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 apathy toward him that verges at times on occlusion; and what immediately strikes us is that many artistic young people with lofty ideals can be wary of anyone with popular acclaim. Copland himself was wary in 1921 when he wrote home from Paris (however facetiously): “Sad to say, my composition made quite a hit; I say it is sad, because I can’t get over the idea that if a thing is popular it can’t be good.”

For having written accessible works Copland is a marked man. Young people are not only discouraged from his other, more “difficult,” music, but it is not uncommon to find some among them who are surprised he had written it. But let us say they are aware of the existence of this music, for example, the three major piano works, Connotations (for orchestra), the Third Symphony, and Sextet. We then come up against another obstacle to their scholarly study. Copland tells us:

I admit I am uneasy with strict technical analysis, just as I have always been disinclined toward rigid methods of composition…our language is woefully inadequate to the task of describing musical experiences.

Copland has said he prefers to leave analysis of his music to others. As someone who has taken up the challenge, I can report that he managed to transmit his own uneasiness, so that I have often had the sense of violating some intimacy. He made me feel (Harold Clurman, perhaps as his spokesman, was articulate on the matter)2 that he would have preferred a language more proper to literary criticism. Now that gets you nowhere in a music seminar.

Copland’s preferences do not prevent anyone from conceptualizing the constraints of his music, the complexities in it, notwithstanding the transparency, economy, directness. But the incentive is not there because Copland has given virtually no clues. His statements are of the generalized program-note variety. (On the main theme of the Piano Variations: “Almost every note and chord in the piece relates back to these four notes.”) This could only reinforce the impression of a lack of high-mindedness conveyed by his reputation for the accessible music that, in fact, dominated his output for scarcely more than fifteen years, between 1934 and 1950. Copland should not be required to present his credentials.


But if credentials are needed, they may be found in the very same belief that made Copland reluctant to provide a conceptual guide to his music. This belief, glimpses of which we catch in the pages of Music and Imagination (1952) and Copland on Music (1963), has a certain prestige as philosophy to the extent that it reflects a keen awareness of art as perceptual rather than conceptual. It seems to have been André Gide who best articulated the notion to Copland and over the years he had again and again cited the role Gide ascribed to la part de Dieu. Now again, in his book written with Vivian Perlis, he turns to Gide, quoting a passage from Palades that he first quoted in a Boston Symphony Orchestra program in 1932:

Before explaining my book to others, I wait for them to explain it to me. To wish to explain it first would be to restrain its meaning prematurely, because even if we know what we wish to say we cannot know if we have said only that. And what interests me especially is what I have put into my book without my knowledge.

There is, however, a kind of analysis that is for the listener’s enlightenment rather than the composer’s, and I wish Copland had been more tolerant of this kind. It can be deadening in its dullness, it may be either trivial and obvious or arcane, but it serves to fix attention upon the object. Good businessman that he is (his only business mistake has been said to be his outright sale of his first published work to Durand), Copland should realize the benefits—an insurance policy for posthumous survival like his one-time advocacy of tomorrow’s audience, the young. If perceptive and lively critical analysis that captures the vividness of the aesthetic experience is scarce today, that scarceness should not discourage those who are ceaselessly dissecting the intricacies of Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, and Webern from giving attention to Copland.

It used to be the other way around, but what now goes on in the university affects the concert hall (especially with modern music groups). This has licensed the press (virtually the only provider of music criticism) to use the epithet “academic” with the authority of verifiable truth for an entire body of music that was formerly assailed as being “arid,” “impotent,” “cerebral,” etc. Copland is spared because he does not bear the aura of university approval. At the same time there is a distressing lack of interest in his abstract works on the part of program makers. I have in mind particularly such compositions as Quartet for Piano and Strings, Piano Fantasy, and Sextet. Perhaps it is his turn for the lull that may follow a period of saturation. Coleridge observed, “It is peculiar to original genius to become less and less striking in proportion to its success in improving the taste and judgment of his contemporaries.” Copland, some may insist, is not highly original. But he has an individuality that has certainly been recognizable when it has turned up as an influence in countless “Americanist” works, from early Elliott Carter (Holiday Overture) to Leonard Bernstein (Fancy Free). It may be we need some respite from these and from Copland’s own music. But I still think there is reason for concern.

