Aaron Copland is considered to be one of the 20th century’s most enduringly successful of American composers. His substantial compositional catalogue is comprised of music for the stage (ballet, opera, and incidental music), screen (two documentaries and six films), radio, orchestra, choir, chamber ensemble, solo piano, and voice and piano. His musical style is considered distinctively American, bearing the influences of popular music, jazz, and folk music from Anglo-, African-, and Latin-American as well as Jewish sources. The works audiences find most appealing contain music of restrained emotional directness, often evoking a pastoral American ideal. Copland was also active as a pianist, conductor, and a prolific writer on music, including two notable music appreciation texts, What to Listen for in Music and Our New Music. An important mentor to several generations of composers, he was instrumental in the development of 20th-century art music in the Americas.
Born on November 14, 1900, in Brooklyn, New York, Copland had formal piano lessons from age 13, and studied theory and composition through private instruction from Rubin Goldmark. Attending concerts, operas, and dance performances were also a formative part of his musical education. In 1921, he went to Paris for further studies in piano with Ricardo Viñes and composition with Nadia Boulanger, who was his most significant teacher. While there, Copland voraciously absorbed the city’s cultural offerings and frequently travelled around Europe. In 1924, by Boulanger’s arrangement, his Organ Symphony was given its American premiere by the New York Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Thereafter, the latter’s conductor, Serge Koussevitsky, became a notable commissioner and champion of Copland’s music.
Although he initially struggled to earn his living as a composer (critics were fickle), Copland was determined to help himself and his American colleagues. Over the next two decades, he tirelessly organized concerts; was active in New York’s League of Composers, led the American Composers Alliance, and co-founded the American Music Center; and wrote about American music in journals, newspapers, and magazines. By the late 1940s, having achieved wide popularity and critical acclaim from his patriotic pieces, ballets (especially Appalachian Spring), and film scores, Copland was regarded as America’s leading composer of his day.
In the early 1950s, Copland’s long-held socialist sympathies and activism made him the target of anti-communist smear campaigns; and he endured questioning by a Congressional subcommittee (he denied being a communist). Ultimately, his reputation was unaffected; as he continued to compose, lecture, teach, and write, he accumulated numerous honours and awards as well as major recognition abroad. Beginning in 1958, he embarked on an international conducting career, leading performances of his own works and those of other American composers for over 20 years. After 1972, he ceased to compose, and began to suffer memory lapses, eventually living with the effects of dementia. Copland died on December 2, 1990, a few weeks after his 90th birthday, in North Tarrytown, New York.
By Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley