Commentary Magazine

Copland as American Composer

Though Aaron Copland has been an important figure in American serious music for more than fifty years, he remains, as Leonard Bernstein has said, “the best we have,” and his career is the very model of the success to which an American composer may aspire. His seventy-fifth birthday, recently celebrated, seems an appropriate moment to inquire into the nature of that career and of his special achievement as an American composer.

Copland was born in Brooklyn in 1900 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents originally named Kaplan. In an autobiographical sketch dating from 1939, Copland seemed at some pains to present himself as his own creation rather than as the product of a milieu:

I was born on a street in Brooklyn that can only be described as drab. . . . I am filled with mild wonder each time I realize that a musician was born on that street. . . . In fact no one had ever connected music or our family with my street. The idea was entirely original with me.

But there was, by his own witness, music in his house. His four older siblings took music lessons, though evidently without achieving excellence. And so the thirteen-year-old Aaron talked his parents into providing piano lessons. By fifteen he had conceived the idea of becoming a composer; two years later, in 1917, he began harmony lessons with Ruben Goldmark, a student of Dvorak and later head of the composition department at the Juilliard Graduate School, the predecessor of the present Juilliard.

Upon graduation from high school in 1918 he decided to devote his life to music. He continued his piano studies, working with Clarence Adler and Victor Wittgenstein. Soon he also began to compose in earnest, and these youthful pieces brought him into conflict with the academic conservatism of Goldmark, who had no sympathy for what he saw as Copland’s “modernistic experiments.” Finding the going without much honor at home, the young musician turned his eyes to Europe: not the Europe of his parents, but the Europe of French sophistication, spiced with a dose of the Slavic primitivism so beguilingly administered at that time by Lenin’s Bolshevik revolution and Diaghilev’s Russian ballet.

In 1921, then, he went to Paris, where he found both the foreign root of one side of his musical development and his first recognition. The story of the numerous American expatriates in Paris during the inter-war period is familiar enough; exiles to a warmer cultural clime, they all seemed happier among strangers. But Copland was different. He had the good sense and the guts to learn what he could—which was a lot—and then to come back home. In France, he also had the good fortune to fall in with Nadia Boulanger, the patron saint of so many American composers of that time, including—in addition to Copland—Roy Harris, Virgil Thomson, and Walter Piston.

Still alive today at eighty-nine, Boulanger has embodied a unique amalgam of Fauré and Stravinsky, of French academicism and the pre-revolutionary Russian avantgarde. She trained Copland in strict counterpoint and the other technical disciplines for which French musical education is famous, and she provided him with an environment in which he could discover the international world of musical modernism, of Stravinsky and Schoenberg, of Milhaud and Honegger, of Prokofiev and Bartók. She early saw Copland’s promise, and arranged for the first real performances of his music in Paris; the response to these performances was greatly encouraging.

Still more important, Boulanger gave Copland his first boost back on home soil. She asked him to write a composition for organ and orchestra which she could perform in 1924 in her American appearances with Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony and Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The appearance with Damrosch was less than successful; at the end of the performance Damrosch turned to the audience and said: “If a young man at the age of twenty-three can write a symphony like that, in five years he will be ready to commit murder.” But in Boston the story was different. In Koussevitzky, just arrived in Boston from Russia by way of Paris, Copland found his first American-based champion. For Copland, this meant performances, and the best ones at that.

By the winter of 1924-25, Copland had thus been away, had come home, and had been performed under major auspices in perhaps the two most important centers of American musical life. And for all the influences of European and French musical life, he had returned to the United States filled with the conscious desire to become an American composer who composed American music.



At first this meant for Copland the writing of pieces influenced by jazz. Music for the Theatre (1925), the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1926), and the Symphonic Ode (1928-29): these jazz works represented Copland’s first attempt to write a music of what he has called “conscious Americanism.” But he was soon to find that jazz was both too limited in itself and too limiting to his work as a serious composer. He then abandoned the style of jazz, though not its feature of rhythmic freedom or some of its spirit, and in 1930 wrote the piece which established him as an influence on American music.

The Piano Variations were not meant for a wide audience. First performed by the composer at a concert of the League of Composers in New York in 1981, they were short, dissonant, hard in sound, dry, and difficult. They shared certain features with Schoenbergian serialism, but where Schoenberg was passionately warm, Copland was passionately cold; where Schoenberg’s writing was wilfully luxuriant, Copland’s was painfully lean. With these Piano Variations he placed American music on one of the two tracks it was to follow for a generation, the evocation of steel girders and the skyscraper, of the world of the young industrial giant far removed from the European world of putatively effete passions and neurosis.

