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Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland (November 14 1900December 2 1990) was an American composer of concert and film music, as well as an accomplished pianist. Instrumental in forging a distinctly American style of composition, he was widely known as “the dean of American composers.” Copland's music achieved a difficult balance between modern music and American folk styles, and the open, slowly changing harmonies of many of his works are said to evoke the vast American landscape. He incorporated percussive orchestration, changing meter, polyrhythms, polychords and tone rows. Aside from composing, Copland taught, presented music-related lectures, wrote books and articles, and served as a conductor (generally, but not always, of his own works).


Copland was born in Brooklyn, New York, of Lithuanian Jewish descent. Before emigrating to the United States Copland's father had Anglicized his surname “Kaplan” to “Copland” while in Scotland. Throughout his childhood Copland and his family lived above his parents' Brooklyn shop. Although his parents never encouraged or directly exposed him to music, at the age of fifteen he had already taken an interest in the subject and aspired to be a composer. His musical education included time with Leopold Wolfsohn, Rubin Goldmark (who also taught George Gershwin), and Nadia Boulanger at the Fontainebleau School of Music in Paris from 1921 to 1924. He was awarded a Guggenheim in Fellowship in 1925 and again in 1926.

Copland defended the Communist Party USA during the 1936 presidential election. As a result he was later investigated by the FBI during the Red scare of the 1950s, and found himself blacklisted. Because of the political climate of that era, A Lincoln Portrait was withdrawn from the 1953 inaugural concert for President Eisenhower. That same year, Copland was called before Congress where he testified that he was never a communist. Outraged by the accusations, many members of the musical community held up Copland's music as a banner of his patriotism. The investigations ceased in 1955, and were closed in 1975. Copland was never shown to have been a member of the Communist Party.

Copland exerted a major influence on the compositional style of his friend and protege Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein was considered the finest conductor of Copland's works. British progressive rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer recorded two pieces based on Copland works: Fanfare for the Common Man and Hoe-Down. Several of their live recordings of Fanfare for the Common Man incorporated the closing of the second movement of Copland's Symphony no. 3 as well.

Copland's homosexuality was documented in Howard Pollack's biography, Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man.[1]

Copland died of Alzheimer's disease and respiratory failure in North Tarrytown, New York (now Sleepy Hollow), on December 2 1990.


Early Work (austere)[edit]

Upon his return from his studies in Paris, he decided that he wanted to write works that were "American in character" and thus he chose jazz as the American idiom. His first significant work was the necromantic ballet Grohg which contributed thematic material to his later Dance Symphony. Copland composed the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra in 1924, whose Boston premiere brought him into contact with Serge Koussevitzky, another figure who would prove to be influential in Copland’s life. A composer with a penchant for promoting the promising work of others, Koussevitzky performed twelve Copland works during his tenure as conductor of the Boston Symphony. Copland’s relationship with Koussevitzky was apparently unique, as his interpretations of Copland’s works reflected the particular admiration that the latter had for the young composer.

During this period in Copland’s life, he sought to support himself through teaching and lecturing, before attaining financial security through a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. Copland’s compositions in the early 1920s reflected a prevailing attitude among intellectuals that they were “chosen” in a way, and that music, like other art, need not be accessible to anyone but a select cadre of individuals who could appreciate it. Toward this end, Copland formed the Young Composer’s Group, modeled after Frances “Six”, gathering together promising young composers and acting as a sort of benevolent dictator for their interests[2]. Other major works of his first period include the Music for Theater in 1925, the Piano Variations in 1930, and in 1933 the Short Symphony. However, this jazz-inspired period was brief, as his style evolved toward the goal of writing more accessible works.

Music for the Common Man (vernacular)[edit]

Mounting troubles with the Symphonic Ode (1929) and Short Symphony (1933) caused him to rethink this paradigm, as the idea of orchestral music for a select group was financially contradictory. In many ways, this shift mirrored the German idea of Gebrauchsmusik, as composers sought to create music that could serve a utilitarian as well as artistic purpose. Impressed with the success of Virgil Thomson’s Three Saints in Four Acts, Copland wrote El Salón México in 1934, which was met with popular acclaim, in contrast to the relative obscurity of many of his previous works. This work also marked the return of jazz patterns to Copland’s compositional style, though they appeared in a more subdued form than before, as part of a whole rather than as a centerpiece. At a time when conservatories were teaching more astringent methods of composition, Copland held onto the respect of academics by reasoning that he wanted to see if he couldn't say what he had to say in the simplest possible terms.

Fanfare for the Common Man, perhaps Copland's most famous work, scored for brass and percussion, was written in 1942 at the request of the conductor Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. It would later be used to open many Democratic National Conventions. The fanfare was also used as the main theme of the fourth movement of Copland's Third Symphony, where it first appears in a quiet, pastoral manner, then in the brassier form of the original. The same year Copland wrote A Lincoln Portrait which became popular with a wider audience, leading to a strengthening in his association with American music. He was commissioned to write a ballet, Appalachian Spring, which he later arranged as a popular orchestral suite. The commission for Appalachian Spring came from Martha Graham, who had requested of Copland merely "music for an American ballet". Copland titled the piece "Music for Martha", having no idea of how she would use it on stage. Graham created a ballet she called Appalachian Spring, which was an instant success, and the music acquired the same name. Copland was amused and delighted later in life when people would come up to him and say: "You were so right - it sounds exactly like spring in the Appalachians", as he had no particular program in mind while writing the music.

