The celebrated, elegant Broadway composer and popular songwriter Jerome Kern (Show Boat, et al.) once said of Irving Berlin that he was American music—referring of course to the world of theatrical and popular music at its best. That assessment “is no less true of Aaron Copland in the concert realm,” wrote Michael Walsh in his obituary for this sui generis phenomenon of the American classical music scene.
Aaron Copland was not the first American or native American composer in the orbit of what was once frequently called “serious music” to achieve either (in his case, both) public success at home or recognition abroad (read, Europe for the first half of the 20th century). Several composers of the preceding generation established respectable reputations, received performances, and were not wholly unknown among the inner core of European music circles—chiefly, and, it is fair to say, most prominently, Edward MacDowell (1860–1908), but also Carl Ruggles (1876–1971), Charles Ives (1874–1954), Horatio Parker (1863–1919), Wallingford Riegger (1885–1961), and perhaps a few others. Even more so, this might apply to the early work of a number Copland’s contemporaries during the first four or five decades of the 20th century: Howard Hanson, Randall Thompson, Virgil Thomson, Henry Cowell, Roger Sessions, Quincy Porter, Roy Harris, and Walter Piston. Their music appeared on programs for American audiences, and even at a time when much of the mainstream musical establishment in Europe had yet to acknowledge or take seriously an American counterpart, they did not entirely escape European awareness as early as the interwar period.
Yet, certainly through the 1940s, the music of these composers—many of them products of German conservatories or German cultural influence—represents by and large a continuation on American soil of the Central European classical tradition, and not an American departure with a brand of its own. For the most part, this music was a perpetuation of that tradition’s late- and neo-Romantic phases, even if amplified by post-Romantic forays into tonal enrichments and extensions, along with modest experimentation with dissonance; in some cases—notably that of Piston—the creative path relied heavily on European-based neoclassicism.
Many such works excelled artistically, and some came to form part of an enduring canon of “music by American composers”—which is not the same thing as American music. (The consideration might be analogous to issues raised by the nomenclature “Jewish music,” which often requires careful distinction between music by Jewish composers—viz., those who happen to be Jews—and Jewish music per se.) Apart from occasional quotations of perceived indigenous tunes, one cannot readily identify in the body of music from that period (Copland’s aside) any uniquely American cultural-national style, aesthetic substance, or other particularly New World traits or forms. Notwithstanding the often superficial or even arbitrary attachment of American-based programmatic, pictorial, or historical piece titles, with the possible exception of Ives, none of these composers succeeded on their own (and few if any seem to have attempted to do so) in laying the foundations for a truly American classical concert music—sufficiently divergent from European directions and bases to justify the identification of a legitimate, full-blooded national music on its own terms.
Neither want of musical gifts nor absence of foresight and imagination were necessarily responsible for this reliance on European models. Virgil Thomson, often perceived as the spokesman for the vanguard in American music, despite his French affinities—like his fellow composer Deems Taylor remembered as much for his role as a critic and keen observer of music culture—thought that American birth sufficed to qualify music with the same adjective. “The way to write American music is simple,” he once insisted. “All you have to do is be an American and then write any music you wish.” It was Thomson, nonetheless, who, after hearing Copland’s first symphony, is said to have remarked, “I wept when I first heard it—because I had not written it myself.”
Ives, who is sometimes viewed as the first “distinctively American composer,” did indeed mine authentic aspects of Americana, especially gospel and other hymn tunes and bits of folksong and dance melodies and rhythms, although these were sometimes deliberately distorted and fragmented. His oeuvre was in some ways circumscribed, however, by his focus on his New England heritage—which might be understood as including a refraction of wider aspects of American culture through a New England lens—and by his philosophical attraction to the transcendentalists. Certainly Ives’s imagination and prescience is evident in his precognition of later, 20th-century harmonic (especially polytonal), rhythmic, and structural developments. But the aura of eccentricity, and sometimes irreverence, that surrounds some of his more sophisticated and daring works, with their complex layers or sheets of sound, did not provide the material for a sustainable model for an American music per se. Nor could his well-planned and astutely manipulated cacophonies be appreciated by the broad base of American audiences. And Ives’s music, little heard until after he had stopped composing in the 1920s, continued to meet with relative neglect on a national scale until there emerged a renewed interest in the 1960s.
