Commentary Magazine


Topic: Aaron Copland

Bookshelf

I recently finished workshopping The Letter, the Somerset Maugham opera that Paul Moravec and I are writing for Santa Fe Opera, where it will be premiered in the summer of 2009. (In the world of opera, “workshop” is a verb.) No sooner did we wrap up our rehearsals than I resumed work on my biography of Louis Armstrong, which I hope to finish by April Fool’s Day. Factor in my hectic playgoing schedule and you begin to see the problem: how does a busy man get any reading done in the interstices of a schedule run amok? I confess to not having cracked any new books in the past week, but I’ve (mostly) enjoyed revisiting a half-dozen old ones, and it occurred to me that you might enjoy knowing what I’ve read since writing my last column:

• Stark Young’s 1938 translation of The Seagull, which is currently being performed by New York’s Classic Stage Company in a more recent English-language version by Paul Schmidt. Young, who is forgotten now, was one of the few great drama critics that this country has produced, and one of the first American critics to write with intelligence and sensitivity about Anton Chekhov’s plays. He translated The Seagull and Chekhov’s three other major plays after concluding that all the existing English-language renderings were insufficiently faithful to the original Russian versions, and for many years his translations were staged with some frequency (in part because they were published in a Modern Library omnibus edition). Schmidt’s modern-sounding translations are now more popular with American actors, but Young’s lucid, slightly formal style still has its own appeal.

• Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander (1970) and Post Captain (1972). When the going gets tough, I reach for O’Brian’s Trollope-like sea stories, which never fail to distract me from the stresses of a landlubber’s life. It’s been a couple of years since I last worked my way through the Aubrey-Maturin novels, so my wife and I resolved to read them simultaneously this year. No matter how noisy the world around me may grow, O’Brian has the power to transport me to an alternate literary universe that supplies me with “pure anesthesia.” (Pop quiz: do any of CONTENTIONS’ readers remember what once-famous critic coined that phrase, or to what still-popular work of literature the critic who coined it was referring?)

• Charles R. Townsend’s San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills (1976). “Western swing,” that high-stepping amalgam of country music and two-beat jazz, was invented, more or less, by a rowdy Texas fiddler named Bob Wills. I recently had lunch with a Texan musician who has written a play about Wills, and the meeting inspired me to dip into Townsend’s excellent biography for the first time in many years. Though not especially well written, San Antonio Rose tells you everything you could want to know about Wills and the Texas Playboys, the hugely popular band that he led for some thirty-odd years.

• Howard Pollack’s Aaron Copland: The Life of an Uncommon Man (1999). I picked up this book for purely professional reasons—I’ve been thinking of writing a Wall Street Journal column about Copland’s film scores—and once again found it comprehensive, reliable and pedestrian. Such books, alas, prevent better writers from tilling the same ground, and so it will be a very long time before America’s greatest composer receives the first-rate biography he so richly deserves. More’s the pity.

• Joseph Epstein’s Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy’s Guide (2006). I usually read Epstein’s books as soon as they come out, but this one slipped past me, and I didn’t get to it until last week. It is a choice example of one of my favorite genres, the “brief life.” In 205 stylishly written small-format pages, Epstein tells you enough about Tocqueville to make you long to know much, much more. I suspect that many younger readers find the sheer bulk of Democracy in America to be alarmingly daunting, so I hope that this elegant little book will circulate widely.

Now, back to Satchmo!

I recently finished workshopping The Letter, the Somerset Maugham opera that Paul Moravec and I are writing for Santa Fe Opera, where it will be premiered in the summer of 2009. (In the world of opera, “workshop” is a verb.) No sooner did we wrap up our rehearsals than I resumed work on my biography of Louis Armstrong, which I hope to finish by April Fool’s Day. Factor in my hectic playgoing schedule and you begin to see the problem: how does a busy man get any reading done in the interstices of a schedule run amok? I confess to not having cracked any new books in the past week, but I’ve (mostly) enjoyed revisiting a half-dozen old ones, and it occurred to me that you might enjoy knowing what I’ve read since writing my last column:

