Minnesota Public Radio
MPR Home | News | Music | Radio Listening | Events | Your Voice | About US | Support Us | Help
Music Search Music:

10 Chaptershome

star1900-10: Beginnings
Aaron Copland was born on November 14, 1900, in Brooklyn, into a Jewish family whose roots went back to Russia, by way of Scotland. (Copland speculated that the name "Copland" was the result of pronouncing the family name "Kaplan" with a gruff Scots accent.)

Copland remembered his boyhood environment as drab and lacking in culture; still, his brother was a decent amateur violinist and it was his sister who gave Aaron his first piano lessons, when he was seven.

star 1910-20: First Steps
Copland's first surviving composition dates from 1912 - a fragment (two measures) of an opera, Zenetello. In his teens, he makes more fledgling attempts at composition. By this time he is studying piano more seriously, and in 1917 begins studying harmony and counterpoint with a leading New York teacher, Rubin Goldmark. Goldmark's teaching is thorough, but conservative, and Copland is passionately curious about the newest trends in music and culture. He resolves to continue his studies in Paris.

star 1920-30: Modernism in Paris and New York
In Paris, Copland finds a music teacher, Nadia Boulanger, then quite unknown, though she will go on to become one of the most famous teachers of the century. (Her future pupils will include Walter Piston, Elliott Carter, Philip Glass, and Astor Piazzolla.)

After drinking deeply of the modernism of composers like Stravinsky and Milhaud, Copland returns to New York in 1924. He works energetically at his own music, and at promoting the cause of contemporary composers, as he will throughout his life.

He manages to obtain a performance of his Organ Symphony, under the baton of Walter Damrosch, who introduces the music to the audience by saying, "If a young man can write a symphony like this at twenty-three, within five years he will be ready to commit murder!" (Today this music doesn't seem quite so threatening.)

Other works from this time, like Music for the Theatre and the Piano Variations, give Copland a secure reputation among musicians, but he's still strapped for money and not widely known to the general public.

star 1930-40: A New Style
In the mid-1930s, Copland becomes convinced that his music should speak to a wider audience, especially as the world political and economic picture grows darker. "The conviction grew inside me that the two things that seemed always to have been so separate in America - music and the life about me - must be made to touch."

The series of works that he composes in a new simpler, more direct style will make him famous and become classics of the American symphonic repertoire. First comes El Salon Mexico (1932-36), followed by the ballet Billy the Kid (1938).

star1940-50: Widening Fame
During World War II, Copland's "Americanist" style finds even wider, more receptive audiences. In these years, Copland writes another "cowboy" ballet, Rodeo, the Fanfare for the Common Man, the Lincoln Portrait for speaker and orchestra, and the biggest and grandest work in this style, the Third Symphony (1946).

But the piece that listeners take to their heart more than any other is Appalachian Spring, subtitled Ballet for Martha for its choreographer, Martha Graham. Appalachian Spring is awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1945. (One side effect of its success: the little-known Shaker melody, "Simple Gifts," which Copland works into the score, becomes one of the best-known of traditional American songs.)

Just after the war, Serge Koussevitzky founds the Tanglewood Festival, and invites Copland to join its faculty - a post that he'll occupy for 25 years.

Copland's career in Hollywood, if that's the word for it, was intermittent, but significant. Without ever becoming a regular "studio composer," Copland took on scoring assignments for eight films between 1939 and 1948, and introduced a new modern note into Hollywood's musical vocabulary.

As films, the best-known are probably Of Mice and Men and The Heiress, for which Copland won an Oscar. Others are remembered today mostly because of Copland's participation (The Red Pony and the World War II morale-builder, The North Star).

Joseph McCarthy
Joseph McCarthy

star 1950-60: The Stain of McCarthyism
A dark episode that casts a pall over these years: Like many others who had taken progressive political stances, Copland is called as a witness before the McCarthy hearings. Copland is a minor figure in the McCarthy story, and the charges against him are insubstantial. Even though his career isn't seriously affected, he has to deal with the effects of this episode for some time.

In this period, vocal music looms larger in Copland's output than it has before: the Old American Songs, the Poems by Emily Dickinson, and Copland's one full-scale opera, The Tender Land.

star 1960-70: New Paths
As far back as the late 1940s, Copland had started turning away from the style of Rodeo and Appalachian Spring. But at the same time that his newer works like Inscape and Connotations fail to win wide favor, Copland himself is a more popular and visible figure than ever before: winning official honors, assisting the careers of younger composers, in heavy demand as the leading representative of American music. In particular, he embarks on a busy career as a conductor, recording most of his own symphonic works and appearing with orchestras worldwide.

star 1970-80: The Patriarch
Copland's composing career was now winding down - his last major work is the Duo for Flute and Piano from 1971 - but he continued to keep up a vigorous schedule of public appearances. (On July 4, 1976, he conducted the Minnesota Orchestra in a program of Bernstein, Ives, Copland, and William Schuman.)

In 1976, Copland also began to work with historian Vivian Perlis on two volumes of oral history: Copland: 1900-43 and Copland: Since 1943. They consist of Copland's own reminiscences, spliced together with Perlis's narrative and contributions from friends and colleagues. Indispensable reading for Copland buffs.

star 1980-90: The Final Years
In his early eighties, Copland continued work on the oral history project - the first volume was published in 1984 and the second in 1989. He lives long enough to see a new generation of composers grapple with the same questions of accessibility and communication that had confronted him in the 1930s.

With advancing age, Copland grows frailer and less lucid, and retires from public view in the mid-'80s.

star Death of Copland
Copland died on Dec. 2, 1990, less than a month after his 90th birthday. In accordance with his wishes, he was cremated and his ashes buried on the grounds of the Tanglewood Music Center.

The bulk of his estate went to further the cause of new music: His house outside New York City now serves as a retreat for young composers, and the Aaron Copland Fund was set up to support recordings and performances of their music.

10 Chapters | 10 Works | 10 Anecdotes | 10 Legacies | 10 People
10 Sources | 10 Quotes About Copland | 10 Facts
10 Quotes from Copland | 10 Audio Clips | Copland 10x10 Home


Minnesota Public Radio