Copland contributed in many ways to that new level of awareness, having admired Ives all along, and he remained his champion. It was Copland who, in the 1930s, pointed to an “American sound” in Ives, referring especially to his songs. Interest in Ives has ebbed and flowed in recent years. Despite occasional revivals, including courageous performances of some of his most difficult works—which tend to be counted as events in the music world—his music never became a fixture of American concert life. Yet it is still possible to discern elements of Ives’s work that anticipate a later, full-blown American music.
Whatever precursors to Copland’s path and vision there might have been (and one can always find precursors to any development, invention, or idea), it is he who will always be credited appropriately as the prime mover of a new musica americana. Not satisfied even as a young man to follow in the footsteps of other American composers, nor to simply write good music from objective artistic perspectives, he wanted first and foremost to write manifestly “American” music. Certainly by the dawn of the 1930s he was seized with that urgency. Thus not only did he compose superbly crafted and brilliantly inspired works that resonated with broad segments of the American public, he also forged a fundamentally American style and approach—even a tradition—that would serve as a template in principle (i.e., without the necessity of imitation) for many 20th-century composers. Although the tag “Ivesian” is not wholly unknown among commentators, it would be difficult to think of any American composer other than Copland to whose name such a stylistically identifying suffix is so frequently attached as “Coplandesque.”
Copland reigned for decades as the most ubiquitous symbol of American concert music, and abroad he was long perceived as its virtual embodiment. Not until the arrival on the classical concert stage of Leonard Bernstein’s major works was any American composer’s name so familiar across the nation as was Copland’s—recognizable, along with passages of some of his most famous pieces, even to many outside the boundaries of the regular American concertgoing public. In his case, the titles themselves can be revealing about content and substance: Billy the Kid, Rodeo, A Lincoln Portrait, Appalachian Spring, The Tender Land, Music for a Great City, Old American Songs, and Fanfare for the Common Man. But it was hardly the titles alone that made his music American. More so than any other composer of his generation or earlier, he was responsible for the maturation if not the birth of American music through the success of his injections of American idioms into the ongoing canon of Western cultivated art music as an American branch. Those idioms encompassed jazz, mid-American folksong, perceived tunes of the American West (including cowboy songs), spiritual hymns, dance rhythms, “big-city sounds,” and south-of-the-border Latin American elements. And he did much more than merely quote those references; he employed them as material for serious artistic development and shaped them into engaging concert works.
Copland, the youngest of five siblings, was born in Brooklyn, New York, to a comfortable middle-class Jewish family. His parents had emigrated independently of each other from the Lithuanian part of what was then Russian Poland, which in turn was part of the Czarist Empire. His father, Harris Morris, who, according to his son’s reckoning, probably had anglicized the family name of Kaplan while in Glasgow before coming to New York—most likely to conform to Scottish pronunciation—was born in Shavli (Siauliai), near Kovno, where his father was a furrier. His mother (née Sarah Mattenthal) came as a child from Vishtinetz (Vistytis), a town near the Russian border and not far from Königsberg, East Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia). But she grew up in Illinois and Texas (a cousin was a cofounder of the high-end Dallas emporium Nieman Marcus) before resettling in New York, where she met her future husband. Together they owned and operated a local department store that became known as “the Macy’s of Brooklyn,” and they were prosperous.
The family was affiliated with a traditional synagogue in Brooklyn, Beth Israel, whose rabbi (and sometime cantor) was the esteemed Israel Goldfarb—also an instructor of hazzanut and cantillation to rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary and an amateur liturgical composer who wrote the ubiquitous tune for the Sabbath hymn shalom aleikhem (see…………….). Various accounts of Copland’s life generally agree that the family’s Jewish life was more or less typical of traditional but nonorthodox circles of that era—“more traditional than religious, but observant,” as the composer is quoted in Howard Pollack’s thorough biography. Copland’s father was actively involved in the lay leadership of the synagogue, even serving as its president for two years.
