Monday, December 7, 2015

Aaron Copland Remembered (or Forgotten?)

Aaron Copland, one of the greatest American composers, died 25 years ago. More precisely on December 2 of 1990. I did not hear any of his music played on the WETA Classical station on or around the date. The National Symphony Orchestra's program included Copland’s Billy the Kid Suite in its dance-themed, all-American program last week. And that's about all. What could that mean? That he is not so great after all, or that American "classical" music lovers don't care for Copland?

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."

Pollack said that during Copland's youth, America was a little behind Europe in music developments. So in 1921, the young composer went to study in Paris with the famous music teacher Nadia Boulanger. He stayed there until 1924 and during those three years traveled extensively around Europe, meeting other composers and becoming familiar with their music. Pollack told me that Copland was impressed with works of his contemporaries Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud and Igor Stravinsky, and that his own music of the time shows their influence. Pollack said one work that had a lating impression on the young composer was Milhaud's Creation of the World which uses American popular music and jazz, something Copland had always wanted to do.

"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 1950s, the artistic climate changed. Pollack said Copland and his contemporaries were not as preoccupied with a search for a national style as they were in the 1940's. Although Copland's music remained very American in his application of jazz elements, he abandoned the explicit use of well-known folk tunes. The composer who was now in his fifties, revived the lean, almost austere style of some of his early works. But as always, said Pollack, he would take a break from such sophisticated pieces to create something closer to people's hearts. During that period he wrote new arrangements for a humber of old American songs, such as At the River, the work of 19th century Baptist minister Robert Lowry.


During the 1950s, Copland also embarked on a very active conducting career, taking it upon himself to introduce American music to orchestras both at home and overseas. Pollack said as conductor, Copland often included in the program works of young local composers all over the world to raise awareness to their work. His productive career came to an end in his eighties with the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

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.

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