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Life Of Aaron Copland

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Book Reports: Copland: 1900 through 1942 and Copland: Since 1943

In their books: Copland: 1900 through 1942 and Copland: Since 1943, Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis give a detailed account of the life of one of America's most influential composers. The books are arranged similarly to the Shostakovich biography that our class reviewed earlier this semester. That is, through personal accounts by Copland himself along with accounts of Copland's friends and acquaintances, the authors manage to paint an accurate and interesting picture detailing the life of the great composer. When combined, the two books recount Copland's entire life, dividing it into two periods for the purpose of easier organization and reading.

Copland was born in New York City in 1900. Copland had a large and loving family in New York. His childhood was comfortable, as his father owned a department store where Copland worked for much of his young life. Copland's mother is described by the composer as "affectionate and a very nice mother to have" (pp. 18) Copland showed an early interest in music, and by the age of eleven, he had surpassed the knowledge of his older sister in the ways of the piano. As a child, he had taken lessons from his sister, but by eleven, he felt that he needed to consult an outside source in order to learn more.

At the age of eighteen, Copland graduated from high school. He pursued his interest in music and began to search for a teacher who could teach him musical harmony. Copland's piano teacher suggested that he study under Rubin Goldmark who had a studio in Manhattan. Copland found Goldmark to be a very effective teacher. However, Copland and his piano teacher decided to part ways so that Copland could expand his horizons. Under Goldmark, Copland learned very effective methods of composition, but sometimes felt bogged down. Goldmark did not approve of some of Copland's interest in the more modern musical works, and Copland found this frustrating. After composing a number of "Sonata-form" musical pieces with Goldmark, Copland decided he needed a change of scenery. In 1921, Copland decided to study in France. Even as Copland left his old teacher, Goldmark stressed his traditional ideals. Before Copland's departure, Goldmark wrote: "I hope you will make more progress in the Sonata form...Even if you should fall into the hands of some radicals."(pp. 35)

In France, Copland found a new teacher in Nadia Boulanger. Boulanger quickly proved to be on of the "radicals" that Goldmark feared so much. Under his new teacher, Copland was encouraged to delve into new rhythms and musical techniques. He was encouraged to express his American background by incorporating jazz and other influences into his music. As a result, his music remained distinctly American and did not merely imitate the more traditional European artists.

Copland returned to America, New York in particular, in 1924. He quickly began work on a piece that was to be performed by the New York Symphony Orchestra. This work was called The Symphony for Organ and Orchestra. The piece did a good job of affirming Copland as one of America's brightest new stars. Some critics panned the piece, but most enjoyed its originality. In fact, the work was even called "the voice of America" (pp. 104). This can no doubt be attributed to the large influence of jazz on Copland's music. This influence gave Copland's music an American sound that differed from the more traditional works of classical composers. Copland followed this work with more "American" compositions that the composer played throughout the country, and even in South America.

As many composers do, Copland found himself constantly searching for a steady income. At this time in his life, Copland thought it would be best to slow down a little bit and gather himself. He was offered a position teaching at the New School for Social Research. Although the money was not extraordinary, the steady income proved to be just what the composer was looking for. Not only was Copland able to rest and make money, but this period of his life allowed him to focus on the future of his music. He studied and taught other types of more modern musical pieces and learned as much as he taught. Copland also did a lot of musical promoting at this time. The book devotes an entire section to an number of concerts Copland organized with Roger Sessions. Along with these concerts in New York, Copland sponsored a number of other concerts that greatly solidified the worldwide respect for American music. Although American music was being praised at this time, Copland expressed his distress at the influence of musical critics. After the Yaddo Music Festival in 1932, Copland said: "Frankly, I am consider daily newspaper criticism a menace, and we would be better off without it." (pp. 206)

During these years, Copland also felt great influence from Russian neoclassical composers. Specifically mentioned is Igor Stravinsky. Between the years of Copland's 30th and 35th birthdays, Copland composed a number of pieces that showed this influence. One such work is Short Symphony, of which Copland says he is very fond. In fact, Copland calls the piece one of his "neglected children". (pp. 212) He says that, to him, it means more that pieces such as this receive less attention than some of his more popular works. This is interesting to me given his known dislike of critics. It seems to me that he views his work with a loving heart, and prefers that it remain only to be enjoyed by himself and those willing to listen with an open mind.

In the 1930's Copland spent a good deal of time in Mexico. He wrote a number of pieces that expressed the influences he had there. Although Copland was distinctly American, he still managed to capture the spirit of another country with his music. Although many Latin fans were supportive of Copland's departure from his normal musical composition, many of the composers with whom Copland associated did not like the change in Copland's style. Copland's refusal to succumb to such criticism is not surprising. He had always done his own thing and made the music he wanted to. Although his true calling was composing more classical pieces, he also enjoyed the opportunity to reach a larger audience by changing his style every now and again. His delve into more popular music was criticized, but Copland found it to be extremely insightful. He says that it gave him the chance to remember how to incorporate such influences of grass roots music (such as jazz) into his works.

By the end of the 1930's, Copland was returning to his American



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