Aaron Copland

From New World Encyclopedia

Aaron Copland
Aaron Copland 1970.JPG
Background information
Birth name Aaron Copland
Born November 14, 1900, Brooklyn, New York City, United States
Died December 2, 1990, New York City, New York
Occupation(s) Composer, Pianist
Notable instrument(s)

Aaron Copland (November 14, 1900 – December 2, 1990) was an American classical composer of concert and film music. Instrumental in forging a distinctly American style of composition, he was widely known as "the dean of American composers." Copland's music achieved a difficult balance between modern music and American folk styles. The open, slowly changing harmonies of many of his works are said to evoke the vast American landscape. He incorporated percussive orchestration, changing meters, polyrhythms, polychords, and tone rows. Outside of composing, Copland often served as a teacher and lecturer. During his career he also wrote books and articles, and served as a conductor, most frequently for his own works.

Much of the greatness of Copland's art is due to the ways he synthesized various musical styles, idioms and conventions. His early works were influenced by jazz, in which he fused its divergent style with modern and classical forms to create a highly expressive compositional syntax. In his mature works he did not merely quote a folk melody, but rather infused its qualities throughout the melodic, rhythmic and harmonic properties of the piece.

As he sought a more personal musical language, Copland looked to the rich legacy of Americana, with its deep Christian and Puritan heritage, as a basis of many of his most memorable scores. The Lincoln Portrait, Rodeo, Billy the Kid, Variations on a Shaker Melody, to name but a few, are prime examples of such. Copland's collaboration with legendary choreographer, Martha Graham, begat one of American ballet's finest works, Appalachian Spring, a score that also looked to folk music for its inspiration. He also wrote film scores and opera based on American folk materials and it was in developing this populist style that he would become regarded as America's preeminent composer.

At a time when modern composition had become increasing complex and progressive, Copland's populist simplicity was the polar opposite of the avant-garde of the early twentieth century. The arcane, acerbic and highly formulaic music of the Second Viennese School (Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern), was viewed as being increasingly elitist and to a certain extent, anti-social, whereas Copland's folk influenced scores evoked a spirit of community and social inclusion. The country dances, the hymn-like melodies, the sweeping, pan-diatonic harmonies that comprise his most popular works, have made his music the subject of great admiration and appreciation.


Copland was born in Brooklyn, New York, of Lithuanian Jewish descent. His father's surname was "Kaplan" before he anglicized it to "Copland" while in England, before immigrating to the United States. He spent his childhood living above his parents' Brooklyn shop. Although his parents never encouraged or directly exposed him to music, at the age of 15 he had already taken an interest in the subject and aspired to be a composer. His musical education included time with Leopold Wolfsohn, Rubin Goldmark (also one of George Gershwin's teachers), and Nadia Boulanger at the Fontainebleau School of Music in Paris from 1921 to 1924. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1925 and again in 1926.

Upon his return from his studies in Paris, he decided that he wanted to write works that were "American in character" and thus he chose jazz as the American idiom. His first significant work was the necromantic ballet Grohg which contributed thematic material to his later Dance Symphony. Other major works of his first (austere) period include the Short Symphony (1933), Music for Theater (1925) and Piano Variations (1930), which used the tune, I'm Alabamy Bound as a theme. However, this jazz-inspired period was brief, as his style evolved toward the goal of writing more accessible works.

Many composers rejected the notion of writing music for the elite during the Great Depression, thus the common American folklore served as the basis for his work along with revival hymns, and cowboy and folk songs. At a time when conservatories were teaching more astringent methods of composition, Copland held onto the respect of academics with the reasonable statement that he wanted to see if he couldn't say what he had to say in the simplest possible terms. His second (vernacular) period began around 1936 with Billy the Kid and El Salón México. Fanfare for the Common Man, perhaps Copland's most famous work, scored for brass instruments and percussion, was written in 1942 at the request of the conductor Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. The work would later be used to open many Democratic National Conventions. The fanfare was also used as the main theme of the fourth movement of Copland's Symphony No. 3, where it first appears in a quiet, pastoral manner, then in the stentorian brass form of the original.

The same year Copland wrote A Lincoln Portrait, which became popular with the wider public, leading to a strengthening of his association with American music. He was commissioned by legendary choreographer, Martha Graham, to write a ballet, Appalachian Spring, which he later arranged as a popular orchestral suite. The score won him a Pulitzer Prize for music.

His ballet score Rodeo, a tale of a ranch wedding, written around the same time as Lincoln Portrait (1942) is another enduring composition for Copland, and the "Hoe-Down" from the ballet is one of the most well-known compositions by any American composer, having been used numerous times in movies and on television. In the early to mid 1990s, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association used Hoe-Down as the background music to their "Beef, it's what's for dinner" marketing campaign, and it was also used during the 78th Academy Awards as background music.