From his young adult years on, Copland was not involved in any aspect of religious life or observance or with any nonreligious, specifically Jewish secular-cultural associations or activities (Yiddishist, Zionist, Hebraist, humanistic, literary, intellectual, or other). But it is now fully acknowledged that he was misguidedly affiliated during the 1930s and 1940s with far-left political causes, ideologies, and organizations, as well as their arts-related appendages (typical of many Depression- and post-Depression era artists and writers, however naïve). And at various times he bought into some of the Soviet and American Communist propaganda. This did not preclude his almost automatic sympathy for the Zionist cause and movement and, after 1948, for the nascent Jewish state—despite the entrenched anti-Zionist and anti-nationalist stance of those extreme left-wing circles and their historical view of Zionism as reactionary. (Disavowals of anti-Zionism after the mid-1930s by some of these groups, including the American Communist Party, were often driven by complicated, self-serving domestic as well as international agendas and did not necessarily alter their previous orientations and attitudes.)
In 1938, when the émigré German-Jewish musicologist Hans Nathan invited Copland to contribute a new setting of a manifestly Zionist halutz song (the folk-type songs of the Jewish pioneer settlers in Palestine) to a compilation he was preparing for publication, Copland consented readily—joining a roster of distinguished composers. The result was his setting of Banu (We’ve come to Palestine…), a hora dance tune by Nathan Alterman to lyrics by Joel Walbe that reflect the socioeconomic, utopian, and in some respects socialistic dimensions of the Zionist enterprise of the time: “We’ve come here poor, yesterday’s paupers … but there are millions in store for us in future….”). It is possible, as some observers have done, to interpret Copland’s minimal involvement in Nathan’s project in the context of a nod to the socialist parameters of mainstream contemporaneous Zionism, which, in that reading, could have rendered “kosher” the movement’s otherwise overt raison d’être vis-à-vis modern liberal nationalism. But that seems a bit of a stretch, especially for so minimal a participation. Copland’s position with respect to Zionist aims and accomplishments appears to have been emotionally driven rather than politically considered, as suggested by the enthusiasm he expressed upon his initial trip to Israel in 1951. If either the Zionist movement’s socialist elements or the altered public positions of the American Communist Party concerning Zionism had anything to do with Copland’s acceptance of Hans Nathan’s invitation, it was probably at most as self-perceived, even subconscious “permission.”
This mostly apolitical emotional understanding of Copland’s friendliness toward Israel is only reinforced by the now famous but curious photograph for which he posed there in 1968 with a helmet and a military firearm. It might be seen as reflecting the general feeling of pride and solidarity that, following Israel’s stunning victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, was felt even by large segments of American Jewry that previously had paid little or no attention to Israel. And it mirrored the position of the mainstream American political establishment across major party lines, even if partially out of Cold War considerations. At the same time, inasmuch as the Soviet Union and its extreme left-wing sympathizers in America had condemned Israel in vicious tirades as an imperialist aggressor, the photograph could suggest the very type of political naïveté, and obliviousness to camouflaged agendas—albeit this time in reverse—that had motivated many artists on the left three decades earlier. In any case, by 1968, internal political alliances had shifted, and Copland’s leftist activities and affiliations were largely a thing of the past.
Indeed, in 1981 he was asked to comment on a notorious incident in 1953. Branded in the lingo of the day as the work of a “fellow traveler” [of the Communist Party], his slated work A Lincoln Portrait had been canceled from President Eisenhower’s first inaugural concert in Washington because of Coplands earlier, allegedly “disloyal” and “un-American” activities and associations with “Communist front groups.” (These were listed, among others, as the American Committee for Democracy and Intellectual Freedom, which had been accused of defending “Communist teachers”; the American League Against War and Fascism; the Artists’ Front to Win the War; the American Music Alliance of the Friends of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade [in the Spanish Civil War]; the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace; and the National Committee for Peoples’ Rights.) He replied that he felt no bitterness. “Oh, no,” he insisted, “that was so long ago; I took it as one of the facts of life…. You have to wait for history to take its course.” Of course, by 1981, as he acknowledged in the same interview, things in life “had gone so well for me.” That same year he conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in a concert of his works on the West Lawn of the Capitol—sponsored by Congress and the Secretary of the Interior.
