1986), 185.
after they began, his sister declared that he knew more than she did and that he would need a real

teacher if he wanted to progress. 2 At first his parents resisted the argument of their youngest son,

but despite the resistance, Copland eventually won out and he was allowed to go out and find his

own piano teacher for lessons.3 In the fall of 1917, after beginning lesson with Mr. Leopold

Wolfsohn, Copland began to study music theory with the nephew of Karl Goldmark, Mr. Rubin

Goldmark.4 He progressed through his studies until he decided he was going to study abroad for

a summer in Paris. In 1912, Aaron Copland arrived at Fontainebleau as a music school for

Americans was being organized. Here he discovered his future teacher and longtime mentor,

Nadia Boulanger. Copland was the first in a long line of creative musicians who came to study

with her.5 Despite Coplands intentions of only staying the summer, a year at the maximum, he

ended up staying in Paris for three years. Here he had his first experience in having his music

played publically in a concert, in February of 1922. Two years later, he had his first introduction

to the American public in a concert in New York. However, the next year came a very important

performance for Copland, one that would bring him in contact with a person who would arguably

be the second most important person in Coplands musical career: Serge Koussevitzky.6

Koussevitzky had spent his time in Russia conducting and programming new works. When he

came to America, he continued that pattern fully, leading to a performance of one of Coplands


In looking at Coplands life there are three points that would make it interesting to see him

become the epitome of American composition: his Russian - Jewish heritage, his homosexual

Arthur Berger Aaron Copland (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953) 4
Ibid, 4
Ibid, 5
Ibid, 7
Ibid, 12
lifestyle, and the accusation of his ties to Communism. Throughout his life, Copland has faced

criticism as an American composer whose heritage came from a place that was not American.

Pollack in his book on Copland said that, Although Copland only occasionally used explicitly

Jewish subjects or themes in his music, many listeners over the years perceived his music, in one

way or another way, as Jewish.7 This is partially due to in the 1920s, his music suggested some

connections to Russian-Jewish style, but also they had a tendency to conform to the association

of Jewish composers with jazz and with avant-garde music. Some people felt that Coplands

background meant that he could not be an American composer. Daniel Mason claimed that

Coplands background precluded him from the ability to write music that was genuinely

American and argued that the spaciousness, the superficial charm and persuasiveness of

Hebrew art, its brilliance, its violently juxtaposed extremes of passion, its poignant eroticism and

pessimism were completely opposed to what he described as the American character which he

felt was marked by the poignant beauty of Anglo-Saxon sobriety and restraintthe fine reserve

so polar to the garrulous self-confessions.8 Similarly Henry Cowell felt that the Jewish-

American composers who employed jazz Copland, Gershwin, and Louis Gruenberg could

not genuinely compose American music. Along with the taunts he received for his Jewish

heritage, were the taunts he received for him being homosexual. At some point in his friendship

with Irving Fine, he told him that when he attended Boys High School, he felt very different.

Fine believed this had to do with his homosexuality more than his being Jewish.9 A documentary

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn documents how homosexual, or at least effeminate boys and boys

Howard Pollack Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man (New York: Henry Holt and Company
Press, 1999), 518.
Ibid, 519
Ibid, 24
of Jewish decent were quite commonly taunted.10 His own parents would never really develop

more than a vague understanding of Copland or of his world, including his homosexuality, a

topic that was just not discussed within the Copland family circles. When his niece was asked by

her son why Uncle Aaron was not married she told him that Hes married to his music.11 Later

in life, Copland was one of the numerous composers and artists that were accused of being

sympathetic to or of simply being a communist. During the United States history of the Second

Red Scare, three former FBI agents had included Aaron Copland in the notorious Red Channels:

The Reports of Communist Influence in Radio and Television, which was a compendium of 151

artists and their theoretical communist associations.12 In April of the same year, Senator

McCarthy had frightened the U.S. State Department into putting into place stringent security

hurdles for sending music and recordings to libraries abroad. Any derogatory allegations made

against a composer, despite the legitimacy, meant an immediate barring of the composers work

for any of the official American libraries around the world. Of the list of prominent American

composers, the State Department could clear only one; they blacklisted not just Aaron Copland,

but George Gershwin, Roger Sessions, Randall Thompson, Roy Harris, Virgil Thomson, and

Leonard Bernstein.13 However, despite these accusations, Copland was later cleared after

copious research on his as well as his lawyers part.

