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Aaron Copland: Aaron Copland, (born Nov. 14, 1900, Brooklyn, N.Y., U.S.—died Dec. 2, 1990, North Tarrytown [now Sleepy Hollow], N.Y.), American composer who achieved a distinctive musical characterization of American themes in an expressive modern style.
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 George Gershwin, he is the most typically American composer that his country has so far produced.
Aaron Copland, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, was born in New York City and attended public schools there. An older sister taught him to play the piano, and by the time he was 15 he had decided to become a composer. As a first step Aaron Copland tried to learn harmony through a correspondence course. Haltingly and in an environment not particularly conducive to art, he struggled toward his goal.
In the summer of 1921 Aaron Copland attended the newly founded school for Americans at Fontainebleau, where he came under the influence of Nadia Boulanger, a brilliant teacher who shaped the outlook of an entire generation of American musicians. He decided to stay on in Paris, where he became Boulanger’s first American student in composition. After three years in Paris, Aaron Copland returned to New York City with an important commission: Nadia Boulanger had asked him to write an organ concerto for her American appearances. Aaron Copland composed the piece while working as the pianist of a hotel trio at a summer resort in Pennsylvania. That season the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra had its premiere in Carnegie Hall with the New York Symphony under the direction of the composer and conductor Walter Damrosch.
In his growth as a composer Aaron Copland mirrored the important trends of his time. After his return from Paris, he worked with jazz rhythms in Music for the Theater (1925) and the Piano Concerto (1926). There followed a period during which he was strongly influenced by Igor Stravinsky’s Neoclassicism, turning toward an abstract style he described as “more spare in sonority, more lean in texture.” This outlook prevailed in the Piano Variations (1930), Short Symphony (1933), and Statements for Orchestra (1933–35). After this last work, there occurred a change of direction that was to usher in the most productive phase of Aaron Copland’s career. He well summed up the new orientation: “During these years I began to feel an increasing dissatisfaction with the relations of the music-loving public and the living composer. It seemed to me that we composers were in danger of working in a vacuum.” Furthermore, he realized that a new public for modern music was being created by the new media of radio, phonograph, and film scores: “It made no sense to ignore them and to continue writing as if they did not exist. I felt that it was worth the effort to see if I couldn’t say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms.” Aaron Copland therefore was led to what became a most significant development after the 1930s: the attempt to simplify the new music in order that it would have meaning for a large public.
The decade that followed saw the production of the scores that spread Aaron Copland’s fame throughout the world. Most important of these were the three ballets based on American folk material: Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944; commissioned by dancer Martha Graham). To this group belong also El salón México (1936), an orchestral piece based on Mexican melodies and rhythms; two works for high-school students—the “play opera” The Second Hurricane (1937) and An Outdoor Overture (1938); and a series of film scores, of which the best known are Of Mice and Men (1939), Our Town (1940), The Red Pony (1948), and The Heiress (1948). Typical too of the Aaron Copland style are two major works that were written in time of war — Lincoln Portrait (1942), for speaker and chorus, on a text drawn from Lincoln’s speeches, and Letter from Home (1944), as well as the melodious Third Symphony (1946).
In his later years Aaron Copland refined his treatment of Americana: “I no longer feel the need of seeking out conscious Americanism. Because we live here and work here, we can be certain that when our music is mature it will also be American in quality.” His later works include an opera, The Tender Land (1954); Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson (1950), for voice and piano; and the delightful Nonet (1960). During these years Aaron Copland also produced a number of works in which he showed himself increasingly receptive to the serial techniques of the so-called 12-tone school of composer Arnold Schoenberg. Notable among such works are the stark and dissonant Piano Fantasy (1957); Connotations (1962), which was commissioned for the opening of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City; and Inscape (1967). The 12-tone works were not generally well-received; after 1970 Aaron Copland virtually stopped composing, though he continued to lecture and to conduct through the mid-1980s.
For the better part of four decades, as composer (of operas, ballets, orchestral music, band music, chamber music, choral music, and film scores), teacher, writer of books and articles on music, organizer of musical events, and a much sought after conductor, Aaron Copland expressed “the deepest reactions of the American consciousness to the American scene.” He received more than 30 honorary degrees and many additional awards. His books include What to Listen for in Music (1939), Music and Imagination (1952), Copland on Music (1960), and The New Music, 1900–60 (1968). With the aid of Vivian Perlis, he wrote a two-volume autobiography (Copland: 1900 Through 1942  and Copland: Since 1943 ).
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