• Stark Young’s 1938 translation of The Seagull, which is currently being performed by New York’s Classic Stage Company in a more recent English-language version by Paul Schmidt. Young, who is forgotten now, was one of the few great drama critics that this country has produced, and one of the first American critics to write with intelligence and sensitivity about Anton Chekhov’s plays. He translated The Seagull and Chekhov’s three other major plays after concluding that all the existing English-language renderings were insufficiently faithful to the original Russian versions, and for many years his translations were staged with some frequency (in part because they were published in a Modern Library omnibus edition). Schmidt’s modern-sounding translations are now more popular with American actors, but Young’s lucid, slightly formal style still has its own appeal.

• Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander (1970) and Post Captain (1972). When the going gets tough, I reach for O’Brian’s Trollope-like sea stories, which never fail to distract me from the stresses of a landlubber’s life. It’s been a couple of years since I last worked my way through the Aubrey-Maturin novels, so my wife and I resolved to read them simultaneously this year. No matter how noisy the world around me may grow, O’Brian has the power to transport me to an alternate literary universe that supplies me with “pure anesthesia.” (Pop quiz: do any of CONTENTIONS’ readers remember what once-famous critic coined that phrase, or to what still-popular work of literature the critic who coined it was referring?)

• Charles R. Townsend’s San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills (1976). “Western swing,” that high-stepping amalgam of country music and two-beat jazz, was invented, more or less, by a rowdy Texas fiddler named Bob Wills. I recently had lunch with a Texan musician who has written a play about Wills, and the meeting inspired me to dip into Townsend’s excellent biography for the first time in many years. Though not especially well written, San Antonio Rose tells you everything you could want to know about Wills and the Texas Playboys, the hugely popular band that he led for some thirty-odd years.

• Howard Pollack’s Aaron Copland: The Life of an Uncommon Man (1999). I picked up this book for purely professional reasons—I’ve been thinking of writing a Wall Street Journal column about Copland’s film scores—and once again found it comprehensive, reliable and pedestrian. Such books, alas, prevent better writers from tilling the same ground, and so it will be a very long time before America’s greatest composer receives the first-rate biography he so richly deserves. More’s the pity.

• Joseph Epstein’s Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy’s Guide (2006). I usually read Epstein’s books as soon as they come out, but this one slipped past me, and I didn’t get to it until last week. It is a choice example of one of my favorite genres, the “brief life.” In 205 stylishly written small-format pages, Epstein tells you enough about Tocqueville to make you long to know much, much more. I suspect that many younger readers find the sheer bulk of Democracy in America to be alarmingly daunting, so I hope that this elegant little book will circulate widely.

Now, back to Satchmo!

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A Soprano Rediscovered

All too often a singer’s fame does not correspond with his or her actual musical mastery. The Clarksburg, West Virginia-born soprano Phyllis Curtin (born 1921) is a case in point. Although she enjoys legendary status at Yale and Boston Universities, where she taught for many years, Curtin’s lengthy singing career was hampered, (as Peter G. Davis recounts in his well-documented American Opera Singer) by being forced out of a promised starring role in a New York City Opera production of Handel’s “Julius Caesar,” after the more influential Beverly Sills twisted arms to obtain it. However, posterity is offering some belated rewards to Curtin in the form of a series of fascinating reissues on CD and DVD, which show her artistry at its peak.

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All too often a singer’s fame does not correspond with his or her actual musical mastery. The Clarksburg, West Virginia-born soprano Phyllis Curtin (born 1921) is a case in point. Although she enjoys legendary status at Yale and Boston Universities, where she taught for many years, Curtin’s lengthy singing career was hampered, (as Peter G. Davis recounts in his well-documented American Opera Singer) by being forced out of a promised starring role in a New York City Opera production of Handel’s “Julius Caesar,” after the more influential Beverly Sills twisted arms to obtain it. However, posterity is offering some belated rewards to Curtin in the form of a series of fascinating reissues on CD and DVD, which show her artistry at its peak.