Coplands Americanisms

Aaron Copland is known for several of his works, but what in these works make them

known as American works? With Copland, he recognized that there had appeared a gap between

Pollack Aaron Copland: The Life and Work, 24
Ibid, 18
Ibid, 452
Ibid, 454
concert audiences and popular audiences and remarked that composers would need to find a

musical language that would satisfy both composers and popular audiences. Vivan Peralis

remarked in her book that Aaron brought leanness to America, which set the tone for our

musical language throughout [World War II]. Thanks largely to Aaron, American music came

into its own14 Of the numerous compositional techniques and materials that Copland used, there

are three main ideas that come to the forefront: Hymns, jazz, and folk songs. When Copland first

started composing, he would use tunes that he knew to reset. Being familiar with the Jewish

traditions, a few times have led to him resetting Jewish hymns. More than that, hymn tunes have

been a popular source material for composers looking to create a national style, as Copland was.

The influence of deeply ingrained hymn-tunes that have effected these composers could be

considered the original but indirect source for the hymn melodies of Copland.15 In some cases

pre-established funds of Americanism style was added to and fused with American hymnody,

adding a more declamatory style to the music. Further, Coplands brief reliance on Jewish

folksongs for thematic material contained seeds of yet another style that Copland followed: The

American Folksong Period. Arthur Berger once said that it might even be said, with a certain

irony, to be sure, that Copland has had more influence on American folk music than it has upon

him. 16 Although Copland at one point believed that American composers could not create a

music that was distinctly national without a literature of folk music as a background. In holding

with this belief, he made it enduring and tangible with his presentation and assimilation of

American folklore, beginning with highly successful ballets. Folksongs became a staple of

Coplands music and in turn became more of an American musical trait. Arthur Berger noted that

Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis, Copland: Since 1943 (New York: St. Martins Press, 1989), 124
Butterworth The Music of Aaron Copland,184
Ibid, 184
when New England and Shaker hymnody and cowboy songs were later incorporated, an

indigenous substratum had thus already been well developed. In tapping this store of raw

material, Copland was no doubt spurred on by the additional earmarks of Americanism that

would come in its wake.17 Copland used multiple different folk songs including Shaker

melodies, cowboy songs, Jewish folksongs as well as a German tune. In his short symphony,

Copland quoted a short German tune that he had heard once in a German film.18 Before Copland

used folk melodies, however, he found another way to make his music apart of the American

idiom: Jazz. When Copland came back from his time in France, he wanted to write a work that

would be immediately be recognized as American in character. In order to do this Copland

decided to adopt the jazz idiom and see how he could rework it in a symphonic manner. The

spectacular result was the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. It had an unmistakable tang but it

became the last of Coplands symphonic jazz experiments.19 Copland had found a way to work

the jazz form into the framework of the piece so that once specific allusions to the popular form

were removed, the skeleton of the work still remained jazz. One particular piece that Copland

filled with jazz material was his First Symphony. Julia Smith noted the different jazz idioms

present in the Symphony: A polytonal and polyrhythmic ground-bass jazz accompaniment; a

syncopated melodic line featuring flatted intervals of a third and a second which suggest

polytonal-jazz implications; a succession of triads in second inversion descending by consecutive

whole steps; and a three-part jazz-canon at the unison.20 Aaron Copland was not the only

composer writing in the jazz idiom, George Gershwin had been writing symphonic jazz.

Berger Aaron Copland, 91
Ibid, 91
Gilbert Chase, Americas Music: from the Pilgrims to the Present (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987),
Julia Smith, Aaron Copland: His Work and Contribution to American Music (New York: E.P. Dutton &
Company, 1955), 81
However, despite writing in the same style, Gershwins works seemed to be weighed down by

symphonic interludes of European tone poems that had been poorly integrated.

Americanisms within Coplands Music

From the popular pieces within Coplands repertoire there are numerous aspects that are

considered Americanisms. In this section, the following pieces will be discussed: Appalachian

Spring, Quiet City, Music for Theatre, Rodeo, Billy the Kid, Lincoln Portrait, and briefly The

Red Pony.

