Aaron Copland (1900-1990) was one of the most important figures in American music during the second quarter of the 20th century, both as a composer and as a spokesman who was concerned about making Americans conscious of the importance of their indigenous music.
Aaron Copland was born on November 14, 1900, in Brooklyn, New York, the youngest of five children born to Harris Morris Copland and Sarah (Mittenthal) Copland. He attended Boys' High School and studied music privately (theory and composition with Rubin Goldmark, beginning in 1917). In 1921 he went to France to study at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, where his principal teacher was Nadia Boulanger. During his early studies, he had been much attracted by the music of Scriabin, Debussy, and Ravel; the years in Paris provided an opportunity to hear and absorb all the most recent trends in European music, notably the works of Stravinsky, Bartók, and Schoenberg.
Upon completion of his studies in 1924, Copland returned to America and composed the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, his first major work, which Boulanger played in New York in 1925. Music for the Theater (1925) and a Piano Concerto (1926) explored the possibilities of jazz idioms in symphonic music; from this period dates the interest of Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in Copland's music—a sponsorship that proved important in gaining a wider audience for his own and much of America's music.
In the late 1920s Copland turned to an increasingly abstract style, characterized by angular melodic lines, spare textures, irregular rhythms, and often abrasive sonorities. The already distinctive idiom of the early works became entirely personal and free of identifiable outside influence in the Piano Variations (1930), Short Symphony (1933), and Statements, and the basic features of these works remained in one way or another central to his musical style thereafter.
The 1920s and 1930s were a period of intense concern about the limited audience for new (and especially American) music, and Copland was active in many organizations devoted to performance and sponsorship, notably the League of Composers, the Copland-Sessions concerts, and the American Composers' Alliance. His organizational abilities earned him the sobriquet of American music's natural president from his colleague Virgil Thomson.
Beginning in the mid-1930s, Copland made a conscious effort to broaden the audience for American music and took steps to adapt his style when writing works commissioned for various functional occasions. The years between 1935 and 1950 saw his extensive involvement in music for theater, school, ballet, and cinema, as well as for more conventional concert situations. In the ballets, Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944; Pulitzer Prize, 1945), he made use of folk or folklike melodies and relaxed his previous highly concentrated style, to arrive at an idiom broadly recognized as "American" without the sacrifice of craftsmanship or inventiveness. Other well-known works of this period are El Salón México (1935) and A Lincoln Portrait (1942), while the Piano Sonata (1943) and the Third Symphony (1946) continue the line of development of his concert music. Among his widely acclaimed film scores are those for Of Mice and Men (1939), Our Town (1940), The Red Pony (1948), and The Heiress (1949).
Copland's concern for establishing a tradition of music in American life was manifested in his activities as teacher at The New School for Social Research and Harvard and as head of the composition department at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, Massachusetts, founded by Koussevitzky. His Norton Lectures at Harvard (1951-1952) were published as Music and Imagination (1952); earlier books, of similar gracefully didactic intent, are What to Listen for in Music (1939) and Our New Music (1941).
Beginning with the Quartet for Piano and Strings (1950), Copland made use of the serial methods developed by Arnold Schoenberg, amplifying concerns of linear texture long present in his music. The most important works of these years include the Piano Fantasy (1957), Nonet for Strings (1960), Connotations (1962), and Inscape (1967); the opera The Tender Land (1954) represents an extension of the style of the ballets to the lyric stage.
After his return from France, Copland resided in the New York City area. He engaged in many cultural missions, especially to South America. Although he had been out of the major spotlight for almost twenty years, he remained semi-active in the music world up until his death, conducting his last symphony in 1983.
Copland died on December 2, 1990 in New York City and was remembered as a man who encouraged young composers to find their own voice, no matter the style, just as he had done for six decades.
Further Reading on Aaron Copland
An autobiographical sketch is included in Copland's The New Music, 1900-1960 (titled Our New Music) (1968). Arthur V. Berger Aaron Copland (1953), contains more penetrating observations about Copland's music, but Julia F. Smith Aaron Copland: His Work and Contribution to American Music (1955), is also useful. A detailed biography up to that point appears in the 1951 issue of Current Biography.
Copland's obituary appears in the December 17, 1990 issue of Time magazine.