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.