November 14, 2017
What is the quintessential “American” sound, in terms of classical music? It’s a tricky question, and one that makes us wonder the same in terms of what Canadian classical music sounds like. Aaron Copland was an American composer who pursued this idea, and achieved it. He had a few serious mentors and champions that lead him on the road to success. The first was studies with legendary composition teacher Nadia Boulanger in Paris. They worked together very well; she was a true inspiration to Copland and advanced his skills. He hung out at Shakespeare and Company, the famous Paris English-language bookstore where many American ex-pat writers gathered, such as Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, as well as artists such as Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, and Amedeo Modigliani; Copeland pretty much had the ultimate Parisian experience.
The second important figure to Copland was a conductor – there is nothing like the support of a well-known maestro to ensure your music is performed. Serge Koussevitzky, music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, supported new music, and he programmed Copland’s music more than any other conductor when Copland was an emerging artist.
The third influence came from Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer who held strong convictions about “the ideas of American Democracy” and passed around the slogan “Affirm America”. Stieglitz influenced the likes of photographer Ansel Adams and painter Georgia O’Keefe; Copland also drank the Kool-Aid and set about composing in an “American way”. He found it was tricky finding previously written classical music to draw upon that sounded distinctly American; he looked at jazz and popular music. While by the end of the 1920s, Copland was drawn to an abstract musical sound, he heard what big band masters Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller were up to, and took a renewed interest in that genre. By the time the 1940s hit, Copland was hitting his stride. His ballet scores for Rodeo and Appalachian Spring were huge successes, and his works A Lincoln Portrait and Fanfare for the Common Man became American patriotic standards.
The Cincinnati Pops performs Fanfare for the Common Man.
Aaron Copland was born November 14, 1900 in Brooklyn, New York, and died December 2 in 1900 in Sleepy Hollow, New York.