It was not Judaism per se that had no attraction for Copland. It was religion in any conventional sense for which he seems to have had no use—not unlike many fellow composers and other artists of his generation. His funeral instructions, for example, called for a “nonreligious” service, should there be any. Suggestions that his quotation or use of various manifestly American Christian hymns and songs in certain works bespeaks any ties of his own to Christianity—or even momentary flirtations—seem groundless by all indications. Rather, song references such as “Amazing Grace” in Emblems, a Shaker song in Appalachian Spring, and “Simple Gifts” and “Zion’s Wall” in Old American Songs should be understood as drawing on a core base of musical Americana. In fact, in direct opposition to the assumption of any personal Christian ties in the choice of those tunes is musicologist Elizabeth B. Crist’s recently advocated thesis that these musical decisions actually illuminate a leftist political-ideological agenda. In that interpretation (justified or not), the quoted tunes become examples of his anti-elitist, populist, and therefore left-inspired identification with the American masses—an artistically clothed appeal to the “common folk” through employment of aesthetics that would resonate with them. Obviously, he would have known that large swaths of the common folk could identify with these hymn tunes as part of their popular music. Whether it was that kind of consciously considered agenda or a simpler, more politically as well as religiously neutral espousal of Americana that was at play in Copland’s creative workshop is the kind of question that makes for interesting debate. An analogous issue has also surfaced with regard to his trio, Vitebsk (see the program note to that work in this volume), and its motivations.
As a child, Copland was introduced to the piano, ragtime, and opera by his sister, Laurine. He began improvising melodies by the age of seven and notating short pieces by the time he was twelve. His first formal piano instruction began in the year of his bar mitzvah with Leopold Wolfsohn, with whom he studied for about four years. He graduated from Boys’ High School in 1918 but declined to pursue higher education—continuing instead with the private lessons in music theory and composition that he had begun a year earlier with the eminent teacher Rubin Goldmark. As Copland would later recall, Goldmark’s musical conservatism only stimulated his own budding interest in new music. In 1920, inspired by Romain Rolland’s Nobel prizewinning novel Jean-Christophe—about a German composer—and at the urging of a mentor-friend from literary circles, he decided to go to Paris, where, as he later explained, “the action seemed to be.” Indeed, Stravinsky was living there, a refugee from the Bolshevik Revolution, and there was the fascinating group of contemporary French composers, “Les Six,” which included Milhaud and Poulenc. Copland sensed quite astutely that post–World War One Paris offered an exhilarating climate for young artists.
During his three years in France he came into his own as a composer and embarked on a path toward artistic maturity. In the summer of 1921 he studied at the new American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, where his teachers included Paul Vidal for composition and Albert Wolff for conducting. For the next three years in Paris he studied with the Catalan pianist Ricardo Viñes, who was already known as an outstanding interpreter of new piano music. Most significantly, Copland became the first of many American composition students of the legendary Nadia Boulanger, who—in reference to her many students who went on to number among America’s most successful, influential and high-profile composers (David Diamond, Irving Fine, Walter Piston, Roy Harris, and Elliot Carter, among others)—was once cited by New York Times critic Tim Page as “the mother of American music.” (Virgil Thomson had preceded Copland, but as an organ student.) She exerted a powerful influence on the impressionable young Copland, setting him on a future multi-tiered path that would encompass various stages and directions. During those years he also availed himself of the rich, intoxicating cultural life in Paris, which included all of the arts. He traveled to England, Belgium, Austria, German, and Italy, where he met composers and heard much new music for the first time.