Appalachian Spring is most known for its infamous section of Simple Gifts. First

performed in October of 1944, it was commissioned by Martha Graham for her ballet company.

It was originally written for thirteen players and later reorcehstrated for a medium to large

orchestra in 1945. The music is supposed to evoke the mood of a pastoral, early America. The

five variations of Simple Gifts has been called American Baroque.21 In the style of

Coplands writing at this time, Simple Gifts is but one of the numerous genuine folk-song that

appears throughout the ballet. It is also considered the epitome of his American style. The

piece, even if its visual aspect is taken from the piece, has each bar rooted in the feeling of the

countryside of New England, giving this piece a strong feeling of national expression.22

Appalachian Spring also includes the open fifth harmonies that are quintessential idiom of

Coplands compositional writing.

Quiet City brings in Coplands ability to portray American cities and the experience of

being in a city. Someone once said in reflections on the piece, The first of [Coplands] music I

ever heard was Quiet City in 1940, and it bowled me over. Except for Chicago composers,

Chase, Americans Music, 479-80
Butterworth, The Music of Aaron Copland, 101
Sowerby and Carpenter mainly, the notion of American music hadnt quite taken with me. Now

here suddenly was Aaron Coplands gem, at once so French like I adored with its succinct

expressivity, yet so unFrench with its open-faced Goodwin.23 Others believed that in the

openness of the accompaniment alongside the English horn and trumpet solos brought about the

ideal programmatic writing of the experience of being in the big-city. The idea of spiritual

acceptance and isolation with still having jaunty, tender, and harsh moments as well.24

The idea of symphonic jazz works being brought into Carnegie Hall in 1925 had people

crying Sacrilege. Music for Theatre became one of Coplands most popular symphonic jazz

works although one of his first serious challenges as a composer. The piece was commissioned

by the League of Composers who had invited Koussevitzky to conduct. Copland wanted to write

and develop something specifically among the American idiom after having been immersed in

European music during his years abroad as a student.25 Despite Coplands attempt at writing a

purely American piece, some musicians believe the work to be his most popular work of the

French-Jazz period. The piece is riddled with jazz idiomatic writing, each movement filled with

many examples. The second movement adopts the more popular style of jazz and includes

polyrhythms that are manipulated toward the harmonic progression of dominant seventh chord,

moving towards its implied root in a 3-2 suspension. It also applies the older ragtime bass with

the emphasis on one and three. Movement three contains a real blues melody that is repeated

three different times in slight variations. The fourth movement is a form of jazz scherzo. Each

movement is adding to the cyclic form, bringing the central melody back through until the piece

comes full circle with the trumpet motive. The piece becomes a major point of development in

Copland and Perlis, Copland: Since 1943, 121
Butterworth, The Music of Aaron Copland, 185
Berger, Aaron Copland, 13
Coplands style as it notes the separation from the European, or French, manner of composing

while trying to use that to create an American style through jazz idioms.26 When talking about

Copland and his use of jazz in his compositions, Music for Theatre becomes one of the forefront


Neil Butterworth once described this piece as wholly American and said that the story

alongside the treatment of the songs produced Coplands first totally national work.27 Billy the

Kid sounds like a Western film score. The first movement at first present a singular pastoral

theme, only six measures long. The melody is harmonized in open fifths and both the

harmonization and the woodwind setting helps convey the feeling of wide expanse and nostalgic

loneliness of an open prairie.28 The second movement brings in a folk tune Great Grandad.

Copland chooses to freely adapt folk melodies into a rondo form. The waltz in spite of its

European rooted origin, Copland gives it an American folk song and an American cadence

through the use of syncopated American rhythms. Alongside Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid

is a piece that is full of Coplands folk tune writing.