Copland composed three numbered symphonies, but applied the word "symphony" to more works than that. He rewrote his early three-movement Organ Symphony to leave out the organ part, calling the result his First Symphony. His fifteen-minute Short Symphony was the Second Symphony, though it also exists as the "Sextet." The Third Symphony is more traditional in form (four movements of which the second is a scherzo and the third is an adagio) and length (approximately forty-five minutes). That leaves the Dance Symphony, which Copland had hurriedly extracted from the early un-produced ballet Grohg in order to meet a commission from RCA Records.

Copland was an important contributor to the genre of film music. His score for William Wyler's The Heiress (1949) won an Academy Award. Several of the themes he created are encapsulated in the suite, Music for Movies, and his score for the film of John Steinbeck's novel The Red Pony was given a suite of its own. This suite was one of Copland's own favorite scores. Posthumously, his music was used to score Spike Lee's 1998 film, He Got Game, which included a basketball game in a neighborhood court being set to Hoe-Down. Virtually every composer who wrote scores for western movies, especially between 1940 and 1960 was influenced by Copland's populist style. In fact, it is difficult to overestimate the influence Copland has had on film scores.

Having defended the Communist Party USA during the United States 1936 presidential election, Copland was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation during the McCarthy red scare of the 1950s. He was Hollywood blacklisted, and in 1953 A Lincoln Portrait was pulled from President Dwight Eisenhower's inaugural concert due to the political climate. That same year Copland testified before the United States Congress saying that he was never a communist. The accusation outraged many members of the musical community, who claimed Copland's patriotism was clearly displayed through his music. The investigation ceased to be active in 1955 and was closed in 1975. Copland's membership in the communist party was never proven.

A friend of Leonard Bernstein, Copland was a major influence on Bernstein's composing style. Bernstein was considered the finest conductor of Copland's works. British progressive rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer recorded two songs based on Copland works: Fanfare for the Common Man and "Hoe-Down." Several of their live recordings of Fanfare for the Common Man incorporated the closing of the second movement of Copland's Third Symphony as well.

Copland died in New York on December 2, 1990.


  • Copland, Aaron. What to Listen For in Music. A book for all music-lovers, What to Listen for in Music is about sensitivity to music and how to absorb music fully in general.
  • Copland, Aaron. Music and Imagination.

Selected works

  • Scherzo Humoristique: The Cat and the Mouse (1920)
  • Four Motets (1922)
  • Passacaglia (piano solo) (1922)
  • Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (1924)
  • Music for the Theater (1925)
  • Dance Symphony (1925)
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1926)
  • Symphonic Ode (1927-1929|29)
  • Piano Variations (1930)
  • Grohg (1925/32) (ballet)
  • Statements for orchestra (1932-35)
  • The Second Hurricane, play-opera for high school performance (1936)
  • El Salón México (1936)
  • Billy the Kid (1938) (ballet)
  • Quiet City (1940)
  • Our Town (1940)
  • Piano Sonata (1939-41)
  • Fanfare for the Common Man (1942)
  • Lincoln Portrait (1942)
  • Rodeo (1942) (ballet)
  • Danzon Cubano (1942)
  • Music for the Movies (1942)
  • Sonata for violin and piano (1943)
  • Appalachian Spring (1944) (ballet)
  • Third Symphony (1944-46)
  • In the Beginning (1947)
  • The Red Pony (1948)
  • Clarinet Concerto (commissioned by Benny Goodman) (1947-1948)
  • Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson (1950)
  • Piano Quartet (1950)
  • Old American Songs (1952)
  • The Tender Land (1954) (opera)
  • Canticle of Freedom (1955)
  • Orchestral Variations (1957)
  • Piano Fantasy (1957)
  • Dance Panels (1959; revised 1962) (ballet)
  • Connotations For Orchestra (1962)
  • Music for a Great City (1964)
  • Emblems, for wind band (1964)
  • Inscape (1967)
  • Duo for flute and piano (1971)
  • Three Latin American Sketches (1972)

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Kamien, Roger. Music: An Appreciation. McGraw-Hill College. Third edition, 1997. ISBN 0070365210
  • Pollack, Howard. Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man. New York: Henry Holt and Co. First edition, 1999. ISBN 0805049096
  • Skowronski, JoAnn. Aaron Copland: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985. ISBN 0313240914


  • Aaron Copland: A Self-Portrait (1985). Directed by Allan Miller. Biographies in Music series. Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities.
  • Appalachian Spring (1996). Directed by Graham Strong, Scottish Television Enterprises. Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities.
  • Copland Portrait (1975). Directed by Terry Sanders, United States Information Agency. Santa Monica, CA: American Film Foundation.
  • Fanfare for America: The Composer Aaron Copland (2001). Directed by Andreas Skipis. Produced by Hessischer Rundfunk in association with Reiner Moritz Associates. Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities & Sciences.

External links

All links retrieved June 13, 2023.


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