The most recent of these is VAI’s release of a 1963 televised performance of Britten’s “War Requiem” from Tanglewood, in which the statuesque Curtin sings the Latin portions of the Requiem with womanly warmth and dignity. As the soprano soloist in Britten’s “Requiem,” Curtin is vastly better than the unbridled Slavic-accented yowlings of Galina Vishnevskaya as conducted by the composer himself on Decca. On Phyllis Curtin in Recital, another recently issued live recording from VAI, also from 1963, the soprano performs a variety of songs and arias by European and Latin American composers, from Gluck and Tchaikovsky to Alberto Ginastera. Her utter directness and conviction is wholly admirable, while her ability to communicate emotion in foreign languages is exemplary. Her English diction is no less fine in VAI’s CD Phyllis Curtin Sings Copland & Rorem, although the characterful Aaron Copland songs on this CD necessarily overshadow the weak-as-water banalities of the ever-puerile Ned Rorem. VAI has also cobbled together a CD of previously unreleased material, Phyllis Curtin—Opera Arias (1960-1968) including music by Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini.

Taken together, these interpretations construct the image of a singer of great poise and even majesty, of gleaming intelligence and devotion. Two years ago, as part of a convocation address which she delivered at the Northwestern University School of Music, Curtin observed: “Working with composers on new music I learned how to look at Bach freshly and at all music as newly alive, and, as well, much about my own time I never dreamed of!” She advised the listening students: “Serve your composers. Don’t present only the dead ones to your audiences.” She added as an example of her longtime generosity of spirit: “At Tanglewood, I have insisted that my classes be open to anyone walking by. Visitors have to sit in the back of the hall, and I direct nothing at all to them. Some stay a little while. Some come back, and often, year after year…. Some, I learn, have even made financial contributions to the vocal program.” New York’s movers and shakers in the classical world (especially at pricey locales like Carnegie Hall) would do well to imitate this kind of openness.

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Bookshelf

Now that I’m deeply immersed in writing the life of Louis Armstrong, I find myself reflecting at frequent intervals on the biographer’s art. Musical biography is a peculiarly tricky undertaking, because it demands that its practitioners find words to describe an art form that is, as I have said on more than one exasperating occasion, radically ambiguous. The composer Ned Rorem put it neatly: “Critics of words use words. Critics of music use words.” Fortunately, biographers are usually called on to spend more of their time writing about life than art, and many musical lives, Armstrong’s most definitely included, are sufficiently eventful to offer an industrious chronicler plenty of raw material.

In my quarter-century as a book reviewer, I’ve run across a fair number of first-rate musical biographies, and in recent weeks I’ve been rereading some of them in search of inspiration:

• Nolan Porterfield’s Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler is that rarity of rarities, an academic biography written with a journalist’s flair. That it should have been written about a country singer is all the more remarkable. Nowadays a similar study would have been crammed full of tendentious, theory-based interpretation and trendy critical jargon, but Porterfield steered clear of such superfluities, and gave us a book that is as definitive as any biography can hope to be.

• David Cairns’s two-volume biography of Hector Berlioz, The Making of an Artist and Servitude and Greatness is, hands down, the best biography of a great composer ever published. To be sure, it would be hard to write a dull biography of Berlioz, whose life was so full of spectacularly unlikely occurrences that a mere summary is intriguing; but Cairns brought off the near-impossible feat of producing a biography comparable in quality to the composer’s own sensationally readable Memoirs. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is as good—and well written—as any of the best literary biographies, which is saying something.

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Now that I’m deeply immersed in writing the life of Louis Armstrong, I find myself reflecting at frequent intervals on the biographer’s art. Musical biography is a peculiarly tricky undertaking, because it demands that its practitioners find words to describe an art form that is, as I have said on more than one exasperating occasion, radically ambiguous. The composer Ned Rorem put it neatly: “Critics of words use words. Critics of music use words.” Fortunately, biographers are usually called on to spend more of their time writing about life than art, and many musical lives, Armstrong’s most definitely included, are sufficiently eventful to offer an industrious chronicler plenty of raw material.

