Book Reports: Copland: 1900 through 1942 and Copland: Since 1943
In their books: Copland: 1900 through 1942 and Copland: Since 1943, Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis give a detailed account of the life of one of Americas most influential composers. The books are arranged similarly to the Shostakovich biography that our class reviewed earlier this semester. That is, through personal accounts by Copland himself along with accounts of Coplands friends and acquaintances, the authors manage to paint an accurate and interesting picture detailing the life of the great composer. When combined, the two books recount Coplands entire life, dividing it into two periods for the purpose of easier organization and reading.
Copland was born in New York City in 1900. Copland had a large and loving family in New York. His childhood was comfortable, as his father owned a department store where Copland worked for much of his young life. Coplands mother is described by the composer as “affectionate and a very nice mother to have” (pp. 18) Copland showed an early interest in music, and by the age of eleven, he had surpassed the knowledge of his older sister in the ways of the piano. As a child, he had taken lessons from his sister, but by eleven, he felt that he needed to consult an outside source in order to learn more.
At the age of eighteen, Copland graduated from high school. He pursued his interest in music and began to search for a teacher who could teach him musical harmony. Coplands piano teacher suggested that he study under Rubin Goldmark who had a studio in Manhattan. Copland found Goldmark to be a very effective teacher. However, Copland and his piano teacher decided to part ways so that Copland could expand his horizons. Under Goldmark, Copland learned very effective methods of composition, but sometimes felt bogged down. Goldmark did not approve of some of Coplands interest in the more modern musical works, and Copland found this frustrating. After composing a number of “Sonata-form” musical pieces with Goldmark, Copland decided he needed a change of scenery. In 1921, Copland decided to study in France. Even as Copland left his old teacher, Goldmark stressed his traditional ideals. Before Coplands departure, Goldmark wrote: “I hope you will make more progress in the Sonata formEven if you should fall into the hands of some radicals.”(pp. 35)
In France, Copland found a new teacher in Nadia Boulanger. Boulanger quickly proved to be on of the “radicals” that Goldmark feared so much. Under his new teacher, Copland was encouraged to delve into new rhythms and musical techniques. He was encouraged to express his American background by incorporating jazz and other influences into his music. As a result, his music remained distinctly American and did not merely imitate the more traditional European artists.
Copland returned to America, New York in particular, in 1924. He quickly began work on a piece that was to be performed by the New York Symphony Orchestra. This work was called The Symphony for Organ and Orchestra. The piece did a good job of affirming Copland as one of Americas brightest new stars. Some critics panned the piece, but most enjoyed its originality. In fact, the work was even called “the voice of America” (pp. 104). This can no doubt be attributed to the large influence of jazz on Coplands music. This influence gave Coplands music an American sound that differed from the more traditional works of classical composers. Copland followed this work with more “American” compositions that the composer played throughout the country, and even in South America.
As many composers do, Copland found himself constantly searching for a steady income. At this time in his life, Copland thought it would be best to slow down a little bit and gather himself. He was offered a position teaching at the New School for Social Research. Although the money was not extraordinary, the steady income proved to be just what the composer was looking for. Not only was Copland able to rest and make money, but this period of his life allowed him to focus on the future of his music. He studied and taught other types of more modern musical pieces and learned as much as he taught. Copland also did a lot of musical promoting at this time. The book devotes an entire section to an number of concerts Copland organized with Roger Sessions. Along with these concerts in New York, Copland sponsored a number of other concerts that greatly solidified the worldwide respect for American music. Although American music was being praised at this time, Copland expressed his distress at the influence of musical critics. After the Yaddo Music Festival in 1932, Copland said: “Frankly, I am consider daily newspaper criticism a menace, and we would be better off without it.” (pp. 206)
During these years, Copland also felt great influence from Russian neoclassical composers. Specifically mentioned is Igor Stravinsky. Between the years of Coplands 30th and 35th birthdays, Copland composed a number of pieces that showed this influence. One such work is Short Symphony, of which Copland says he is very fond. In fact, Copland calls the piece one of his “neglected children”. (pp. 212) He says that, to him, it means more that pieces such as this receive less attention than some of his more popular works. This is interesting to me given his known dislike of critics. It seems to me that he views his work with a loving heart, and prefers that it remain only to be enjoyed by himself and those willing to listen with an open mind.
In the 1930s Copland spent a good deal of time in Mexico. He wrote a number of pieces that expressed the influences he had there. Although Copland was distinctly American, he still managed to capture the spirit of another country with his music. Although many Latin fans were supportive of Coplands departure from his normal musical composition, many of the composers with whom Copland associated did not like the change in Coplands style. Coplands refusal to succumb to such criticism is not surprising. He had always done his own thing and made the music he wanted to. Although his true calling was composing more classical pieces, he also enjoyed the opportunity to reach a larger audience by changing his style every now and again. His delve into more popular music was criticized, but Copland found it to be extremely insightful. He says that it gave him the chance to remember how to incorporate such influences of grass roots music (such as jazz) into his works.