But it was also Copland who found the other track which American music was to follow in the years immediately ahead. If Copland’s Piano Variations greatly influenced the most serious music, his pieces of the late So’s provided a formative influence on American lighter classical music (though Virgil Thomson has claimed some priority for himself as an influence on Copland in this area). With El Salón México (1936), Copland began a search for a popular serious music, a style and content which, while employing the technics and some of the musical devices of modernism, would appeal to a “conventional concert-going public.” His use in this composition of Mexican folk material associated in his mind with a well-known dance hall in Mexico City, Salón México, presaged his awakening interest in American folk music and the new kind of serious dance soon to be connected with the names of Lincoln Kirstein and Agnes de Mille.

From this new interest of Copland in folk music, dance, and a wider audience stem his three important repertory ballets: Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944). These pieces make skillful use of Americana, including the cowboy song “Come wrangle yer bronco” and the Shaker tune “’Tis the gift to be simple.” In a somewhat similar vein is his movie music, most notably Of Mice and Men (1939), Our Town (1940), North Star (1943), and The Red Pony (1948). Another example of Copland’s interest in a general audience was his writing of patriotic music. In this class are the Lincoln Portrait and the Fanfare for the Common Man, both completed in 1942.



Notwithstanding this opening to the masses, Copland resumed his interest in a more abstract music with the Piano Sonata (1941), the Sonata for Violin and Piano (1943), and the Third Symphony (1946). These lacked the extra-musical associations of his “popular” music, and they have not been as widely played. After his tentative dip, soon abandoned, into atonal writing in the Piano Variations, his Quartet for Piano and Strings (1950) utilized the formal methods of serial construction while managing to sound quite like his non-twelve-tone music; his Connotations, written for the opening of Lincoln Center in 1962, continued his use of serialism, as did the later Inscape (1967). In the past few years, he seems to have composed little, confining himself to smaller-scale works. It is likely that, so far as major pieces are concerned, we are looking at a largely completed body of work.

No adequate summary of Copland’s career could omit mention of his work as a performer of his own music as pianist and conductor both in concert and on Columbia recordings. His playing, on a piano of predominantly glassy sonority, has given pianists a clear aural image of what he as composer desires; his technical facility and rhythmic snap have been of great help in establishing the style in which his pieces are performed. As a conductor, however, he has been less successful in determining the way his works are performed by the famous conductors of our time.

But Copland’s influence in music, though solidly based on his actual compositional achievement, goes far beyond the pieces he has written and their effect on the audience. From the time of his return to America in the 20’s, and as a teacher of composition at Tangle-wood from 1940 to 1965, he has made it his business to befriend younger composers, to assist the performances of his contemporaries, and in general to be a stabilizing influence in the somewhat anarchic world of the creative musician. He has become perhaps our leading spokesman for serious music. He has given the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, later published as Music and the Imagination (1952); he has written an influential music-appreciation text, What to Listen for in Music (1938); and a history of modern music, Our New Music (1941; 1968 revised edition, The New Music); and his occasional writings have been collected in Copland on Music (1960). A fluent writer, he is by turns charming and reasonable.



But it is of course as a composer, regardless of the great energy he has lavished on so many related areas, that Copland’s standing and relationship to our musical times must be judged. Too much has been made of the split between his serious and his more popular music, between his thorny, austere works and his lush, tuneful ballets and movie music. For whatever the audience to which he intends his music to appeal, his musical style remains individual and identifiable.

A great deal has been written in analysis of Copland’s music. One of its most obvious characteristics—when one looks at it on the printed page or plays it—is its rhythmic variety and freedom. Frequent changes of time signature, many marked accents occurring off the main beats, many alterations of tempo make his music tricky to perform, requiring singers, instrumentalists, and conductors of strong nerves and secure rhythm. The effect on the listener of all this rhythmic complexity—even on the musician listener—is not always commensurate with the very real difficulty the music presents to the performer. For in Copland’s music there is so much rhythmic variety and contrast that instead of rhythmic excitement one often gets an effect of rhythmic plainness. Perhaps also because of the fact that in his music, as in so much contemporary composition, the beginning of the bar is often determined more by notational convenience than by the demands of the music itself, the listener’s expectations of rhythmic regularity are so consistently defeated that he sits back and takes everything rhythmically as it comes.

Copland’s formal procedures, though musically solid, have broken little new ground. Rather than the traditional 19th-century development by expansion and growth, he has followed the widespread 20th-century practice associated with the names of Schoenberg and Stravinsky, the device of separation of melodic and motivic material into parts which then are continuously reintegrated. His music is frequently marked by the use in fast passages of what Virgil Thomson has called struggle-type counterpoint; his employment of contrapuntal technique in quiet passages gives them an air of poignant tranquility. His harmony, lean in his more abstract works, simple in his more popular works, often functions more as an accompaniment of the melody than as a feature of independent musical interest. Throughout his career he has been a brilliant orchestrator, showing a remarkable ear for orchestral balances and effects, and particularly adept at distributing the notes in chords in such a way that familiar harmonies sound fresh and dissonant harmonies sound clear.

