Aaron Copland: The Brooklyn Cowboy

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.


Aaron Copland talked with a Brooklyn accent and composed with a Western touch. I was lucky enough to interview him in 1961 when I was a student at the University of Michigan and he came to Ann Arbor to conduct two of his own compositions.

Although he wrote music for the ballet, theater, radio and films, as well as for the concert hall, he told me he had no preference for one musical form over another. "I like them all," he said. "The film medium gives an added visual stimulus that is often very helpful, but the other forms have their advantages, too."

When I asked Copland why concert-goers generally have little enthusiasm for contemporary music, he replied:

"People are used to romantic music and like what they are used to. The younger generation seems more responsive to the new music for this reason. They have been exposed somewhat to it, and not as much to the standard works. If you took a Chinese who was used to oriental music and played for him a symphony or a concerto, chances are that he wouldn't care for what he wasn't accustomed to. It's all a matter of getting used to it."

These comments seem dated now for two reasons. First of all, the younger generations haven't taken to modern long-form music any more than did Copland's peers. Perhaps those born in the last half century never did get used to it. Perhaps it was never worth getting used to. Secondly, in the years since my interview with Copland, Asians have come to almost dominate the field of Western classical music, which they seem to love as much or more than do most Europeans.

In any case, Copland was one modern composer about whom the music-loving public was - and still is - enthusiastic. In fact he was one of the few serious American composers to be able to support himself comfortably from his music. I asked him if this was because he wrote consciously for the public rather than for his own self-expression.

"I don't think any composer really writes entirely for himself," he answered. "Even if he just wants to hear what one or two friends have to say about his composition, he is still composing for other people. I don't consciously think about 'the public' when I am composing, but I do want people to like my music, and I try to create music they will like."

Copland often succeeded in this ambition. In 1944 his ballet "Appalachian Spring" won a Pulitzer Prize in music as well as the New York Music Critics' Award for the outstanding theatrical composition of the season. His music for the motion picture "The Heiress" won the 1949 Academy Award as the best dramatic film score of the year.

His ballets "Billy the Kid" and "Rodeo" have become part of the standard American repertoire and his film scores for "Of Mice and Men," "Our Town," "North Star," and "The Red Pony" did a great deal to spread the composer's popularity during his lifetime.

Furthering the cause of contemporary music as a composer, lecturer, teacher and author, Copland was a leader in the development of a modern American school of composition. His books, "What to Listen for in Music" and "Our New Music" helped many readers increase their appreciation of classical and modern music.

Copland was the first composer ever to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship and one of the first to make use of the jazz idiom in serious music.

"It seemed to me," he once said, "that we composers were in danger of working in a vacuum. Moreover, an entirely new public for music had grown up around the radio and phonograph. It made no sense to ignore them and to continue writing as if they did not exist. I felt it was worth the effort to see if I couldn't say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms."

But by 1927 Copland felt that he had done all he could with jazz. He went dissonant and esoteric for a while, but, apparently missing his audience, returned to a new uncomplicated style inspired by cowboy songs, New England hymns and Shaker melodies. He used popular Mexican melodies as the basis for what is still one of his most well-liked works, "El Salon Mexico."

Many years after my Michigan interview, my wife and I attended a pre-concert seminar that Copland gave at the Wolf Trap Farm Park for the Performing Arts near our home at the time in Reston, Va. Talking about the challenge of composing long pieces, Copland said it was difficult to sustain and develop a musical idea.

Evidently it was difficult for him. It doesn't appear to have been a problem for Mahler, Bruckner or Wagner. But maybe it helps to be a 19th Century German with a name ending in "er." In any case, looking at my CDs of Copland's music, the only composition I can find which is as long as 40 minutes is his "Symphony No. 3." And I'm afraid that work, though pleasant enough, proves the point he made in that seminar. Its best passage was taken from the three-minute long "Fanfare for the Common Man" which he had composed three years earlier as a separate piece.

The most popular Copland pieces are all short: the suite from "Appalachian Spring" (22"), "Billy the Kid" (20" for the suite, 32" for the complete ballet), the complete "Rodeo" ballet (23"), "El Salon Mexico" (11") and "Fanfare for the Common Man" (3"), mentioned above, the "Clarinet Concerto" (16"), and his "Old American Songs" (my favorites are "Simple Gifts," 1:52; "The Boatman's Dance," 3:05; and "I Bought Me a Cat," 2:11, from Set 1; and "At the River," 2:56 from Set 2). So are his "Lincoln Portrait," "Piano Concerto" and "DanzÛn Cubano."

Most of Copland's best melodies were borrowed from folk music. He lacked the melodic inventiveness of his contemporaries, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein, which is probably why he didn't turn out popular tunes the way they did. But, at his best, Copland put together pieces which were vibrant, exciting, highly rhythmic, tuneful (even if the tunes were not always his), and, very evocative of the American spirit. That is what drew me to him when I was a college student, and that is what brings me back to him again today.


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