Among the composers of the time who had the greatest influence on Copland were Milhaud, whose assimilation of French and American (and sometimes Jewish) elements intrigued him, and, of course, Stravinsky—who either intrigued or angered just about everyone. Boulanger was in awe of Stravinsky (later conducting the premiere of his Dumbarton Oaks concerto in 1938 in Washington D.C.), and that admiration rubbed off undeniably on Copland to his ultimate advantage. Apart from Stravinsky, French music in general made a lasting impression on Copland, especially in terms of mediating if not veering him away from the Central European and Germanic influences still so prevalent in America—and even pointing him toward the eventual acquisition of his own distinctively American voice over the next decade. Later, fellow composer Ned Rorem would recall that in Paris, Copland learned the principle of dépouillement—stripping down—from his studies with Boulanger. He came to stress simplicity, as Rorem wrote: “Remove, remove, remove what isn’t needed. That stuck. The leanness!—particularly in his instrumentation, which he himself termed ‘transparent.’ ”
Through Boulanger, Copland became acquainted with the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who was to become the most important champion of contemporary composers and their music, as well as Copland’s most vocal advocate. That acquaintance led to his first real break, when Koussevitzky—upon his engagement as director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra—courageously programmed Copland’s 1923 symphony for organ and orchestra in a 1925 concert in Boston. Boulanger had commissioned the work for her first American tour as an organist. At its premiere by the New York Symphony Society a month earlier under Walter Damrosch’s baton, Damrosch remarked to the audience at its conclusion—at a time when any commentary by conductors was highly unusual—“If a young man can write a piece like that at the age of twenty-four, in five years he will be ready to commit murder!” Like many of his works from that period—including Music for the Theatre (1925) and the piano concerto (1926)—the organ symphony was influenced by jazz, which Copland first heard in Europe.
Since his return to New York in 1924, he had been trying to establish himself as a private teacher and was barely eking out a living from small commissions and part-time appointments at the New School for Social Research, the Henry Street Settlement, and Harvard University; and he was aided by grants from individuals and foundations. That situation largely changed for the better after the sensation created by the organ symphony and its immediately succeeding work. With no interest in taking the route of academia pursued by many other composers, and declining to seek a permanent post, Copland devoted himself to the propagation of contemporary music through such entities as the Copland-Sessions Concerts (1928–31) and Yaddo festivals (1932–52). He was an adviser to the Cos Cob Press, which was founded in 1929 for the publication of recent American music, and he assumed the leadership of the American Composers Alliance (1929–45). Enduring critical as well as popular acclaim came his way in the late 1930s with four works that defined his musical persona: El Salón México, an orchestral piece derived from Mexican folk tunes; and the ballets Billy the Kid (1938, commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein for Eugene Loring); Rodeo (1942, for Agnes de Mille); and Appalachian Spring (1944, for Martha Graham).
A number of his other works were later adapted for ballet—for example, the clarinet concerto composed for Benny Goodman in 1948, which was subsequently choreographed as The Pied Piper by Jerome Robbins in 1951. Copland also achieved success in Hollywood as a film composer, winning an Oscar for The Heiress (1949) and Academy Award nominations for Of Mice and Men (1939), Our Town (1940), and North Star (1943). Unlike most Hollywood (and Broadway) composers, he orchestrated his own film scores. Something Wild (1961), which many consider his finest film score, was later reworked into the orchestral piece Music for a Great City. But despite his success in the film genre, he did not succumb to the permanent lure of Hollywood and focused his energies on the classical concert sphere.
Copland’s opera and career are not as neatly divisible into time-bound artistic periods of stylistic chronologies as is sometimes imagined. Especially after the 1920s, he wrote music of varying degrees of complexity in each time frame; and never doctrinaire, he showed himself fully capable in each developmental period of reverting to earlier approaches with entirely fresh musical ideas. Still, it is possible to identify major turning points and stages of particular focus. The first of these began with his years in Paris and lasted through the 1920s. By the age of thirty he had already completed what came to be considered a masterpiece of modernity: his Piano Variations, built upon a four-note motif. Leonard Bernstein later called it “a synonym for modern music—so prophetic, harsh, and wonderful and so full of modern feeling and thinking.”
