You cannot judge this beast by merely grasping its tail, fondling its trunk or measuring the width of its legs. No, it is too vast, too divergent, too paradoxical. Perhaps Virgil Thomson's famous summary still applies: "The way to write American music is simple. All you have to do is to be an American and then write any music you wish. There is precedent and model here for all the kinds. And any Americanism worth bothering about is everybody's property anyway."
Washington audiences have been hearing a lot of American classical music lately, particularly at National Symphony Orchestra concerts. There, Music Director Leonard Slatkin has made it his mission to present contemporary and American works of all kinds. Over the next five Sundays, The Washington Post will be examining five important American composers -- Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, John Cage, Philip Glass and Jeffrey Mumford. These are hardly the only significant figures in our music, nor are they necessarily the "best"; such judgments are wisely left to posterity. But all of them are worthy of attention -- and all of them stand for representative movements in an exciting century for American music.
Although there are some distinguished pieces by New World composers that dated back to the 18th century (and, in the early 1900s, several fascinating experimental works by Charles Ives), it was really Aaron Copland (1900-1990) who established a distinctly American kind of classical composition. Indeed, this tall, loosely knit, soft-spoken and bespectacled man came to seem a virtual personification of American music in all of its guises, and he is still probably the most important and influential composer of classical music we have produced.
Over a career that spanned five decades, Copland produced symphonies, ballets, operas, concertos, chamber music and songs in styles that could be folksy and friendly or chilly and austere, yet always retained his own unmistakable voice. Moreover, Copland was one of the few composers of his time who were held in equal regard by professional musicians and the general public. Even those who don't think they know Copland's music will be startled by any performance of the "Fanfare for the Common Man," which they have likely heard dozens of times. It has become a sort of unofficial musical motto for American power and determination.
Copland's impassioned advocacy of American music was almost as important as his own composition. As Thomson observed in the book "American Music Since 1910": "It was as if he could see already coming into existence an organized body of modernistic American composers with himself at the head of it, taking over the art and leading it by easy stages to higher ground, with himself still at the head of it, long its unquestioned leader, later its president emeritus. This concentrated professionalism was Copland's first gift to American music; it had not been there before."
"I was born on November 14, 1900, on a street in Brooklyn [Washington Avenue] that can only be described as drab," Copland wrote in a biographical sketch. He began his musical studies by picking up what he could from his older sister, an amateur pianist. Other early teachers included the gifted but highly conservative composer Rubin Goldmark, whose outspoken detestation of modernism in all of its guises inspired his bright student initially to investigate and later to rebel.
In 1921, Copland packed off to Paris, where he studied with the highly regarded teacher Nadia Boulanger, who made something of a specialty of training young American composers. "It was where the action seemed to be," he wrote. At Boulanger's insistence, conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who was then living in Paris but had just been tapped to take over the Boston Symphony Orchestra, gave Copland his initial break, putting the young man's Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (1923) on the program for his first American tour.
The result was something of a scandal, for not everybody liked the bold, brash, new composition, with its primal rhythms, raucous dissonances and unbridled energy. When Walter Damrosch conducted it in New York, he followed the performance with a brief speech to the audience: "If a young man can write a piece like that at the age of 24, in five years he will be ready to commit murder!"
Indeed, Copland's early works are exhilarating and uncompromising. The Piano Variations (1930) must be counted as an American masterpiece. It was built on a gonging four-note motif that sounds a little bit like a through-the-mirror version of the familiar "Westminster Carillon" (hum the first melody for church bells that comes into your head). On this, he constructed 20 succinct variations that built to a cataclysmic conclusion.
All cold steel and tactile fury, the Piano Variations were once described by Leonard Bernstein as a "synonym for modern music, so prophetic, harsh and wonderful and so full of modern feeling and thinking." The novelist (and sometime composer) Paul Bowles was equally impressed: "As I listen to the Piano Variations, I'm aware of its construction; its beams and struts are beautifully visible, unmarred by any ornamentation." Copland himself called this work his "10-minute monster."