His real distinction is, it seems to me, in the realm of melody. His specialty is long arching melodies of quiet intensity presented either unharmonized or against a slowly changing harmonic background. Whether the melodies are of his own invention or are of folk origin is not really important, for he has integrated what is his and what he has borrowed in a product entirely of his own making. In melody, perhaps more than in any other aspect of music, it is emotional effect, not exact authorship, that is important. Not only do Copland’s tunes stick in the mind more than those of any of his contemporaries; they have the power to move audiences.

But Copland’s true achievement lies not in his use of rhythm, harmony, counterpoint, or original musical structures; it lies in his ability, through the use of melody, to evoke a mood—the mood of America of the period from the Civil War to World War II. There is in this period of American life a combination of leanness and grandeur that Copland manages to capture. He does more: he catches the emptiness of the city and the quiet of the land. Having done all this, he has succeeded in fixing in the mind of a large public an aural image of what America, and therefore American music, sounds like. Copland sounds like American music, and music that is felt to be American sounds like Copland.

For Copland has managed to integrate his art and himself with his nation and his times. He would not have attained this integration without a passionate conviction that his country was worthy of proclamation, and that a composer like himself was capable of proclaiming it. He has, in other words, been the principal American representative of a long European (rather than American) tradition, the tradition of music as a symbol and expression of the national spirit, the composer as spokesman for the nation.



This kind of music, and the accompanying role for the composer, goes back to Weber’s Der Freischütz (1821), the first implicitly nationalistic German musical work. The first explicitly nationalistic German opera was Die Meister-singer (1868), in which Wagner used not only a national story and a national locale but also at the end of the opera invoked the very name of the nation. But perhaps because in the German-speaking countries the tradition of absolute music had been so high in quality and so popularly successful, it was not in the German musical tradition that nationalism came to be most widely cultivated. For the greatest flowering of serious nationalistic music we must look to the countries of Eastern and Central Europe, Scandinavia, and Spain. Here great music was born of a condition in which the old order of state power, whether foreign or domestic, was on one side of the political and cultural fence, and the popular forces—represented by composers (as well as writers and painters)—on the other. Smetana, Dvorák, and Janacek in what is now Czechoslovakia; Glinka, Borodin, and Mussorgsky in Russia; Grieg and Sibelius in Scandinavia; Albeniz, Granados, and Falla in Spain: the works of all these composers stem from societies in a state of struggle, often with foreign overlords in a political sense, almost always with the pressure of foreign cultural influence hardened into academicism. Sometimes these composers chose national subjects; sometimes they directly quoted folk material; often they were content merely to evoke what they did not write about directly. But in every case their work was held high as the “true” music of the nation in contrast to the hated artificial product of foreign or cosmopolitan influence.

America came into the era of nationalistic musical culture late—not before the turn of the present century, at a time when the American nation was first beginning to see itself as having a mission outside its borders. The musical developments paralleled the political changes. Just as America was late in flexing its muscles in the world, so was it also late in developing any kind of competent professional musical environment, as such an environment was known in Europe. It was not until this century that Americans became good enough to be participants, even at one remove, in European musical culture; American composers had previously not only been imitations of European masters, they had been poor imitations. It was not until Americans had won their spurs on the level of competence that they could set about the proper nationalist task of winning independence from European musical overlord-ship.

With Charles Ives, the battle was begun. But Ives’s music, though deeply American in derivation, intention, and sound, was largely unperformed and unknown during the period of its writing—the first twenty years of this century—and for many years after. Because of its absence from the mainstream of musical life, Ives’s work remained a beginning without possibility of a continuation. It was left to the young men of the 20’s—Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, and Copland—to start the task from scratch. This they did, and with them a specifically American music first emerged into public notice. Although they were very late in coming—at least fifty years behind their colleagues in Europe—they were helped along by the atmosphere of the Popular Front of the 30’s—that curious alliance between populist nationalism and left-wing radicalism whose character was suggested with only a faint whiff of unintended irony by Earl Browder’s famous formulation, “Communism is 20th-century Americanism.” Copland himself was deeply sympathetic to the politics of the Popular Front; and the political euphoria of those days almost certainly played a part in convincing Copland, as well as the others, that a mass audience did exist for the products of serious culture.

