Success Story

Copland: 1900 Through 1942

by Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis
St. Martin's/Marek, 402 pp., $24.95

Aaron Copland
Aaron Copland; drawing by David Levine

It is doubtful that world fame was uppermost in Aaron Copland’s mind when he decided at fifteen to devote himself to music, even though years later he told his friend Harold Clurman, “I wish to be remembered.” At forty-one Copland could regard himself without any immodesty at all as America’s most successful composer (of so-called serious music), and now as he approaches his eighty-fifth birthday (November 14, 1985) he can look back with satisfaction from the thought of having achieved an international reputation no one could have anticipated for an American composer when he started his career in the 1920s.

Despite all this—to a degree, perhaps, because of it—what he does not have is the highest intellectual prestige, and while I do not think this in itself bothers him, he may regret a certain coolness that comes in its wake in the attitude of our burgeoning composer talents. For he has always been concerned with the interests of youth, their devotion has been important to him. Virgil Thomson conferred upon him the title “patron of American musical youth.” Several young people had their first performances and publication through his efforts—among them, Paul Bowles, Israel Citkowitz, Leonard Bernstein, David Diamond, and William Schuman. Before government and foundation grants existed, young composers could rely on Copland to find them private subsidy if they needed it. In the 1930s a contentious band of nine, modeled after Les Six and calling themselves the Young Composers’ Group, proclaimed Copland the guiding spirit that Erik Satie had been for their French predecessors.1 (It took someone of Copland’s equanimity, and the gentleness that makes him much loved, to control their polemical exchanges on matters musical and political.)

Today young people of this type would be in university graduate programs or, less likely, in conservatories, which are becoming like universities. Much has been said about the evil effects of the academy on the arts. But the arts have always benefited from the apprenticeship system, and if the university can provide a milieu for the master–disciple relationship, at the same time protecting the master from the debilitating effects of mass culture, academia may not be the worst of all evils. Copland thrived on his summer teaching at Tanglewood, and he was much admired for it. The danger for him in accepting a university offer was that it might curtail his freedom, particularly to travel. The greater danger for composers in a university situation is, of course, pressure to simulate the scholarly methods of other fields. A determined artist should be able to resist it. Those who do not are apt to find Copand lacking the cachet to render him the most suitable subject for study.

Copland himself never went beyond high school, and while it sometimes gave him misgivings, extensive reading and intellectual curiosity more than made up for any deficiency. We must look elsewhere to account for an…

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