In my quarter-century as a book reviewer, I’ve run across a fair number of first-rate musical biographies, and in recent weeks I’ve been rereading some of them in search of inspiration:

• Nolan Porterfield’s Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler is that rarity of rarities, an academic biography written with a journalist’s flair. That it should have been written about a country singer is all the more remarkable. Nowadays a similar study would have been crammed full of tendentious, theory-based interpretation and trendy critical jargon, but Porterfield steered clear of such superfluities, and gave us a book that is as definitive as any biography can hope to be.

• David Cairns’s two-volume biography of Hector Berlioz, The Making of an Artist and Servitude and Greatness is, hands down, the best biography of a great composer ever published. To be sure, it would be hard to write a dull biography of Berlioz, whose life was so full of spectacularly unlikely occurrences that a mere summary is intriguing; but Cairns brought off the near-impossible feat of producing a biography comparable in quality to the composer’s own sensationally readable Memoirs. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is as good—and well written—as any of the best literary biographies, which is saying something.

• Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1994) is the first (and, so far, only) biography of a rock musician that aspires to the same level of seriousness as a classical-music biography. The second volume, published in 1999, was inevitably less interesting, since Presley’s life after 1960 was an unedifying chronicle of public decline and private squalor. In Last Train to Memphis, by contrast, we see the young Elvis up close, and even those who take no interest in his music will find his story irresistibly compelling.

• I know of no finer biography of an American composer than Anthony Tommasini’s Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle (1997). Among countless other good things, Tommasini brings off the difficult task of writing about a man he knew personally without lapsing into sentiment—or spite. I wish he would now turn his hand to writing an equally penetrating life of Aaron Copland!

• At 851 closely packed pages, Richard Osborne’s Herbert von Karajan: A Life In Music (1998) ought by all rights to be tedious. Instead it’s a page-turner, partly because Karajan’s complex personality was so fascinating, but mostly because Osborne is a lucid stylist with a comprehensive understanding of his subject and a highly developed sense of the relevant—three traits rarely to be found in the same biographer.

• Lewis Lockwood’s Beethoven: The Music and the Life (2003) is the kind of book that can only be written by a great scholar who has spent a lifetime reflecting on a major artist. Though the subtitle accurately reflects Lockwood’s priorities—he devotes more space to Beethoven’s music than his life—he succeeds in integrating life and work into a single, fully unified treatment. The result, as I wrote in COMMENTARY four years ago, is “a profoundly humane work of scholarship that will—or at least should—appeal to specialists and generalists in equal measure.”

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Bookshelf

• What did Leonard Bernstein, Victor Borge, Dave Brubeck, the Budapest String Quartet, Johnny Cash, Noël Coward, Miles Davis, Doris Day, Bob Dylan, Vladimir Horowitz, John Gielgud, Glenn Gould, Michael Jackson, Marshall McLuhan, Albert Schweitzer, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Igor Stravinsky, and the original casts of Waiting for Godot and West Side Story have in common? They all recorded for Columbia. Gary Marmorstein’s The Label: The Story of Columbia Records is a breezily written primary-source history of the company whose artistically serious, technically innovative approach to the making of records—it was Columbia’s engineers who invented the long-playing record album in 1948—left a permanent mark on the history of American music.

Although Columbia was founded in 1889, it wasn’t until a half-century later, when it was bought by CBS, that it began its rise to cultural power. To an insufficiently appreciated extent, the label was soon reinvented in the image of one man, an aspiring classical composer turned record-company executive named Goddard Lieberson, whose wit, elegance, and unshakable self-assurance set the tone for Columbia’s postwar activities. Lieberson is more than deserving of a full-length biography of his own, but The Label offers the most detailed portrait to date of this spectacularly improbable character. A polymath who wrote a string quartet and a comic novel, Lieberson stole one of George Balanchine’s wives and used the profits raked in by such Mitch Miller-produced exercises in sugar-frosted pop banality as Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-A My House” (as well as the Lieberson-produced original-cast albums of such Broadway musicals as South Pacific and My Fair Lady) to underwrite the recordings of the complete works of Stravinsky, Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Anton Webern.