By the end of the 1930s, Copland was returning to his American roots. At this time, he composed what he calls his most well received work. This work was Billy the Kid. This ballet incorporates many elements of America while at the same time producing wonderful music that advances American composition. Critics and audiences both loved the piece, and Coplands popularity grew. He was hired to score many movies, including such classical works as Of Mice and Men and Our Town.
By the end of the first book, Copland: 1900 through 1942, Copland had fortified himself as one of the leading voices in American music, and as a result, he became a voice for American culture. Along with other American composers, Copland gave America the opportunity to show that Europe alone did not control the evolution of music, whether classical or otherwise. By the beginning of the second book, Coplands place in history was already secure.
At the beginning of Copland and Perlis second book, the opportunity for Copland to score another movie is discussed. As earlier stated, Copland had already been able to examine grass roots musical influences of America and Mexico. The movie, The North Star, gave Copland the chance to discover another countrys culture. This time, it was Russia. Copland researched Russian folk songs and cultural influences when working on his score. The score from this movie received much critical acclaim and even won Copland an Academy Award. Again, Copland had proven that he was a master at expressing the culture of a country through works of musical accomplishment.
In 1944, Coplands ballet, Appalachian Spring, debuted. This ballet was one of Coplands most celebrated works. The New York Times called Copland a “natural” (pp. 46). Appalachian Spring even won Copland a Pulitzer Prize. The ballet was written for a specific ballet dancer of the time period. Appalachian Spring was about pioneers in Pennsylvania celebrating the building of a new farmhouse. The work was another testimony to Coplands ability to project every day American life into art.
Around this same time period, Copland began lecturing at Harvard. In 1951, he became the Norton Professor of Poetics at Harvard University. His lectures were published as a work of poems. Around this time, Coplands mother passed away. In the book, Copland discusses how he took his mothers death and the way that her passing influenced his music. As earlier discussed, Copland came from a very close family, and news about a members death was bound to be taken hard.
Between 1946 and 1954, Copland produced a number of his greatest works. The Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson and Coplands Third Symphony were both called Coplands greatest individual work by a number of Coplands contemporaries. At this time in Coplands life, he traveled the world very much. After reading of all of the places he had been, I began to wonder whether he viewed himself as an anthropologist as well as a composer. In addition to composing Mexican and Russian pieces during his life, Copland also traveled to Italy, Paris, and Israel, learning about cultures and teaching people about music. Copland performed and gave speeches while in foreign lands. He spoke both of American culture and of music while he traveled the world.
Towards the end of Coplands life, he again changed the way he viewed music. In his fifties, Copland began conducting. He also began to become more interested in a different style of composition. Namely, he began composing in a 12-tone technique. I am not a skilled musician, and I do not completely understand what this means, however, Coplands contemporaries found it to be a confusing and difficult style. He composed a number of works in this format. In 1962 he composed Connotations, and in 1967, he composed Inscape. These two pieces are representative of his more mature style. Copland states in the second book that he did not like being called a twelve tone composer, and felt that he was a little bit misunderstood. He seems to have always felt that just because he chose to explore a certain type of music, he should not be criticized for his curiosity or his change of pace. This theme is concurrent through both of the texts, and reaffirms Coplands frustration with critics.
Although our assignment was only to write reports on the two books by Copland and Perlis, I decided to do a little bit of research about Coplands accomplishments. I found it very interesting that throughout both books, the topic of Coplands frustration and disagreement with music critics kept coming up. After reading the books, it became apparent to me that Copland was a very decorated musician with many awards to his credit. Although not all of these awards are detailed in the book, I still was curious to find out just how critically acclaimed Copland was. I found that he was one of the most honored cultural figures in American history. Throughout his career, Copland won, among other awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Academy Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and the Commanders Cross from the Republic of Germany. Copland was also a director or board member of a number of influential musical organizations, such as the American Music Center and the Koussevitzky Foundation. Copland also received an honorary doctoral degree from over 40 universities. Also, a school of music was established in his name at Queens College in New York City. So, although Copland was uncomplimentary of music critics, I found it very interesting that critics were so very fond of him.
Finally, I will say something of my own insight. I find that reading quotations from a contemporary of the composer is a much more insightful way to learn about the composers influence than reading the composers own thoughts. Coplands modesty in his thinking is obvious when compared to the way other artists of the time period viewed him and how music critics and music organizations revered him. In both of the books by Copland and Perlis, some contemporaries disliked Coplands works, and some loved them, but it seemed that all respected him. To me, is quite telling that Coplands works were truly as influential and culturally insightful as it is claimed in his biography.