The ballet Rodeo, a tale of a ranch wedding, written around the same time as Lincoln Portrait in 1942 is another enduring composition for Copland, and the "Hoe-Down" from the ballet is one of the most well-known compositions by any American composer, having been used numerous times in movies and on television.

Symphonic Works[edit]

Copland composed three numbered symphonies, but applied the word “symphony” to more than just symphonies. His early three-movement Organ Symphony was rewritten omitting the organ, calling the result his First Symphony. His fifteen-minute Short Symphony was the Second Symphony, though it also exists as the Sextet. The Third Symphony in the more traditional format (four movements; second movement, scherzo; third movement, adagio) with a forty-five minute approximate run-time. His Dance Symphony, was hurriedly extracted from the earlier unproduced ballet Grohg to meet an RCA Records commission deadline.

Later Work[edit]

Copland’s work in the late 1940s included experimentation with Schönberg’s twelve-tone system, a development that he recognized the importance of without fully embracing it. However, in contrast to the Second Viennese School, Copland’s use of the system emphasizing the importance of the “classicalizing principles” in order to prevent the material from falling into “near-chaos”.[1] Also, he found the atonality of serialized music to run counter to his desire to reach a wide audience. He would later adapt the twelve-tone system into a ten- or eleven-tone system, reserving one or two notes as tonal anchors.

Despite the difficulties that his suspected Communist sympathies posed, Copland nonetheless traveled extensively during the 1950s and early 1960s, observing the avant-garde stylings of Europe while experiencing the new school of Soviet music. Additionally, he was rather taken with the work of Toru Takemitsu while in Japan, and began a correspondence that would last over the next decade. In observing these new musical forms, Copland revised his text The New Music with comments on the styles that he encountered. In particular, while Copland appreciated the importance of the work of John Cage and others, he found these trends in music to render it impersonal and inaccessible to a wider audience.

Later in life, Copland found himself composing less as his career as a conductor expanded. Though not enamored with the prospect, Copland found himself without new ideas for composition, saying “It was exactly as if someone had simply turned off a faucet.”[1]

Copland and Hollywood[edit]

While his ballets found success on the stages of America, Copland sought to enter another arena, the emerging industry of motion pictures. He saw this as both a challenge for his abilities as a composer and an opportunity to expand his reputation and audience. However, the tendency of studios to edit and cut movie scores went against Copland’s desire for creative control over his work. Copland found a kindred spirit in director Lewis Milestone, who recognized the benefits of allowing Copland to supervise his own orchestration and refrained from interfering with his work. This collaboration resulted in the notable film Of Mice and Men (1939) that earned Copland his first nomination for an Academy Award. In a departure from other film scores of the time, Copland’s work largely reflected his own style, instead of borrowing from the late Romantic period. Additionally, he rejected the common practice of using leitmotiv to identify characters with their own personal themes.

His score for William Wyler's 1949 film, The Heiress won an Academy Award. Several themes he created are encapsulated in the suite Music for Movies, and his score for the film adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel The Red Pony was given a suite of its own. This suite was one of Copland's personal favourites. His score for the 1961 independent film Something Wild was released in 1964 as Music For a Great City. It is difficult to overestimate the influence Copland has had on film music. Virtually every composer who scored for western movies, particularly between 1940 and 1960, was shaped by the style Copland developed.


Copland was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in composition for Appalachian Spring. His scores for Of Mice and Men (1939), Our Town (1940), and The North Star (1943) all received Academy Award nominations, while The Heiress won Best Music in 1949.

Notable students[edit]

Selected works[edit]


  • Aaron Copland: A Self-Portrait (1985). Directed by Allan Miller. Biographies in Music series. Princeton, New Jersey: The Humanities.
  • Appalachian Spring (1996). Directed by Graham Strong, Scottish Television Enterprises. Princeton, New Jersey: Films for the Humanities.
  • Copland Portrait (1975). Directed by Terry Sanders, United States Information Agency. Santa Monica, California: American Film Foundation.
  • Fanfare for America: The Composer Aaron Copland (2001). Directed by Andreas Skipis. Produced by Hessischer Rundfunk in association with Reiner Moritz Associates. Princeton, New Jersey: Films for the Humanities & Sciences.


  • Copland, Aaron (2002). What to Listen For in Music (Revised ed.). New York: Signet Classics. ISBN 978-0451528674. 
  • Copland, Aaron (2006). Music and Imagination (New Edition ed.). Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0674589155. 


  1. ^ a b c Pollack, Howard (1999). Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man. New York: Henry Holt, ISBN 0252069005.
  2. ^ Berger, Arthur. (1953) Aaron Copland Oxford University Press
  • Kamien, Roger (1997). Music: An Appreciation (3rd edition ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill College. ISBN 0-07-036521-0. 

External links[edit]

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