And yet, by the middle '30s, Copland had changed direction. He felt he was failing to communicate with the general musical public. "It seemed to me that we composers were in danger of working in a vacuum," he explained (a problem that would only grow as the century wore on). "Moreover, an entirely new public for music had grown up around the radio and phonograph. It made no sense to ignore them and continue writing as if they did not exist."
And so Copland embraced a populist ethos and deliberately strove for a greater simplicity without sacrificing artistic values and falling into purely commercial "product." His first work in this genre, "El Salon Mexico" (1936), has become one of his best-known works, filled with roaring brass, Mexican rhythms and soulful sentiment, punctuated every now and again by the massive WHOMP of timpani.
It was a new direction for Copland and it brought him fame. He quoted cowboy songs in "Billy the Kid" (1938) and American folk tunes in another ballet, "Rodeo" (1942). "Appalachian Spring" (1944), which was commissioned by the choreographer Martha Graham and first performed at the Library of Congress, evoked the open harmonies of country fiddlers and featured an elaborate finale built on the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts." It won the Pulitzer Prize for Music that year.
There are no actual folk melodies in the Symphony No. 3 (1946), but it remains very much of a piece with the other music from this period. "The Tender Land" (1955), Copland's only full-length opera, avoids borrowing from any popular sources, but maintains a thoroughly American identity through a simulation of folk styles. Although it was neither a commercial nor a critical success when it was first performed by the New York City Opera, it has been revived often (most recently, earlier this year by the Virginia Opera) and it holds up as a convincing, highly melodic and deeply felt evocation of a lost America.
When Copland adopted his own variant of serialism in the early 1950s, public interest in his new works lessened. This is a pity because, in fact, Copland's serial works have very little to do with the dry, determinedly stringent academicism that characterized much American work in the genre. His late, thorny works such as the Piano Fantasy (1957), "Connotations" for Orchestra (1962) and "Inscape" (1967), which were met with public indifference and critical hostility, deserve a reevaluation from the perspective of the late 1990s, divorced from the musical politics of their time.
After 1970, Copland virtually stopped composing. Yet he remained active in musical life as a conductor and lecturer through the early 1980s. Friendly and approachable, he was inevitably helpful to young students, rarely refusing interviews or visits. But symptoms of what many suspected was Alzheimer's disease had begun to manifest themselves as early as the late 1970s, and Copland grew increasingly vague and forgetful. After 1985, the year that the first volume of the autobiography he wrote with Vivian Perlis was published, he abandoned public appearances and spent most of his time at his home in Peekskill, N.Y., where he died on Dec. 2, 1990. (In accordance with Copland's wishes, his house has been turned into a center for young composers.)
Even if Alzheimer's may be blamed in part for the paucity of works from Copland's last years, the fact remains that he had greatly reduced his compositional activities as early as the late 1950s. And so Copland's long "silence" may be ranked with those of Sibelius and Rossini, neither of whom wrote much music in their last 30 years.
Yet he impressed his many visitors as a happy man, at peace with himself and the world. "I'm amazed that I don't miss composing more than I do," he told an interviewer in 1980. "You'd think if you had spent 50 years at it, you'd have the feeling that something was missing and I really don't. I must have expressed myself sufficiently. I certainly don't feel tortured or bitter, only lucky to have been given so long to be creative. And resigned to the fact that it seems to be over."
Copland's first biographer, Julia Smith, once called him "this simple and great man in our midst." Thomson expanded upon the idea: "The Copland catalogue has good stuff under every heading, including opera. He has never turned out bad work, nor worked without an inspiration. His stance is that not only of a professional but also of an artist -- responsible, prepared, giving of his best. And if that best is also the best we have, there is every reason to be thankful for its straightforward employment of high gifts. Also, of course, for what is the result of exactly that -- 'this simple and great man in our midst.' "
It's been almost eight years since his death, but Copland remains very much in our midst -- as pioneer, standard-bearer and superb practitioner of the art of American music. It was Copland's genius to be able to sum up both the vast spatial possibilities that were inherent within the American landscape -- and the pulsing, arching energy that charges so many of our activities.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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