1921 proved to be a watershed year for Copland. He encountered what his teachers called radical modern music--Ives
and Ravel; he won a scholarship to a newly formed school for American musicians at Fontainbleau; and he set sail for
Paris in June of that year. For the next three years he would study with Nadia Boulanger, compose his first serious
works, and associate with a stimulating circle of American expatriates and French intellectuals, among them his cousin
and later distinguished theatre critic Harold Clurman, the cubist painter Marcel Duchamp, the conductor Serge
Koussevitsky, and composer Roger Sessions.
Upon returning to America in 1924, Copland received the first public performances of his compositions, his ORGAN SYMPHONY in 1924 with Walter Damrosch conducting, MUSIC FOR THEATRE in 1925, and his PIANO CONCERTO in 1926. After another brief sojourn in Paris in 1926-27, Copland settled in New York to engage in a number of ventures which would have significant effects in creating a public for contemporary American music. He began his pedagogical career as a lecturer at New York's School for Social Research in 1927, creating the material for his 1938 book, WHAT TO LISTEN FOR IN MUSIC. Then, in 1928 with Sessions he launched an influential concert series that showcased experimental contemporary composers such as Theodore Chanler, Walter Piston, Carlos Chávez, Virgil Thomson, Marc Bltizstein, Roy Harris, Paul Bowles, Darius Milhaud, as well as his and Sessions' work, and in that same year joined the League of Composers and founded the Cos Cob Press, dedicated to publishing new American music.
On Behalf of
American Music &
The decade of the 1930's and The Great Depression created a climate of social awareness and political ferment, in which Copland, with his progressive-leftist political philosophy, would search for ways to make music more accessible to the masses. The composer's major works from this period include his opera, THE SECOND HURRICANE (created for children and performed at the Henry Street Settlement), and his popular ballet BILLY THE KID, the first work in which Copland began to use American folk elements in his music. The era's focus on labor issues also had its effects on the music business, where Copland became active in a number of institutions designed to further musicians' professional lives: ASCAP, Arrow Music Press, the American Composers' Orchestra, and the American Music Center. But perhaps the most significant institutional involvement which began for Copland in 1940 was his association with the Berkshire Music Center and the Tanglewood Festival, where he would teach and work for several decades to come.
A spate of enduring compositions followed in the 1940's, among them A LINCOLN PORTRAIT (1942),
in which Copland incorporated American folk tunes into the score, his ballet RODEO (1943), his FANFARE FOR
THE COMMON MAN (1943), and his modern dance work for Martha Graham, APPALACHIAN SPRING (1944). It was the
last of these with its haunting Shaker tune, SIMPLE GIFTS, which won for Copland the Pulitzer Prize and catapulted
him into national prominence.
The composer inaugurated the new decade by completing his song cycle TWELVE POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON (1950), eight
of which he later orchestrated. While composing the Dickinson cycle, Copland had worked concurrently on his two sets
of OLD AMERICAN SONGS, arrangements of folk tunes that became so popular in their piano and orchestral versions as
to eclipse the original melodies on which they were based. To this period of vocal writing also belongs his second
opera, THE TENDER LAND, to a Steinbeckesque libretto by Erik Johns about a Midwestern family during the Depression.
Premiered by the New York City Opera in 1954 and revised for Tanglewood in 1955, the work failed to win critical
The 1950's were also marred for Copland by the McCarthy Hearings. A controversy over programming A LINCOLN PORTRAIT at
Eisenhower's 1953 inauguration led to Copland's being summoned to testify in a secret session. Refusing to implicate
any of his colleagues and skillfully fielding questions about his own socialist politics, Copland managed to survive the
ordeal without betraying any of his friends or principles.
In the remaining twenty years that Copland would compose, he briefly flirted with serialism before returning to a tonal
style. After 1973 he devoted himself increasingly to conducting. In his final decade as awards and tributes poured in,
Copland's mental powers began to fail him. He withdrew to his home in Peekskill, NY, to mourn the passing of the
colleagues and friends he had survived, among them his companion, Victor Kraft, who had died in 1976. Copland died
on December 2, 1990.