Copland and the American Sound
Beginnings: New York
Aaron Copland grew up in Brooklyn far from the mainstream elegance of Carnegie Hall. The son of a Jewish shopkeeper, he went to public school, took piano lessons, and was mitzvahed at the Kane Street synagogue—places all within a few blocks of each other.
In this world, the young Copland heard a lot of Yiddish popular music, which grew out of a tradition filled with improvisation—with songs for weddings, for somebody’s sick cow, for all kinds of occasions.
He was also influenced by the music of the street, which at that time meant jazz. Copland said from the beginning that he wanted to write music that would let you know how it felt to be alive on the streets of Brooklyn.
But to get that American perspective, Copland had to go to Paris.
“Paris was... where all the new music seemed to be coming from at the time,” he said. “I just knew that that’s where the action was.”
He studied at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, just outside Paris, with a formidable woman named was Nadia Boulanger. Boulanger’s message was “get tough, get serious.”
She instructed him to write lots of notes, but keep only those that really matter. At the same time, she encouraged him to be himself.
She wanted him to develop an American kind of style, based on the Jewish, jazzy, street music he knew so well. In paring it all down, a new kind of leaner and more dangerous music emerged, one with a “sez you” quality.
Avant Garde: Yaddo
Returning to New York, Copland found a city as obsessed with the avant-garde as he was, inspiring pieces ever bolder, more daring, and shocking. Copland’s greatest experiments in the avant-garde would happen at Yaddo, an artists’ retreat in upstate New York.
In 1930, in this idyllic location, he wrote the Piano Variations, his toughest, most uncompromising piece yet. The Piano Variations begins with a clangorous theme of very few notes.
Copland takes the notes in the theme and recombines them in every possible way—exploring every mood he can think of. But no matter how extreme the variations become, you still hear the hulking presence of those primal notes. You also hear the influence of jazz.
The Piano Variations made Copland the standard bearer of modern American music—the leader of the avant-garde pack. But as he was concentrating on his intricate structure in the safe-haven of Yaddo, around him the world was collapsing. America had entered the Great Depression.
As the Depression dragged on, Copland survived by teaching at the New School for Social Research. There, he gave the lectures that formed the basis for his definitive book What to Listen for in Music.
There he also met colleagues like Martha Graham, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Stuart Davis. The Depression was a time of enormous social unrest, and many artists identified powerfully with the plight of working people. Copland and his friends engaged in serious debate on the artist’s responsibility to “the masses.”
The Library of Congress had just release recordings of American folk music, and these recordings captivated Copland and his friends. This was music of the people, and Copland wanted to find a way to incorporate the simplicity and power of these songs into his own work.
As it turned out, he would first find what he was looking for not in American folk music, but in the music of Mexico.
El Salon México: México
El Salon México (1936) is the first of Copland’s so-called populist works. He had first visited Mexico with his companion, the photographer Victor Kraft. About a year later Carlos Chávez invited Copland to Mexico to give a concert.
One night, they all went to a local dance hall called El Salón México. Copland was knocked out by the vitality and simple strength of the music he heard. This truly was music of and by the people.
El Salón succeeded beyond Copland’s wildest dreams, so much so that modernist colleagues called the piece a sell-out.
But a young Leonard Bernstein wrote to Copland “It’s gonna be hard to keep this from being a fan letter. I can’t get the music out of my head. Timed to perfection. Not an extra beat. It’s a secure feeling to know we have a master in America.”
The enthusiasm of Bernstein, Chávez and of the public helped Copland confirm his new musical direction. Next he turned his attention to the American scene.
Cowboy Music: Billy the Kid
The first big American story Copland took on was Billy the Kid (1938). He knew that his music would have to represent the vastness of the American landscape. It’s ironic that a composer who lived virtually his whole life in the big city was able to write about this American frontier.
“I suppose in one sense it’s the feat of the imagination.” Copland said. “But after all, a kid in Brooklyn would’ve seen movies with cowboys in them. As a matter of fact, I did go out to the southwest fairly early in my career. And, I don’t know, every American kid grows up with a sense of cowboys and what the west must have been like.”
His city music had mostly been about chords and the conflict between them. With the new American music, he used fourths and fifths, like the tunings of guitars or banjos. Using this new, open sound, he wrote haunting melodies that represented the open prairie.
In 1944, at the climax of World War II, Copland was asked by his New School colleague Martha Graham to write the score for a new ballet. Graham was every bit the modernist and iconoclast that Copland was.
No one could have predicted that the two of them would produce the most enduring populist work of the century.
Graham wanted to create a strong piece that would sum up people’s feelings in a time of peace and then war. She choreographed and danced the ballet, which was set in an imaginary community where simplicity of life was celebrated above all else. The resulting masterpiece was Appalachian Spring.
Copland initially called the work only “Ballet for Martha.”
He recalled: “I was really putting her to music, I think, when I wrote the score for Appalachian Spring. I think it reflects her early American quality as a woman. There’s something about her that reminds you of what pioneer women must have been like in the early years of our country.”
Martha Graham had all kinds of ideas for the ballet, such as incorporating a hymn tune. Copland brought a modest and then virtually unknown Shaker melody, “Simple Gifts” into the piece.
It appealed to him on many levels—the Utopian ideals of Shaker life, the elegance and spareness in Shaker design and architecture.
Copland elaborated on the work’s final title: “I can’t tell you how many times people have said to me after seeing the ballet, ‘When I see that ballet I can just see the Appalachians and hear your music and feel spring.’ Neither of which I knew anything about when I was writing the score.”
Copland was able to write an archetypal music. Underneath the surface were all kinds of things—folk music, hymns, dance forms—but somehow it all had been synthesized into a language which seemed completely consistent.
After Appalachian Spring, Copland continued to compose popular works for orchestra, including his Third Symphony. He also wrote music for films.
It as only in Connotations (1962) that he returned to the avant-garde style that first brought him to fame.
What can you say in summation of a man like Aaron Copland? Everything about him marked him as an outsider. Yet somehow he found a way to be true to himself, his art, his society.
The late war years were an uncertain time for Americans. But Copland’s music seemed to give them a new purpose.
Copland’s great insight was that he could rouse and unite people not by scaring them or making them angry, but by helping them confirm a sense of ownership and pride that they all shared as Americans.
For more than a decade in the middle of his life, he generously devoted himself to creating a musical language that all Americans could recognize as their own.
With the passage of time it seems clear that, without any compromise, he left us simple gifts that remain as emblems of the best we Americans can be.