But by the mid-1930s Copland came to rethink his creative path and altered his conceptions concerning the directions composers should take. It occurred to him that he and other composers “were working in a vacuum.” He had come to accept that, as he explained, “an entirely new public for music had grown up around the radio and the phonograph. It made no sense to ignore them and continue writing as if they did not exist.” With that realization as a guide, he began to espouse a quasi-populist aesthetic, especially in terms of increased simplicity—yet firmly within the constructs of “classical music” and without compromise of artistic integrity. Part of the musical “Americanness” he formulated then resided in his brash harmonies and rhythms, his bold expositions, and his directness. But on an even more transparent level of popular appeal, he began his signature incorporation of American folk and folk-type tunes such as those cited above. Not confined to specific tunes, that approach extended to embracing folk idioms and styles, such as the sounds of country fiddlers in Appalachian Spring (awarded a Pulitzer Prize in music in 1945).
During the 1930s and 1940s Copland did not forsake the grounding of his Paris years. To the contrary, much of his blending of styles and techniques of early-20th-century European music continued to stem from that experience, working now in synergy with sources and themes of the quintessentially American social fabric.
His manifesto of that time amounted to a rejection of rarification, stylistic elitism, and complexity for its own sake. He urged American composers as a group to consider and respect their audiences. In 1941, for example, he referred to the need to find ways to communicate both with and to audiences as “the most exciting challenge of our time.” His charge—to himself as well as to fellow composers—was to find and develop musical styles and languages that would satisfy “both them [audiences] and us:
The new music audiences will have to have music that they can comprehend. That is axiomatic. It must therefore be simple, direct…. Above all, it must be fresh in feeling…. To write music that is both simple and direct and is at the same time great music is a goal worthy of the efforts of the best minds in music.
A third stylistic phase is usually assigned to the early 1950s, when he turned to experimentation with more abstract techniques and sounds—informed by the serial procedures of the Second Viennese School but still cast in his own distinctive brand. His piano quartet (1950) was his first foray into such twelve-tone procedures, which he nonetheless used as he wished and incorporated into his own emblematic harmonic language. Two other principal works of this period and orientation are Connotations, for orchestra, commissioned for the 1962 opening of Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall) at the new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York—a difficult work whose transparent sonorities, exciting rhythms, and angular lines still render it unmistakably “Coplandesque”—and Inscape (1967), written for the 125th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic. Not surprisingly, these and works of similar modernistic orientation from that period failed to attract the same degree of public (and, in a number of cases, critical) approval that attended his music from before the 1950s. And as Bernstein recalled in 1970, “young composers gradually stopped flocking to Aaron” in that decade, opining in retrospect that Copland had “tried to catch up … with twelve-tone music just as it too was becoming old-fashioned to the young.” Others, too, imagined wrongly that Copland was simply falling in line with a trend in an effort to be au courrant, whereas his independent interest in dodecaphonic experimentation actually preceded its wider adoption by many American composers and the height of the so-called cerebral era among composers (teachers and students alike) within the academy of the 1960s and 1970s. In any case, some of his nontonal and less “accessible” works from the 1950s and 1960s tended to alienate listeners as well as critics—often the very ones who had been his staunchest admirers.
Nonetheless, his reputation as well as his works from earlier years ensured that he would remain one of the very few composers to be appreciated in perspective—and in almost equal measure—by the general public and by peers in the contemporary music world. In fact, he never totally abandoned his earlier, more tonally based and direct approach, nor did he really convert to dodecaphony. Only four works can accurately be characterized as twelve-tone in method; and he used that method to suit his artistic credo. He continued to write music with major and minor scales, triads and other chords, and discernible key relationships, which he manipulated to complement advanced chromaticism and freshly adventurous dissonance.
John Adams, in his autobiography, Hallelujah Junction (2008), summed up some of Copland’s fusions of materials, influences, and styles:
Copland was adept at playing the role of provocateur, particularly in his gift for melding the leanness and angularity of Stravinsky with the demonic energy and raucous timbres of 1920s jazz.