I have been painting a bleak picture, yet nothing of the kind emerges from the pages of Copland’s autobiography. Written with Vivian Perlis, the book takes us through 1942, whereas I have been discussing the present. I know he will persist in the singularly affirmative mode as he continues his chronicle. Though nothing leads us to believe that Copland does not know how good he is, as he documents each of his triumphs he expresses childlike wonder that anything so fortunate should have happened to him. When he does complain it is likely to be about the inequities American society lays on its composers, his concern being for his peers as much as for himself. Complaints lead to remedial action—for example, when he worked with fellow composers for the enforcement of composers’ rights to performance fees, or when he tried to get composers and critics to confront one another at a conference at Yaddo.

Occasionally he complains about his own finances. Not that he ever had to starve. There were always people to lend him their living quarters or give him financial help. But at thirty when he received a year’s stipend from a rich relative, he “found it somewhat degrading to accept money this way.” He lived frugally, he never had a family to support, and when he felt short of money it was usually for travel, which was vital to him and to his career. No one can blame him for complaining that in 1938, the year of Billy the Kid and a London performance of El Salón México, his “checking account showed a balance of $6.93,” and by 1941, despite a rapid rise in royalties, “the ‘most successful American composer’…had earned a total of $4,557.61.”


Such complaints are mild. They are also scarce. There are plenty of mundane facts but no personal intimacies, few impressions of famous men. (What impressions there are make us wish there were more: of Erik Satie, observed in a Paris restaurant, “He was always alone and invariably ate with his face in his plate, casting quick glances from right to left as if he feared somebody might snatch the food away from him.” And elsewhere, after reading Alfred Kazin’s On Native Grounds: “I’ve come to the conclusion that Stravinsky is the Henry James of composers. Same ‘exile’ psychology, same exquisite perfection, same hold on certain temperaments, same lack of immediacy of contact with the world around him….”) Musicians may be disappointed to find no musical secrets revealed, nothing but fairly brief program notes (without music examples). Perlis has been compiling an oral history of American music and this is essentially an expanded extract. Copland discourses informally, and you do not find the finish or shape of his old reviews in Modern Music. Some of these are collected in Copland on Music.

Not that his writing was ever anything but plain. In a passage quoted by Perlis, Marc Blitzstein remarks, “Copland’s lecturing, like his written criticism, is notable for a flat undecorated honesty. He is no felicitous phraser, he has little grace of speech, few quips; and sometimes one stops listening. Almost always something important is missed.” This last sentence (italics mine) is the clincher. The net effect of the comment is favorable. Copland has been one of our most endearing and sought-after speakers among composers. He constantly instructs us, and in this chronicle, as we read about his career we learn about other things, including the changing professional status of the composer in American society, since Copland was a central figure as guardian, statesman, spokesman. (Thomson: “He carried his American colleagues along with him, because he was successful before anybody else.”)

Lengthy discourse of the type found in Perlis’s book is apt to ramble and to blur chronology. She deals with this problem by adding four historical interludes which give structure to the book. Particularly attractive is the inclusion of nineteen vignettes drawn from her reserve of interviews, and inserted into the text at places where the composer, collaborator, or friend interviewed is mentioned. Some run to a few pages (Leonard Bernstein’s is seven) and get in a bit of self-promotion at times, but in general they do not go too far afield, except in the case of Harold Shapero, who gives a sharp portrait of Hindemith, but who could have given an equally sharp and more relevant one had he been asked about Copland himself.

In Copland’s own account here the tendency of his work of the mid-1930s is seen as responding to the familiar disorientation of the Depression, Popular Front, and war. Other composers as sensitive to the vicissitudes of the time might have been so paralyzed as to declare a moratorium. Young readers may be surprised to learn that around 1930 Copland had a reputation for severe, even wildly dissonant music, for example the Piano Variations, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, and Symphonic Ode. They may also be surprised, if they have suspected him of opportunism, to learn that the reason he had to seek a new style was precisely because this music, his “lofty” music, was incapable of fulfilling his lofty intentions.

These intentions—the high morality of his leftist beliefs—Copland has been reluctant to discuss: his tangle with HUAC during the 1950s, when he was called to testify about leftist associations, left too many scars (we should hear more about it in the second volume). It is Perlis who fills us in, linking Copland’s intermezzo as a composer of accessible music (at first, until about 1940, he brought out little else) with the preachings of the Group Theatre and the Pierre Degeyter Club (arm of the Workers Music League). As a memento, two pages of the New Masses are reproduced, containing Copland’s prize-winning picket-line song, “Into the Streets May First”—a lesson to its composer for future attempts at simplicity, since not even the most well-disposed worker could hope to negotiate its pitch range and modulation.