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• What did Leonard Bernstein, Victor Borge, Dave Brubeck, the Budapest String Quartet, Johnny Cash, Noël Coward, Miles Davis, Doris Day, Bob Dylan, Vladimir Horowitz, John Gielgud, Glenn Gould, Michael Jackson, Marshall McLuhan, Albert Schweitzer, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Igor Stravinsky, and the original casts of Waiting for Godot and West Side Story have in common? They all recorded for Columbia. Gary Marmorstein’s The Label: The Story of Columbia Records is a breezily written primary-source history of the company whose artistically serious, technically innovative approach to the making of records—it was Columbia’s engineers who invented the long-playing record album in 1948—left a permanent mark on the history of American music.

Although Columbia was founded in 1889, it wasn’t until a half-century later, when it was bought by CBS, that it began its rise to cultural power. To an insufficiently appreciated extent, the label was soon reinvented in the image of one man, an aspiring classical composer turned record-company executive named Goddard Lieberson, whose wit, elegance, and unshakable self-assurance set the tone for Columbia’s postwar activities. Lieberson is more than deserving of a full-length biography of his own, but The Label offers the most detailed portrait to date of this spectacularly improbable character. A polymath who wrote a string quartet and a comic novel, Lieberson stole one of George Balanchine’s wives and used the profits raked in by such Mitch Miller-produced exercises in sugar-frosted pop banality as Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-A My House” (as well as the Lieberson-produced original-cast albums of such Broadway musicals as South Pacific and My Fair Lady) to underwrite the recordings of the complete works of Stravinsky, Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Anton Webern.

In addition to writing about Lieberson, Miller, and John Hammond—the producer-talent scout who spent much of his celebrated career recording jazz and pop for Columbia—Marmorstein depicts a cast of lesser-known backstage characters equally worthy of recognition. George Avakian, who brought Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, and Miles Davis to Columbia and recorded some of their best-remembered albums, is given his due, as is Deborah Ishlon, the master publicist who first spread the word about Glenn Gould, and talked Stravinsky into writing his “conversation books.”

To write consistently well about a company that recorded everyone and everything from Liberace to Don Juan in Hell demands a degree of cultural competence not possessed by the average human being. While Marmorstein has done his homework—to the point of having read Lieberson’s forgotten novel 3 for Bedroom C and Ishlon’s equally obscure roman à clef Girl Singer: A Two Part Invention—he does not exhibit a complete knowledge of classical music. (Somebody at Thunder’s Mouth Press should have told him that the Brahms First Symphony isn’t a piano concerto.) But the small errors that disfigure The Label do not diminish its effectiveness as journalism, and Marmorstein’s breathless summary of Columbia’s significance is in no way overstated:

In the overlapping epochs of the 78-rpm platter, the 33-rpm vinyl disk, the cassette tape, and the compact disk, Columbia Records seemed to be everywhere. That ubiquitousness was true for no other record label. . . . Decade by decade, Columbia launched the careers of our most seminal recording artists and deposited their sound prints onto the permanent record.

All that came to an untimely end when Columbia was bought by Sony in 1987, a transaction that led in short order to the dumbing-down of the classical and jazz divisions that had been Columbia’s pride. Now that the entire recording industry has been devastated by the rise of Web-based new media, younger music lovers are largely unaware of the role that Columbia Records played in the shaping of postwar American culture. Kudos to Gary Marmorstein for telling them what they missed.

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Bookshelf

• Thornton Wilder has become a man of two books. Our Town continues to be revived and The Bridge of San Luis Rey read, but I’ve yet to see a professional production of The Skin of Our Teeth or The Matchmaker (which is now known mainly as the source of Hello, Dolly!) or heard anyone mention any of his other novels in conversation (though I read Heaven’s My Destination many years ago). Hence it is with no small interest that I’ve spent the past week reading Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays and Writings on Theater (Library of America, 871 pp., $40). I haven’t always been impressed with the Library of America’s editorial decisions, but Wilder was an obvious call, and J.D. McClatchy, who recently turned Our Town into an opera libretto for Ned Rorem, was exactly the right man to edit this extremely well-chosen collection of Wilder’s theater-related output. McClatchy’s annotations are copious and exemplary—I’d like to see him write a Wilder biography—and it was shrewd of him to include the screenplay of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, for which Wilder, it appears, was mainly responsible.