Even at the height of his popularity (and perhaps partly because of it), and almost from the beginning of his successful appeal to wider audiences through his cast of simplicity and American idioms, Copland was not without detractors among the composers’ establishment. His public acclamation probably contributed to such rejections (or envy?) by a handful of senior and contemporary composers, some of whom view Copland (the Jew, the son of immigrants, the New Yorker as well as the man behind a New York clique, the leftist, the cosmopolitan, the Communist sympathizer) as fundamentally an outsider to “real” American culture—even a usurper for either commercial gain or political agendas, or both. The archconservative if not reactionary composer Daniel Gregory Mason went so far as to assert that “genuine” American music could not possibly come from one with Copland’s Jewish heritage—since its historical passion, poignancy, and even aesthetic eroticism could find no resonance with the true American spirit. At the other end of the spectrum, the modernist composer Henry Cowell was also convinced that only composers with solid American pedigrees (he cited Ives and Ruggles) could produce authentic American music. But the crusty, egocentric fellow Jewish composer Lazare Saminsky (whose unpublished autobiography is titled The Third Leonardo)—a Russian émigré who was considered an authority on Jewish music—topped them all in outright condemnation and cynical assessments. Saminsky claimed, with no justification whatsoever, that the purportedly American features of Copland’s music were nothing more than a thin veneer coating an inherently European melos. Moreover, he harangued, Copland had cleverly exploited so-called Americana for his own—not necessarily artistic—benefit. And ironically, he denied that Copland could have any real understanding of the American grass roots—as if Saminsky did.
Actually, Saminsky at that time was already a veteran of pugilistic—and equally groundless—polemics regarding the authenticity of ethnic-national musics and regarding who qualified as “the people.” Prior to his emigration from Russia, he had engaged in a series of similarly heated if less personalized attacks on the discoverers and advocates of Yiddish folksong in the Russian Empire. He had insisted that Yiddish folksong per se, lacking as it does in antiquity, cannot constitute genuine Jewish music; and he had implied that those who viewed Yiddish folksong as a bona fide tradition simply had no understanding of what was genuine in the musical heritage of the Jewish people.
It is of course possible, even desirable, for reasonable minds to differ about both the substance and the genesis of art; Copland is no exception. But even were one to acknowledge the legitimacy behind some of the reservations voiced by Copland’s antagonists and disregard any possible motivations of resentment, latter-day nativism, or—as was undeniably just beneath the surface of some attitidues—shades of antisemitism, history, with its verdict by a mixed jury of still receptive audiences and succeeding generations of schooled musicians, has judged otherwise.
After 1972 Copland virtually ceased composing as well as writing about music. But he remained active as a conductor and lecturer. He was criticized from time to time in Jewish circles for ignoring his Jewish roots in his work, apart from the very few exceptions—most notably the trio, Vitebsk, and the halutz song setting, Banu, which was a curiosity known at most to a handful of insiders—at least until its publication in 1994 in Philip V. Bohlman’s critical edition of Hans Nathan’s Israeli Folk Music: Songs of the Early Pioneers. The presence of any Jewish music content or definable, concrete influence in two well-known choral works—Four Motets (1921) and In the Beginning (1947), a setting in English of the opening section of Genesis—or whether either represents any underlying Judaic perspectives or specific sensibilities, is, despite several efforts to find such connections, highly debatable at best and more likely a chauvinistic effort to grasp at nonexistent straws. Both works may be viewed legitimately as residing as much in Christian contexts as Judaic ones; and it is probably more candid to accept them simply as expressing spiritual dimensions of some of Western culture’s basic foundations. If anything, the setting in Four Motets of the Judaically proscribed pronunciation of the Divine name in its three-syllable English translation of the Hebrew tetragram, when it could easily have been avoided, flies in the face of Jewish sensibilities—even if it was not so intended. Moreover, describing phrases or passages in other works as “having a Jewish feeling” or “influenced by Jewish chant”—as has been done on occasion—tells us absolutely nothing.
