Richard Nisley

Big Sky and Small Towns -- the music of Aaron Copland
Music - Classical Released - Oct 06, 2013

Aaron Copland was annoyed. He was trained in the European music tradition and particularly the “modern” dissonant music that was all the rage with the avant-garde, but few concert halls were showing the slightest interest. And here was George Gershwin--a mere Tin Pan Alley song plugger--with “Rhapsody in Blue” being performed in Carnegie Hall. In Carnegie Hall! It wasn’t fair.

Aaron Copland and George Gershwin were about the same age, raised in Brooklyn, and the sons of Russian immigrants. While Gershwin was making a good living writing popular songs, Copland was living the life of a starving artist, hailed by the enlightened few but failing to get his music played. Gershwin, on the other hand, had only to try his hand at concert music and was succeeding brilliantly, first with “Rhapsody in Blue,” then with the jazzy “Concerto for Piano,” then with “An American in Paris” and then, oh-by-the-way, with opera. While “Porgy and Bess” was not exactly a hit, within a decade or two it would be hailed as “The Great American Opera.” Yes, Gershwin was the toast of concert goers in America and in Europe, while Copland could not pay his rent. No, it wasn’t fair.

If he was going to make a living composing music, Aaron Copland would have to dispense with his musical ideals and write “populist music” like George Gershwin. And that is exactly what he did. In doing so he embraced the music of the middle America idiom: New England folk music, fiddle tunes from the Appalachian backwoods, and the music of the prairie, of big sky and small towns. European composers had been doing the same thing for years--elevating European folk music to a level where it sounded as if it had descended from heaven. Now, Copland would do the same thing with American folk music.

After visiting Mexico, Copland tried his hand retooling three Mexican folk tunes for orchestra. The result was “El Salon Mexico.” And wouldn’t you know it? It became an international hit, gaining Copland the recognition he craved. That was in 1936. In 1938 he scored big again, with music for the ballet “Billy the Kid.” By now, he had a champion in Serge Koussevitzky, famed conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Copland retooled “Billy the Kid” as a suite for orchestra and Koussevitzky conducted the premier. Now, Copland’s earlier, less accessible music was being performed in concert halls, sometimes in an evening of “all Copland” music. He had arrived.

The 1940s was Copland’s time. America was at war, and Copland's music personified America--big, open-armed, optimistic. In 1940 he wrote “Quiet City” and “Our Town.” In 1942 “Lincoln Portrait,” “Fanfare for the Common Man” and another ballet, “Rodeo.” In 1944, he composed his masterpiece, the music for Martha Graham’s ballet “Appalachian Spring.” Next, in 1946, his first “populist” symphony, Symphony no. 3. In 1948, commissioned by Benny Goodman, the Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra. By now, Copland was more than a composer--he was a celebrity.

After the war, Copland was in demand as a lecturer and teacher. In 1954, he wrote his only opera, “The Tender Land.” It was his first commercial flop in 20 years.

Having achieved world-wide success, Copland felt the need to compose works of greater emotional substance. He was aware of Stravinsky, as well as many fellow composers, had begun to study Arnold Schoenberg’s use of twelve-tone (serial) techniques. In his personal style, Copland began to make use of tone-rows in several new compositions, among them “Piano Quartet” (1951), “Piano Fantasy” (1957), “Inscape” for orchestra (1961) and “Connotations” (1962). While praised by critics, none of these pieces caught on with concert goers.

At the same time, Copland took up conducting and made a series of recordings, mostly of his populist music from the 1930s and '40s. People attending his concerts, hearing Copland conduct his own music, could close their eyes and imagine that this must have been what it was like to hear Beethoven conduct his own music, or to hear Mozart or Handel perform. Copland’s status was that elevated, his legacy that assured.

At some point in the 1960s, Copland’s creative juices stopped flowing. “It was exactly as if someone had simply turned off a facet,” he admitted. Copland continued to teach, lecture and conduct, but his days as a composer were over.

In his last years Copland was hailed as “the Dean of American Composers.” Those whose professional lives he had influenced were such conducting and composing luminaries as Leonard Bernstein, Roy Harris, Roger Sessions, William Schuman and Michael Tilson Thomas.

Aaron Copland passed away in 1990. Leonard Bernstein, who had made a number of definitive recordings of Copland’s music, proclaimed: “He was the best American composer.”

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