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• Thornton Wilder has become a man of two books. Our Town continues to be revived and The Bridge of San Luis Rey read, but I’ve yet to see a professional production of The Skin of Our Teeth or The Matchmaker (which is now known mainly as the source of Hello, Dolly!) or heard anyone mention any of his other novels in conversation (though I read Heaven’s My Destination many years ago). Hence it is with no small interest that I’ve spent the past week reading Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays and Writings on Theater (Library of America, 871 pp., $40). I haven’t always been impressed with the Library of America’s editorial decisions, but Wilder was an obvious call, and J.D. McClatchy, who recently turned Our Town into an opera libretto for Ned Rorem, was exactly the right man to edit this extremely well-chosen collection of Wilder’s theater-related output. McClatchy’s annotations are copious and exemplary—I’d like to see him write a Wilder biography—and it was shrewd of him to include the screenplay of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, for which Wilder, it appears, was mainly responsible.

Should Wilder’s other plays be staged more frequently? The question, I fear, is irrelevant, for The Skin of Our Teeth and The Matchmaker both require too many actors to be easily produced outside of a festival setting, which is one of the reasons why Our Town is the only one of his full-length plays that continues to be revived regularly. The other reason is that it’s by far the best thing he ever wrote, though reading The Skin of Our Teeth for the first time in a quarter-century has made me curious to see how it would look on stage (it comes across on the page as more than a little bit twee). For all its obvious weaknesses, Our Town is still a great play and a quintessentially American work of art. It reads surprisingly well, too, though the best way to experience it at home is to watch Sam Wood’s mostly straightforward 1940 film version, which preserves the performances of Frank Craven and Martha Scott, who played the stage manager and Emily in the original 1938 Broadway production, and was scored with exquisite and indelible appropriateness by none other than Aaron Copland.

This collection includes the lengthy and fascinating series of letters between Wilder and Sol Lesser, the producer of the film version of Our Town, along with the bulk of Wilder’s writings on theater, all of which are very much worth reading. I was especially struck by this passage from his preface to Our Town: “The theater longs to represent the symbols of things, not the things themselves. All the lies it tells—the lie that that young lady is Caesar’s wife; the lie that people can go through life talking in blank verse; the lie that that man just killed that man—all those lies enhance the one truth that is there—the truth that dictated the story, the myth. The theater asks for as many conventions as possible. A convention is an agreed-upon falsehood, an accepted untruth. When the theater pretends to give the real thing in canvas and wood and metal, it loses something of the realer thing which is its true business.” I couldn’t have put it better—nor could anyone else.

As for Wilder’s novels . . . well, I’ll get back to you on that. Presumably the Library of America plans to reissue them at some point, which would give me a good excuse to reread The Bridge of San Luis Rey (which I recall with fondness) and Heaven’s My Destination (about which I had my doubts when I read it in college). But Our Town will always be with us, as well it should be. If I were to choose a half-dozen works of art that collectively sum up the American experience, it would be one of them.

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Bookshelf

I’ve been catching up with the scholarly literature on Aaron Copland published since I last wrote about him for COMMENTARY. So far three full-length books have appeared, all of which are important—albeit in very different ways.

