Aaron Copland

"To explain the creative musician's basic objective in elementary terms, I would say that a composer writes music to express and communicate and put down in permanent form certain thoughts, emotions and states of being. These thoughts and emotions are gradually formed by the contact of the composer's personality with the world in which he lives. He expresses these thoughts (musical ones...) in the musical language of his own time. The resultant work of art should speak to men and women of the artist's own time with a directness and immediacy of communicative power that no previous art expression can give." American composer, conductor and author. Copland helped define a twentieth century American sound. His influence on his contemporaries and students has been tremendous.

Aaron Copland seems at first to be an odd person to create a musical style that combined the myths of the American West and the styles of Latin American music into a populist music that spoke to a large segment of American society. Copland was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, grew up in New York, and found his musical voice in the international, avant-garde atmosphere of Paris in the 1920s. In New York he was part of a musical elite, championing the cause of modern music. At the same time, he had ties to the political and social left with its reformist agenda. Yet it could be argued that all of these elements were important ingredients, not just in the fabric of America in the 20s and 30s, but in the creation of a distinctly American aesthetic.

Copland began his study of music with piano lessons from his older sister. He soon turned to other teachers, and began attending symphonic concerts, soaking up the music of the standard symphonic repertoire. While in high school, he studied harmony, counterpoint and orchestration with Rubin Goldmark, who tried to steer his tastes down a conservative path. But at age twenty, Copland left New York to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, who was to serve as a teacher and mentor to many of the leading composers of the century. In Paris, and in his travels through Europe, he was exposed to a wide variety of new styles. He returned to a New York that was in the midst of an artistic and social revival, and he immediately became a part of that renewal. From 1928 to 1931 he coordinated a series of concerts with the composer Roger Sessions that presented important new works to the American public. He lectured at the New School for Social Research (from which his book What to Listen for in Music took shape), and built his reputation as a composer.

His early music mixes very modern musical ideas with hints of jazz influence. Pieces such as his Piano Variations stand out for their harmonic and rhythmic experimentation, and jazz rhythms are an important part of his Music for the Theater. Copland's concern with modern techniques lessened during the Great Depression. Reacting to a changing social consciousness, he (along with a number of other composers) began to shape his style to speak to a larger segment of the population. This comes through most clearly in ballets such as Billy the Kid and Appalachian Spring and in his music for films. In these works, simpler (but no less sophisticated) harmonies, broad melodies, and hints of folk melodies created a sound that came to be associated with our pictures of the mythic American West. And works such as Fanfare for the Common Man and A Lincoln Portrait (in which the narrator recites various writings of Lincoln) added a populist and patriotic element. While Copland never abandoned the more adventurous style (including, later in his life, twelve-tone composition), he is best remembered, and justly so, for creating a truly American symphonic style. Over the course of his life he not only served as a trendsetter, but also played an important role in the development of younger composers at places such as the Berkshire Music Center. He was, in fact, the musical father to more than one generation of young composers.

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