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Aaron Copland

Aaron CoplandAARON COPLAND (1900 – 1990), born in Brooklyn, was the child of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. He first learned to play the piano from his older sister, and at the age of 16, he went to Manhattan to study with Rubin Goldmark, a respected private music instructor who taught Copland the fundamentals of counterpoint and composition. During these early years he immersed himself in contemporary classical music by attending performances at the New York Symphony and Brooklyn Academy of Music. He found, however, that like many other young musicians, he was attracted to the classical history and musicians of Europe. So, at the age of 20, he left New York for the Summer School of Music for American Students at Fountainebleau, France.

In France, Mr. Copland found a musical community unlike any he had known. It was at this time that he sold his first composition to Durand and Sons, the most respected music publisher in France. While in Europe, Mr. Copeland met many of the important artists of the time, including the famous composer Serge Koussevitsky. Koussevitsky requested that Copland write a piece for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The piece, Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (1925) was Mr. Copland’s entry into the life of professional American music. He followed this with Music for the Theater (1925) and Piano Concerto (1926), both of which relied heavily on the jazz idioms of the time. For Mr. Copland, jazz was the first genuinely American major musical movement. From jazz he hoped to draw the inspiration for a new type of symphonic music, one that could distinguish itself from the music of Europe.

In the late 1920s Mr. Copland’s attention turned to popular music of other countries. He had moved away from his interest in jazz and began to concern himself with expanding the audience for American classical music. He believed that classical music eventually could be as popular as jazz in America or folk music in Mexico. He worked toward this goal with both his music and a firm commitment to organizing and producing. He was an active member of many organizations, including both the American Composers’ Alliance and the League of Composers. Along with his friend Roger Sessions, he began the Copland-Sessions concerts, dedicated to presenting the works of young composers. It was around this same time that his plans for an American music festival (similar to ones in Europe) materialized as the Yaddo Festival of American Music (1932). By the mid-30s, Mr. Copland had become not only one of the most popular composers in the country but also a leader of the community of American classical musicians.

It was in 1935 with El Salón México that Mr. Copland began his most productive and popular years. The piece presented a new sound that had its roots in Mexican folk music. Mr. Copland believed that through this music, he could find his way to a more popular symphonic music. In his search for the widest audience, Mr. Copland began composing for the movies and ballet. Among his most popular compositions for film are those for Of Mice and Men (1939), Our Town (1940) and The Heiress (1949), which won him an Academy Award for best score. He composed scores for a number of ballets, including two of the most popular of the time: Agnes DeMille’s Rodeo (1942) and Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring (1944), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. Both ballets presented views of American country life that corresponded to the folk traditions in which Mr. Copland was interested. Probably the most important and successful composition from this time was his patriotic A Lincoln Portrait (1942). The piece for voice and orchestra presents quotes from Lincoln’s writings narrated over Mr. Copland’s musical composition.

Throughout the 1950s, Mr. Copland slowed his work as a composer and began to try his hand at conducting. He began to tour with his own work as well as the works of other great American musicians. Conducting was a synthesis of the work he had done as a composer and as an organizer. Over the next 20 years he traveled throughout the world, conducting live performances and creating an important collection of recorded work.

By the early ’70s, Mr. Copland had, with few exceptions, completely stopped writing original music. Most of his time was spent conducting and reworking older compositions. In 1983 Mr. Copland conducted his last symphony. His generous work as a teacher at Tanglewood, Harvard and the New School for Social Research gained him a following of devoted musicians. As a scholar, he wrote more than 60 articles and essays on music, as well as five books. He traveled the world in an attempt to elevate the status of American music abroad and to increase its popularity at home. Through these various commitments to music and to his country, Mr. Copland became one of the most important figures in 20th century American music. He died in North Tarrytown, NY.

(Source: American Masters, PBS.org)


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