• In 1997, when I wrote “Fanfare for Aaron Copland,” discussing Copland’s hard-Left politics in public was widely regarded as a form of red-baiting. Even Howard Pollock, whose 1999 biography of Copland dealt more or less frankly with his close ties to the Communist party, was squirmily euphemistic when it came to such ultra-sensitive matters as his participation in the 1949 Waldorf Conference. Not so Elizabeth B. Crist, whose Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland During the Depression and War (Oxford, 253 pp., $35) is utterly forthright about Copland’s involvement in the Popular Front, an experience that she rightly sees as crucial to the making of such masterpieces as Appalachian Spring and the Third Symphony. The problem with Music for the Common Man is that like so many modern-day academics, Crist is starry-eyed to the point of idiocy about the Popular Front, and she’s also a bit of a jargonista to boot: “In Rodeo, the Cowgirl quite literally turns her back on typical displays of heterosexual romance and stereotypical, heteronormative feminine behavior.” Still, she’s done a first-rate job of relating Copland’s music to his politics, and her book is as illuminating as it is irritating.

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I’ve been catching up with the scholarly literature on Aaron Copland published since I last wrote about him for COMMENTARY. So far three full-length books have appeared, all of which are important—albeit in very different ways.

• In 1997, when I wrote “Fanfare for Aaron Copland,” discussing Copland’s hard-Left politics in public was widely regarded as a form of red-baiting. Even Howard Pollock, whose 1999 biography of Copland dealt more or less frankly with his close ties to the Communist party, was squirmily euphemistic when it came to such ultra-sensitive matters as his participation in the 1949 Waldorf Conference. Not so Elizabeth B. Crist, whose Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland During the Depression and War (Oxford, 253 pp., $35) is utterly forthright about Copland’s involvement in the Popular Front, an experience that she rightly sees as crucial to the making of such masterpieces as Appalachian Spring and the Third Symphony. The problem with Music for the Common Man is that like so many modern-day academics, Crist is starry-eyed to the point of idiocy about the Popular Front, and she’s also a bit of a jargonista to boot: “In Rodeo, the Cowgirl quite literally turns her back on typical displays of heterosexual romance and stereotypical, heteronormative feminine behavior.” Still, she’s done a first-rate job of relating Copland’s music to his politics, and her book is as illuminating as it is irritating.


• Crist is also the co-editor of The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland (Yale, 288 pp., $45), the first volume of Copland’s letters to be published. It should have been much longer—he wrote 111 letters to Leonard Bernstein alone, for instance, and received as many in return—but Crist and Wayne Shirley have made a good start with this well-chosen, extensively annotated selection of letters written between 1909 and 1979, after which Alzheimer’s disease made it increasingly difficult for Copland to continue corresponding with his friends and colleagues. No doubt the rest of his surviving letters and diary entries will see print sooner or later, but my guess is that The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland contains a goodly share of the cream of the crop.

• The 2005 Bard Music Festival was devoted to Copland, and one of its fruits was Aaron Copland and His World (Princeton, 503 pp., $55), a superior collection of newly commissioned essays by such noted scholars as Crist, Pollack, Morris Dickstein, Lynn Garafola, Gail Levin, and Vivian Perlis, the last of whom collaborated with Copland on his two-volume autobiography. H.L. Mencken pithily described one of Henry James’s books as “early essays by Henry James—some in the English language.” Though the contributors to Aaron Copland and His World are card-carrying academics, nearly all of them write in English, so to speak, and most of their essays are insightful, informative, and fully accessible to non-specialists.

• I should also mention Aaron Copland: A Reader (Routledge, 368 pp., $30), edited by Richard Kostelanetz, of which I made brief mention in “Composers for Communism,” my 2004 COMMENTARY essay about Copland and Dmitri Shostakovich. As countless readers of What to Listen for in Music know, Copland was a wonderfully lucid and straightforward writer, and this wide-ranging collection of his essays and articles, which failed to receive the close critical attention it deserved, is a essential addition to the fast-growing literature on America’s greatest composer.

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Bookshelf

• Sometimes I wish I had a rubber stamp made especially for use when reviewing biographies: TOO MANY FACTS, NOT ENOUGH STYLE. Howard Pollack’s George Gershwin: His Life and Work (University of California, 884 pp., $39.95) fits that dreary bill perfectly. I read the galleys of Pollack’s book at the same time that I was working on the essay about Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney biography that ran in the January issue of COMMENTARY, and at times I found it hard to tell the two books apart. Pollack wrote a big fat biography of Aaron Copland in 2001, and this book, like that one, is too long, too earnest, and pedestrian in the extreme. It’s also organized thematically rather than chronologically, making it even less pleasing to read.