None of this lends any legitimacy to superficial castigations concerning Copland’s bypassing of Jewish musical material or subjects. Such “down-home” criticisms come off as baseless, intellectually narrow, and artistically irrelevant. They have usually revolved around the implication that so gifted a Jew, who attained so prominent a public persona as “America’s most famous composer,” had ipso facto some obligation to acknowledge his Jewish heritage more overtly and more frequently in his art, thereby offering awareness of that heritage to a wider collective audience, and, in the process, giving American—or, for that matter, world—Jewry an even greater and more direct cause for pride in one of its own. An otherwise highly laudatory 1981 article in a Jewish weekly, for example (“Aaron Copland Saluted—But Why Doesn’t He Do Some Jewish Music?”), took the composer to task in just that vein. “Copland is a Jew, and I wish he would show on occasion something of his Jewishness,” lamented the writer:
for every Jew has that pintele yid—the spark of Jewishness. If Copland has done anything for Israel and the Jewish people, it has escaped me. . . . America, and the world, must rejoice that there has been such a man as Aaron Copland around to give us fine music, and enrich our lives with it. And it does not matter, really, whether a man who does so is or is not a Jew—except to the Jewish people. We like to take pride in our great people…. We want nakhas [prideful pleasure] from each and every one of them.
Was there some tongue in that cheek?
Copland did not entirely ignore those kinds of critiques, which in itself indicates a measure of personal concern. He expressed his own perspective on the subject in his memoirs (Copland since 1943; written with Vivian Perlis, 1989): “Often questioned about what seems a lack of ‘Jewish material’ in my compositions, I decided not to dodge the issue: In Jerusalem, I delivered a lecture called ‘Jewish Composers in the Western World (15 April 1951)’….
I knew in advance that this audience would have liked to hear that Jewish artists who affirm their Jewishness come off best. I pointed out, however, that “the facts are more complex”…. I closed my talk by emphasizing that “a man doesn’t create art because he is a Jew but because he is a man. The truly Jewish composer need not worry about his Jewishness—it will be evident in his work.”
Copland was convinced that an artist’s creativity is dually influenced by his environment and by what he called temperament—a potentially vague trait often construed as a synonym for “nature” or “personality,” by which he meant one’s natural inclinations or spirit. An artist who is “by nature” deeply concerned with or attached to his Jewish heritage on emotional, intellectual, or spiritual levels (religious considerations completely aside), would, in his view, produce art that somehow reflects that Jewishness in one way or another. But a non-Jewish environment would combine with that so-called temperament, resulting in artistic admixtures. Ultimately, he saw neither conflict nor dilution. Citing the example of the French-Jewish and later American composer Darius Milhaud in a 1949 New York Herald Tribune article (“What Is Jewish Music?”), he wrote, “In Milhaud’s compositions we have proof that a composer can remain profoundly national [French] and at the same time profoundly Jewish.” (See notes on Milhaud in Vol. VII.) Citing that evaluation, Copland biographer Howard Pollack has summed up his own assessment of the composer’s stance:
For Copland … the essential point was that a composer could be true to his Jewish heritage without necessarily sounding eastern European or Middle Eastern; on the contrary, he could and should assimilate his own time and place. That is what drew him time and again to the example of Milhaud.
In addition to the memoirs, Copland published several other books. Most famous among them is What to Listen for in Music (1939), still regarded as one of the finest “music appreciation” books ever written. Upon seeing its German publication for the first time, he is said to have remarked that he “thought that finally we were turning the tables, telling the Germans how to listen to music and what to listen for.”
Having won the Pulitzer Prize for music and the New York Critics’ Circle Award in 1945, and the Gold Medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1956, Copland was showered with honors in his later years. These included the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964; the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of German (West Germany) in 1960; the Gold Baton from the American Symphony Orchestra League in 1978; and the Kennedy Center Honors for a “lifetime of significant contribution to American culture in the performing arts” in 1979. His 70th, 75th, 80th, and 85th birthdays were celebrated throughout the world with retrospective concerts and commemorative articles. But perhaps the most powerful of all accolades remains Leonard Bernstein’s tribute in Copland’s 75th year:
“It is futile to say: May he live forever! Of course he will.”
By: Neil W. Levin