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Aaron Copland: Aaron Copland (b. New York, 14 Nov 1900).
It is arguable that Aaron Copland is the most considerable of American composers to have emerged so far. Whether this means that posterity will regard him as the first great American composer is another matter; it is a question upon which the music departments of most American universities have failed to reach agreement.
Aaron Copland's parents were Russian Jews who emigrated to America; the emigration authorities mis-spelt their name, Kaplan - and Aaron Copland it remained. His father Harris Aaron Copland ran a Brooklyn department store; so the family were comfortably middle-class. None of them cared greatly for music. Aaron Copland came into the world on the 14th November 1900, and grew up in the tough, fast-moving New York that is portrayed in the novels of Dos Passos. His sister Laurine studied the piano, and when Aaron Copland was eleven, he made the discovery that he loved music and would like to be a musician. He began to study harmony and composition with Rubin Goldmark - nephew of the composer - in 1917, and by the age of twenty-one, had scraped together enough money to go to Paris to become Nadia Boulanger's first American pupil. When he returned to America in 1924, he had been thoroughly inoculated with 'modernism'. A Symphony for Organ and Orchestra was conducted by Walter Damrosch in New York in January 1925, and Damrosch remarked flippantly to the audience: 'If a young man at twenty-three can write a symphony like that, in five years time he'll be ready to commit murder.' Critics seemed to regard Aaron Copland as a sort of American Prokoviev, chaotic, deafening, bewildering. Jazz influences were heard in Music For Theatre (1925) and the Piano Concerto (1926). The Piano Variations of 1930 have been described as a masterpiece; they are also percussive and 'difficult', and convinced Aaron Copland's few admirers that he was to pass into realms of non-melodic intellectualism. A Dance Symphony, thrown together quickly from an unfinished ballet, Grogh, won him a $5,000 prize in 1929; to modern ears, it has a joyful rhythmic vitality that is characteristic of some of his most popular later works. A Short Symphony (1931-3), now regarded as one of his finest works, was considered at the time to be too rhythmically complex.
Some time in the mid-1930s, Aaron Copland began to worry about the relation between the composer and the public. There had been a time when audiences rushed to hear the latest symphony, opera or oratorio by a favourite composer; now the best a modern composer can hope for is a clique of academic admirers. Could a modern composer 'reach' a wide audience without cheapening his music? In Aaron Copland's case, the answer was yes, for he was a romantic who felt that American music ought to try to express the essence of America. And so a 'difficult' work, Statements, was followed by the first of Aaron Copland's 'popular' works, El Salon Mexico, portraying a smokefilled dance hall. Its success was immediate. Other 'American' works followed: the ballet Billy the Kid (1938), the popular Outdoor Overture (1938), Quiet City (a suite drawn from his incidental music to a film The City), Rodeo ( 1 942) - another ballet - and A Lincoln Portrait for narrator and orchestra (1942). In 1937 he had also composed an opera for schoolchildren, The Second Hurricane, and his music for the film The Red Pony was later arranged as a Children's Suite.
By the mid-1940s, Aaron Copland was beginning to give the impression of a versatile but rather light-weight composer; his output seemed to lack 'major' works. The ballet, Appalachian Spring, which appeared in 1945, seemed to be a step in the right direction; it was thoroughly American, and had a feeling of almost symphonic breadth. It won the Pulitzer Prize and the award of the New York Music Critics. The following year saw the first performance of his longest orchestral work, the Third Symphony, described by Serge Koussevitsky (who commissioned it) as 'the greatest American symphony - it goes from the heart to the heart'. This again won the award of the New York Music Critics. Like so much of Aaron Copland's music, the Third Symphony gives the impression of being 'about America'; the first movement might be a description of a kind of glider-flight across the American continent, moving with a Bruckner-like feeling of leisure. The second has a drive reminiscent of Prokoviev. Yet finally, one is inclined to doubt whether this music has sufficient stature to be judged a 'great symphony'. It is attractive rather than impressive. The same comment applies to his other extended work, the opera The Tender Land (1954); although it contains some fine music, one gets the final impression that he is too determined to be popular and lyrical and folksy, and falls somewhere midway between opera and the Broadway musical.
On the other hand, two song cycles contain some of the best of Aaron Copland. Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson (1949-50) match her bareness and integrity with music that is at once subtle and brilliant. The two-part cycle of Old American Songs for voice and piano (1950-2) is completely irresistable in its orchestral version, one of those works that makes an impact on first hearing, yet somehow remains fresh and delightful when one knows every note. Some of its themes are used in the Third Symphony.
Recent years have seen a return to 'difficult' music, with works like Connotations (1961-2) and Inscape(\961). Now in his mid-seventies, Aaron Copland remains best known to the general public for An Outdoor Overture, Billy the Kid and Appalachian Spring. What emerges basically from his music is a gentle and lovable personality, unashamed of his romanticism. One can imagine that, under different circumstances, he might have settled in Hollywood - like Erich Korngold - and been perfectly happy writing film scores. He seems to have a natural power of evoking 'the great outdoors'. His final importance may well be that, together with Gershwin, he is the most typically American composer that his country has so far produced.
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