In the same vein as Billy the Kid, comes Rodeo and The Red Pony. Rodeo is another piece

that is of Coplands folk tune compositional period. Like a few of his other pieces containing

folk songs, some of them come from other countries but are reworked by Copland to make them

more American. An example of this comes from a brief quote of McLeods Reel, a Scottish

connection. Copland reworks this tune through a jazz treatment, making the entire movement

very American in style. Although Rodeo is in the same vein as Billy the Kid, Copland uses more

jazz treatments throughout, using polyrhythmic vamps and rural American sources. Rodeo is

Smith, Aaron Copland: His Work and Contribution, 86
Butterworth, The Music of Aaron Copland, 79
Smith, Aaron Copland: His Work and Contribution, 188
considered to be one of Coplands most easily understood and most accessible works. It is

Simple and direct both in design and language, really Americana at its best.29 The same open

fifth harmonies that are present in many of Coplands American tunes can be also found in The

Red Pony. The Morning at the Ranch movement begins idyllic in mood, using the motives that

suggest natures gradual stirrings in the morning, the theme suggesting the atmosphere of

Simple life in the American West.30

Lincoln Portrait is another Americana piece of Coplands repertoire. He was tasked to

write a piece for an American figure and soon after finding that Walt Whitman had been taken

by another composer, his focus turned towards Abraham Lincoln. When Copland told one of his

composer friends that he was writing a piece to portray Abraham Lincoln in a composition, he

was told that there was no possible way of composing a piece that would stand up to the

brilliance of Lincolns own writing. With that in mind, Copland decided to put Lincolns own

writing into his work creating a piece for orchestra and narrator. The piece has a wide scope from

the literary classical of Lincolns writing to the popular folk tunes that are used. The most

notable section of the piece is the quotation of the Gettysburg Address that is spoken overtop of

popular songs that hail from the civil war period. Along with that is the beautiful presentation of

the Springfield Mountain folk ballad as a reoccurring theme throughout.31 Another matter of

Americana within the piece was the purpose behind the piece. The work had a specific purpose

in mind when it was commissioned to be a work that would help bring together the American

people during the World War II years when it was felt that certain concept of America needed to

emphasized and restated in simple and direct terms.32 Copland wrote the work in a style that

Smith, Aaron Copland: His Work and Contribution, 193
Ibid, 209
Chase, Americas Music, 480
Smith, Aaron Copland: His Work and Contribution, 225
united serious symphony goers along with the casual listeners, making the piece so accessible to

all American people and not just the professional musician or the sophisticated symphony

attendees. Robert Lawrence said that, Here, in its sinew and lack of rhetoric, is American



Aaron Copland, although coming from humble, non-musical, beginnings became a

composer well known for writing music that truly evokes the spirit of America. Despite being

a part of several groups of people that were not well received at the time of his growing up:

being of Jewish descent and being homosexual. Then later in his life being accused of

sympathizing with communist groups during McCarthys second red scare. A good portion of his

significant training as a composer also happened abroad for three years, soaking in European

music. Despite all of these aspects, however, Copland has helped develop an compositional style

of music that is recognizable as wholly American. In many cases it involves open quartel and

quintel harmonies as well as folk tunes or folk tune like writing and jazz. The combination of

these items allows for an American idiom in music that can still be heard today in compositions

both popular and classical. Jim Beckel Jr.s Glass Bead Game and The American Dream both

having callings towards Coplands writing. Todays Western film scores still use Coplands open

fifths and fourths to set the mood of wide open spaces and peaceful prairies. Frank Tichelis

Shenandoah uses the classical folk tune of Shenandoah and then intermixes the Battle Hymn

of the Republic into it. Even in vocal tunes, Libby Larsons Raspberry Island Dreaming, uses

not only folk songs, but similar treatment to the vocal line as Copland uses in his setting Emily

Smith, Aaron Copland: His Work and Contribution, 225
Dickenson poems. In spite of Coplands past leading to him being an almost unlikely candidate

for being Americas composer, he has discovered and cultivated musical idioms that have

created a style wholly American.


Berger, Arthur. Aaron Copland. New York: Oxford University Press, 1953. Print.

Butterworth, Neil. The Music of Aaron Copland. New York: Universe Books, 1986. Print.

Chase, Gilbert. Americas Music: From the Pilgrims to the Present. Chicago: University of

Illinois Press, 1987. Print

Copland, Aaron and Vivian Perlis. Copland: Since 1943. New York: St. Martins Press, 1989.


Pollack, Howard. Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man. New York: Henry

Holt and Company, 1999. Print.

Smith, Julia. Aaron Copland: His Work and Contribution to American Music. New York: E.P.

Dutton & Company, 1955. Print.