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What Makes Copland's Music so "American"?
By Rex Levang, from Minnesota Monthly, November 2000

Strictly from a symbolic point of view, it was thoughtful of Aaron Copland to be born in November of 1900 - a month that brings us a quintessentially American holiday, and a year that suggests the promise and vitality of a new century: the American century, as it's been called.

Copland at Rest

Over the years, he's been hailed as the American composer by everyone from Leonard Bernstein, who said, "He's the best we've got," to Spike Lee, who reached for Copland scores to create the soundtrack for He's Got Game.

What is it that's so American about Copland? Some have located it in a mood. In the optimism that seems to pervade the Third Symphony, written during World War II, or the "zip" that propels the Outdoor Overture. Or, in the "plainness" of his musical manner, which can be seen as a musical equivalent for everything from Shaker design to Copland's own personality.

But beyond these metaphors, it's possible to perceive "American" musical thumbprints in Copland's style - musical traits and devices that link Copland with other American musicians, and that have the power to evoke American metaphors of their own.

Folk Music
To put the most obvious one first - in his most popular works, Copland takes American folk songs and makes them his own. (It's impossible to think of "Simple Gifts" away from Appalachian Spring.)

But it doesn't stop there. Copland will take folk songs, disassemble them and recombine them every which way.

Copland uses the folk song "If He'd Be a Buckaroo" in two layers of counterpoint with itself ("triple canon").

The resultant "dissonant" harmonies belong both to modernism and to the unschooled folk tradition. Sure, they could be prettied up - but how American would that be?
Listen: Rodeo: Buckaroo Holiday.

Copland's famous "plainness" shows up in the way he organizes his musical material. Think of the mileage he gets out of the simplest intervals in Fanfare for the Common Man. Or take the beginning of Appalachian Spring. Instead of one continuous melody, Copland writes brief phrases for different instruments, separated by rests - "open" melody, that can seem to evoke the openness of the American landscape.
Listen: beginning of Appalachian Spring

This can also work "horizontally" as well as "vertically." Listen to the very end of Appalachian Spring, where the high notes of the solo flute float above the very lowest notes of the harp, for a good example.
Listen: end of Appalachian Spring

Listen for Copland's hymn-like style in the opening of the Third Symphony or the Lincoln Portrait: the chords move slowly, the musical contours are gentle. Other American composers like Peter Schickele and Aaron Jay Kernis have followed Copland's lead in creating this mood.
Listen: Lincoln Portrait excerpt

Copland sometimes denied jazz had much influence on him - but it's there to be heard in works such as the Clarinet Concerto, originally written for Benny Goodman.
Listen: Clarinet Concerto excerpt

There's a kind of driving rhythm - regular, incisive, sharply accented --that American composers love. It shows up everywhere from Philip Glass to Jerry Lee Lewis. In Copland you can hear it in pieces such as El Salón México or the scherzo from the Third Symphony, or, of course, the ever-popular "Hoe-Down."
Listen: Third Symphony excerpt

Read what the experts say about Copland | Copland 10x10 Home


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