11-14-1900

Aaron Copland

AARON COPLAND, American composer (d. 1990); an American composer of concert and film music, as well as an accomplished pianist. Instrumental in forging a distinctly American style of composition, he was widely known as “the dean of American composers.” Copland’s music achieved a difficult balance between modern music and American folk styles, and the open, slowly changing harmonies of many of his works are said to evoke the vast American landscape. He incorporated percussive orchestration, changing meter, polyrhythms, polychords and tone rows. Aside from composing, Copland taught, presented music-related lectures, wrote books and articles, and served as a conductor (generally, but not always, of his own works).

Copland was born in Brooklyn, NY, of Lithuanian Jewish descent. Throughout his childhood Copland and his family lived above his parents’ Brooklyn shop. Although his parents never encouraged or directly exposed him to music, at the age of fifteen he had already taken an interest in the subject and aspired to be a composer. His musical education included time with Leonard Wolfsohn, Rubin Goldmark (who also taught George Gershwin), and Nadia Boulanger at the Fontanbleu School of Music in Paris from 1921 to 1924. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1925 and again in 1926.

Copland defended the Communist Party USA during the 1936 presidential election. As a result he was later investigated by the FBI during the Red scare of the 1950s, and found himself blacklisted. Because of the political climate of that era, A Lincoln Portrait was withdrawn from the 1953 inaugural concert for President Eisenhower. That same year, Copland was called before Congress where he testified that he was never a communist. Outraged by the accusations, many members of the musical community held up Copland’s music as a banner of his patriotism. The investigations ceased in 1955, and were closed in 1975. Copland was never shown to have been a member of the Communist Party. Despite this insult, only a decade later, in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded Copland the Medal of Freedom for his contributions to American culture.

Copland exerted a major influence on the compositional style of his friend and protege Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein was considered the finest conductor of Copland’s works. British progressive rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer recorded two pieces based on Copland works: Fanfare for the Common Man and Hoe-Down. Several of their live recordings of Fanfare for the Common Man incorporated the closing of the second movement of Copland’s Symphony no. 3 as well.

Copland was a frequent guest conductor of orchestras in the U.S. and the U.K. He made a series of recordings of his music, especially during the 1970s, primarily for Columbia Records. In 1960, RCA Victor released Copland’s recordings with the Boston Symphony Orchestra of the orchestral suites from Appalachian Spring andThe Tender Land; these recordings were later reissued on CD, as were most of Copland’s Columbia recordings (by Sony).

Copland’s sexuality was documented in Howard Pollack’s biography, Aaron Copeland: The Life and Work of An Uncommon Man. Unlike many gay men of his age, Copland was neither ashamed of nor tortured by his sexuality. He apparently understood and accepted it from an early age, and throughout his life was involved in relationships with other men. In later years, his affairs were mostly with younger men, usually musicians or artists, whom he mentored, including composer Leonard Bernstein, dancer and artist Erik Johns (who wrote the libretto for The Tender Land), photographer Victor Kraft, and music critic Paul Moor.

Given the social prejudices of the times in which he lived, Copland was relatively open about his sexuality, yet this seems not to have interfered with the acceptance of his music or with his status as a cultural figure. The likely explanation is that Copland conducted his personal life with the characteristic modesty, tactfulness, and serenity that marked his professional life as well. Copland died of Alzheimer’s and respiratory failure in North Tarrytown, NY (now Sleepy Hollow), on December 2, 1990.