Copland has rationalized his conversion to a more accessible style in several ways: his response to the new audience that had grown up around radio and phonograph, the quest for an indigenous idiom, disenchantment with the stifling effect of the elite modern music societies3 But it is the voice of the class-conscious ideologue that one hears clearly in his pronouncements of the period—for example, on the symphony audiences that would later acclaim him:

It becomes increasingly difficult to have the sense that there is any public for our music—the public that can afford to pay for concerts is quite simply not interested…. In a period of such economic and general social tension music itself seems unimportant—at least to those middle class people who up to now have been our audiences.

(letter to Carlos Chávez, August 28, 1935)

The greatest anxiety for those of us who admired Copland was caused by his talk of a “music for us and them,” the musical elite and the mass audience. To write musique d’occasion—a Lincoln Portrait, for example—was one thing; it was quite something else to assume that art could be diluted without sacrificing depth, even if quality were maintained. Copland names me along with Roger Sessions as having disapproved of “my move to a ‘popular’ style.” When I seized the moment to write that Copland had composed his fine Piano Sonata of 1941 during his most active period of turning out his accessible music, and to rejoice that the old Copland of the Piano Variations and Sextet was still coexisting with the new Copland,4 I received a long letter from Hollywood (April 16, 1943) objecting that “…for the sake of drawing sharp distinctions you rather overdo the dichotomy between my ‘severe’ and ‘simple’ styles. The inference is that only the severe style is really serious. I don’t believe that.”

My attitude toward his theater and movie music has softened,5 and my fears that it would take over his work have been allayed. (I hope I am exonerated in the second volume.) But I cannot help feeling that it is the existence and knowledge of the abstract music that provide us with a readiness to recognize its refinements when they show up in the other music. Reciprocally, homespun elements of the other music have infiltrated the severe style to imbue it with a warmth that gives it new (not better) character. This does not mean Copland ever succeeded in achieving his goal of a “music for us and them,” though some may argue a case for Appalachian Spring. Since the early 1950s his efforts in occasional, deliberately accessible music have not been conspicuous—most notable among them his score for the movie Something Wild, from which he derived Music for a Great City (1964). Copland has never been prolific, but his works began to appear with even less frequency, until around 1970, when he stopped composing to devote himself to conducting. A final assessment, from a point of greater perspective, may interpret this later development as his admission of disappointment not to have achieved his goal. This ought not to alter our assessment of the music he wrote before and after he set himself the goal, but I fear it does.

Copland’s accessible music is in uncommonly good taste for such music. A discriminating ear for harmony and sonority is always in evidence, and his use of folk music is skillful, fragmenting familiar tunes in a way that suggests the fragmentation of familiar objects in a Cubist painting. The influence of this music raised the standard of movie and television background music. (He certainly did more for it than Star Wars!) Even if Copland was “serious” about this music, it cannot, alas, be as serious as music that does not give up its secret so easily.

Copland may very well have had in mind for this music a position in his output similar to the position Stravinsky’s Sacre and other “Russian” works have in his. For all their differences, the two composers have remarkable affinity. Indeed, Minna Lederman Daniel recalls that the first time she saw Copland, “The image of Stravinsky came to me immediately because the face had a similar irregularity of features, although it was not at all so composed and balanced as Stravinsky’s.” Both composers like to live with a work until it feels comfortable before sending it out to the public. (I once saw Stravinsky comparing notes on this habit with Copland and adjusting his jacket over his collar to make his point.) They share clarity, spare textures with luminous widespread simultaneities alternating with jerky secco rhythmic figures, though the affinity transcends their stylistic individualities. Hearing Stravinsky in 1921, Copland was “struck by the strong Russian element in his music…and I have no doubt that this strongly influenced me to try to find a way to a distinctively American music.”

If there is certainly an affinity between the two, one must be careful about any analogy between the development of the one and that of the other, since the staggering innovation of the “Russian” works is altogether special. Still, not entirely unlike the way the “Americanist” works affect us, the “Russian” works for some of us also tend to wear thin, and we find Stravinsky’s greatness elsewhere. I do not know that this is held against him—which makes me wonder if we are not sufficiently convinced of American music by now to adopt the same attitude in Copland’s case.

This Issue

February 28, 1985