Appalachian Spring is arguably Copland's best work. He wrote it for coreographer Martha Graham and called it Ballet for Martha until she renamed it Appalachian spring. The Pulitzer Prize-winning composition owes its popularity in part due to the simple sound and familiar American themes, such as the Shaker melody of Simple Gifts. But it was an altogether different style that attaracted Graham to Copland's music. In 1930, he wrote Piano Variations, considered revolutionary at the time. Neither critics nor the public received them well, prompting Copland - as the conventional wisdom goes - to write more accessible pieces. Except that the conventional wisdom is wrong according to his biographer Howard Pollack.
|Aaron Copland, 1900-1990|
"One misconception about Copland regarding his evolution as a composer is that somehow he went from a difficult period to a more accessible period and back to a more difficult period," Pollack told me in an interview in 2000, when his book came out. "That's a sort of cliche about Copland's career in a nutshell."
Pollack said that Copland alternated difficult works and accessible ones throughout his career because he was very openminded and able to write both for a sophisticated elite and for the wider public. "And he realized that the same work would not appeal to those two different bodies of listeners." said Pollack.
Copland was born in Brooklyn, New York, where his parents ran a small department store. He was the youngest of five children and since his parents were very busy, his older sisters helped raise him. Pollack said Copland developed an early interest in music and literature. By the age of seven or eight, he was already composing, by the age of 20 he was writing pieces that are still performed.
"He wrote a setting for poems by his friend Aaron Schaffer. And those particular songs and much of the early work of his late teens written in Brooklyn might remind listeners of Debussy perhaps, who at that time was considered the cutting edge of the new music."
"Copland attended the premiere of that piece and he always held that piece in the highest regard," he said.
When he returned from Paris, Copland wrote his first major works, beginning with Music for the Theater, which reveals the influence of jazz. "The use of jazz rhythms and colors in the concert hall in the 1920s was extremely provocative, and Copland's work from the 1920s met largely a very hostile reception by both the press and audiences alike," said Pollack. "His Piano concerto (from 1926) was hissed at from coast to coast when it was played."
In the 1930s, Copland began to collaborate with choreographers and film directors, modifying his style to suit their needs. In addition to jazz, he also included folk elements in his music. During the next three decades he produced most of his best known works: ballets Billy the Kid, Rodeo and Appalachian Spring; orchestral works El Salon Mexico and Third Symphony, and music scores for movies Of Mice and Men, The Red Pony and The Heiress. His music for The Heiress won him an Academy Award in 1949.
World War Two evoked patriotic feelings among Americans and Copland reacted to them. He produced a musical portrait of President Abraham Lincoln, with quotations from his speeches in the final part. In this performance by the Utah Symphony, late Hollywood Charleston Heston renders Lincoln's words:
During the centennial year of his birth in 2000, Copland's works were performed in concert halls nationwide. Pollack's autobiography Aaron Copland: The Life & Work of an Uncommon Man was published the year before.
In the 2000 interview his concluding words to me were: "The last couple of years have seen the real revival of interest in this piece (the 1926 Piano concerto) for the first time since it was written, and it shows that Copland in many ways was years and years ahead of his time."
If that is true, than Copland remains ahead of our time too. The "revival of interest" in any of his work was very short-lived - it lasted barely through his centennial year.