Aaron Copland

Biography

Born: 1900   Died: 1990   Country: USA   Period: 20th Century
Few figures in American music loom as large as Aaron Copland. As one of the first wave of literary and musical expatriates in Paris during the 1920s, Copland returned to the United States with the means to assume, for the next half century, a central role in American music as composer, promoter, and educator. Copland's sheer popularity and iconic status are such that his music has transcended the concert hall and entered the popular Read more consciousness; it both accompanies solemn and joyous celebrations the world over (Fanfare for the Common Man) and punctuates the familiar words "Beef: It's What's for Dinner!" (Rodeo) for millions of television viewers.

Copland was the youngest of five children born to Harris and Sarah Copland, Lithuanian Jewish immigrants who owned a department store in Brooklyn. He did not take formal piano lessons until he was 13, by which time he had also begun writing small pieces. Instead of attending college, Copland studied theory and composition with Rubin Goldmark and piano with Victor Wittgenstein and Clarence Adler, and attended as many concerts, operas, and ballets as possible. In 1921, he went to Fontainebleau, France, taking conducting and composition classes at the American Conservatory. He went on to study in Paris with Ricardo Viñes and Nadia Boulanger and spent the next three years soaking up all the European culture, both new and old, that he could. He learned to admire not only composers like Stravinsky, Milhaud, Fauré, and Mahler, but others such as author André Gide. Boulanger's performance of Copland's 1924 Organ Symphony with Koussevitzky was the beginning of a friendship between the conductor and composer that led to Copland teaching at the Berkshire Music Center (Tanglewood) from 1940 until 1965.

After his return to America, Copland drifted toward an incisive, austere style that captured something of the sobriety of Depression-torn America. The most representative work of this period -- the Piano Variations (1930) -- remains one of the composer's seminal efforts. He tried to avoid taking a university position, instead writing for journals and newspapers, organizing concerts, and taking on administrative duties for composers' organizations, trying to promote American music. By the mid-1930s, taking the direct engagement of and communication with audiences as one of his central tenets, Copland's compositions developed (in parallel with other composers like Virgil Thomson and Roy Harris) an "American" style marked by folk influences, a new melodic and harmonic simplicity, and an appealing directness free from intellectual pretension. This is nowhere more in evidence than in Copland's ballets of this period, and it finally earned him the respect of the general public. While Copland gradually became less prolific from the mid-1950s on, he continued to experiment and explore "fresh" means of musical expression, including a highly individual adoption of 12-tone principles in works like the Piano Fantasy and Connotations for orchestra. Still, the fundamentally lyrical nature of Copland's language remained intact and occasionally emerged -- with an often surprising retrospective air -- in works like the Duo for flute and piano (1971). He continued to teach and write and received numerous awards both in America and abroad. In 1958, he began conducting orchestras around the world, performing works by 80 other composers as well as his own over the next 20 years. By the mid-'70s, Copland had for all intents and purposes ceased composing. One of the last of his creative accomplishments was the completion of his two-volume autobiography (with musicologist Vivian Perlis), an essential document in understanding the growth of American music in the twentieth century. Read less
Copland, Nielsen: Clarinet Concerti, Etc / Hilton, Bamert
Release Date: 10/28/1992   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 8618   Number of Discs: 1
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Copland, Harris: Symphony No 3 / Järvi, Detroit So
Release Date: 09/24/1996   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 9474   Number of Discs: 1
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Copland: Old American Songs I & Ii, Etc / Willard White
Release Date: 10/28/1992   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 8960   Number of Discs: 1
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Mozart, Copland, Kats-Chernin: Works for Clarinet & Orchestra / Collins
Release Date: 01/29/2013   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 10756   Number of Discs: 1
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The Legacy Of Aaron Copland / United States Army Field Band Soldiers' Chorus
Release Date: 01/01/2006   Label: Altissimo  
Catalog: ALT60692   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Appalachian Spring: Suite

 

About This Work
Long after its composition, Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring remains both the composer's quintessential masterpiece and one of the definitive ballets of the twentieth century. Written on commission from dancer/choreographer Martha Graham, Read more Appalachian Spring depicts the lives of a newly married pioneer couple in nineteenth century Pennsylvania. The scenario that emerges in the course of the dance "narrative" includes a house-raising, a sermon, a festive party, and the couple alone in a moment of hopeful reflection. Throughout, Appalachian Spring unfolds with a spirit of unfailing optimism (though, as is clear from the Hart Crane poem from which the ballet's name was derived -- after the music was written -- the "Spring" of the title actually refers to a wellspring, not the season).

The music of Appalachian Spring is at once characteristic of Copland's "Americana" style of the late '30s and the 1940s. The harmonic language, based largely on triadic and other, mildly dissonant sonorities, is marked by an overall spareness and simplicity; at appropriate moments, though, Copland employs fuller, more luxurious textures. The melodic material varies according to the ballet's episodic nature: the introduction, for example, is ethereal and almost non-melodic, but is immediately followed by leaping, spiky lines in which melodic fourths play a prominent role. What is undoubtedly the most famous tune from the ballet is not Copland's own: The composer presents the traditional Shaker hymn Simple Gifts, masterfully spinning a set of variations that progress toward the climax of the entire work, a final tutti statement of the theme marked by a particular dignity and grandeur. In keeping with the nature and purpose of the score, the rhythmic language is particuraly lively, even breathtaking, making Appalachian Spring among the most kinetic of any of Copland's works. Irregular, changing meters are a particularly notable feature; even when the music remains in a single meter, shifts of accent ensure a distinctive sense of constant motion and rhythmic surprise.

Practical and economic constraints led Copland to score the original version of the work for an ensemble of 13 instruments. Within a short time of the ballet's premiere, however, Copland arranged the music into a concert suite for full orchestra, in which form it is most fequently performed today. Many purists prefer the original instrumentation, which has, it must be said, a striking austerity and rawness that is largely smoothed over in the version for full orchestra. The latter, at the same time, presents its own beauties not present in the smaller-scale original. In any event, Appalachian Spring continues to flourish as a perennial favorite and remains Copland's most beloved contribution to the pantheon of twentieth century classics.

-- All Music Guide Read less

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