By the end of World War II they had each written pieces—Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts (1928), The Plough that Broke the Plains (1936), and The River (1937); Harris’s Symphony #3 (1937); Copland’s Piano Variations (1930), Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944)—which, taken together, established an independent American music, a music which was written to be American, and which was received as such by audiences. That Copland has overshadowed Thomson and Harris in the public mind is a tribute to his wider scope, both emotional and musical. Leonard Bernstein was right. The story of Copland’s music is the story of the best we in America have.



It is a story, however, that would seem to have come to an end. For nationalism in music has had its day. In Europe, nationalistic music flourished on the way up to nationhood; it was at its most alive during the fighting of the wider political, social, and cultural battles. When these battles were won—when nationhood and some semblance of stability had been reached—nationalistic music, if it was practiced at all, came to seem increasingly artificial and imposed. The most notorious example of such artificial imposition is of course the Soviet Union, where a strenuous attempt has been made for over forty years to force composers under the slogan “national in form, socialist in content” to act as if the 19th century in cultural history had never passed.

It is not simply that the larger goals of nationalism have been reached in the West. It is also that these goals have been overreached. The national and social units which have been achieved are proving too large and too indirect in their relationship to their members, too artificial in their supposed unity, to command assent. And so Western nationalism, which so recently seemed so successful, now suddenly seems senile. All over Europe, to many disaffected groups—whether the Basques or the Welsh, the Bretons or the Scots—the nation seems a lie; and once dominant groups are increasingly losing confidence in their own legitimacy. We in America too, in our plenitude of power and luxury, seem to find nationalistic culture both superfluous and vulgar. Our most advanced intellectuals, when they are not busy promoting the old internationalism, urge on the new ethnicity. The attitude of our leading social classes is strongly against American nationalism in art no less than in politics. Only a lingering nostalgia for a simpler time keeps the memory of the old Americana even so much as faintly respectable.

Copland has himself written in his usual gentle and tolerant way of the sad outcome of his hopes for an American music. In reevaluating Roy Harris in 1967, Copland wrote:

In rereading my 1940 discussion of Roy Harris’s music, I am suddenly aware of a curious dichotomy; Harris the composer has remained very much what he was, but the musical scene around him (and us) has radically altered. . . . My prognostication that the California composer was writing music on which “future American composers will build” now strikes me as downright naive. I had completely lost sight of the fact that a new generation of composers, at a distance of thirty years, would have its own ideas about where a usable past might be found. As it turned out, the young men of this new crop show no signs of wishing to build on the work of the older American-born composers, the generation of the 20’s and 30’s. Today’s gods live elsewhere.

And where do they live? Copland had seen the answer several years before:

. . . certain tendencies are discernible. The most striking one is the return since 1950 to a preoccupation with the latest trends of European composition. This comes as a surprise, for from the standpoint of their elders, this is a retrogression because it places us in a provincial position vis-à-vis our European Confreres. The older generation fought hard to free American composition from the domination of European models because that struggle was basic to the establishment of an American music. The young composers of today, on the other hand, seem to be fighting hard to stay abreast of a fast-moving post-World War II musical scene.

Copland’s diagnosis seems even more applicable today, almost twenty years later. From Elliott Carter on the (musical) Right to John Cage and his followers on the (musical and political) Left, American music is now a branch of the world musical scene. Our composers are just as interested in post-Webern serialism, the music of chance, and up-to-date electronics as their European counterparts. If our leading composers are importantly creative (as Carter for one without doubt is), it is as international figures, not as Americans. We may not quite be, as Copland has implied, once again a dependency of the Old World, but neither are we distinctive. We have come to the end of a chapter in American music, as we have come to the end of a chapter in our national life. In music, if nowhere else, internationalism has triumphed, and we are all homogenized. Whatever the future shape of American music, it will not follow in the directions toward which Aaron Copland’s work once seemed to lead.




The following major compositions of Copland are available, performed by the composer, as conductor or pianist, on Columbia Records:

Appalachian Spring: Suite, M-32736
Billy the Kid, M-30114
Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, MS-6497
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, MS-6698
Duo for Flute and Piano, M-32737
Fanfare for the Common Man, M-30649
Lincoln Portrait, M-30649
Nonet for Strings, M-32737
Quartet for Piano and Strings, M-30376
The Red Pony, M-33586
Rodeo, M-30114
El Salón México, M-33269
Sonata for Violin and Piano, M-32737

The Columbia album, Copland Conducts Copland: A 75th Birthday Celebration (D3M 33720), contains the following Copland performances:

Appalachian Spring: Suite
Billy the Kid
Dance Panels
Fanfare for the Common Man
Lincoln Portrait
Our Town
El Salón México

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