Alas, Pollack has done his homework with a vengeance, and George Gershwin contains everything you could possibly want to know about the composer of Porgy and Bess, much of it newly discovered. As a result, it’s unlikely that anyone will write another Gershwin biography for at least another decade, so if you’re interested in Gershwin—and you should be—you’ll have to slog through this one, grumbling all the way.

Incidentally, Pollack is a professor of music at the University of Houston. No surprise there, needless to say. Does writing well threaten your chances of getting tenure? I’m starting to wonder…

• I rarely write blurbs, but I made an exception for Amanda Vaill’s Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins (Broadway Books, 675 pp., $40) because I know the author and read the book in manuscript, meaning that I can’t review it. I can, however, tell you what the blurb said: “I can’t think of a better full-length portrait of an American choreographer or director, and I can’t imagine a better book about Robbins ever being written.” I know whereof I speak. I wrote a lot about Robbins while he was alive (including two essays for COMMENTARY, one of which is reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader) and at one time gave serious thought to writing a biography of my own, but I decided to pick another subject when I heard that Vaill was working on this book, because I knew she’d do a first-rate job, which she did.

Stylistically speaking, Somewhere is everything that George Gershwin isn’t, and it’s thorough and intelligent to boot. Yes, it’s long, but not absurdly so, and it’s so well written that you don’t care. Gabriel Fauré was once asked about the correct tempo for “Aprés un rêve,” his most popular song. He’s supposed to have replied, “If the singer is bad—very fast!” That’s how I feel about Somewhere. Me, I would have written it shorter, but when a book is as good as this one, I’m happy to keep on reading.

• Sometimes I wish I had a rubber stamp made especially for use when reviewing biographies: TOO MANY FACTS, NOT ENOUGH STYLE. Howard Pollack’s George Gershwin: His Life and Work (University of California, 884 pp., $39.95) fits that dreary bill perfectly. I read the galleys of Pollack’s book at the same time that I was working on the essay about Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney biography that ran in the January issue of COMMENTARY, and at times I found it hard to tell the two books apart. Pollack wrote a big fat biography of Aaron Copland in 2001, and this book, like that one, is too long, too earnest, and pedestrian in the extreme. It’s also organized thematically rather than chronologically, making it even less pleasing to read.

Alas, Pollack has done his homework with a vengeance, and George Gershwin contains everything you could possibly want to know about the composer of Porgy and Bess, much of it newly discovered. As a result, it’s unlikely that anyone will write another Gershwin biography for at least another decade, so if you’re interested in Gershwin—and you should be—you’ll have to slog through this one, grumbling all the way.

Incidentally, Pollack is a professor of music at the University of Houston. No surprise there, needless to say. Does writing well threaten your chances of getting tenure? I’m starting to wonder…

• I rarely write blurbs, but I made an exception for Amanda Vaill’s Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins (Broadway Books, 675 pp., $40) because I know the author and read the book in manuscript, meaning that I can’t review it. I can, however, tell you what the blurb said: “I can’t think of a better full-length portrait of an American choreographer or director, and I can’t imagine a better book about Robbins ever being written.” I know whereof I speak. I wrote a lot about Robbins while he was alive (including two essays for COMMENTARY, one of which is reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader) and at one time gave serious thought to writing a biography of my own, but I decided to pick another subject when I heard that Vaill was working on this book, because I knew she’d do a first-rate job, which she did.

Stylistically speaking, Somewhere is everything that George Gershwin isn’t, and it’s thorough and intelligent to boot. Yes, it’s long, but not absurdly so, and it’s so well written that you don’t care. Gabriel Fauré was once asked about the correct tempo for “Aprés un rêve,” his most popular song. He’s supposed to have replied, “If the singer is bad—very fast!” That’s how I feel about Somewhere. Me, I would have written it shorter, but when a book is as good as this one, I’m happy to keep on reading.

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