Aaron Copland was the embodiment of what a composer can hope to become. Copland was very much in touch not only with himself and his feelings, but with the audience he intended to reach. Very few composers have a concrete idea of what “types” of people they wish their music to reach. Copland was one of these few. The “Common Man” was the central part of much of his volumes of music strived to reach. Copland felt that, “everyone should have a chance to see things through this music. Limiting who can understand it only limits your usefulness” Throughout his 75+ years as a composer and conductor, he touched the lives and hearts of as many people as he could.
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Copland was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1900 to fairly affluent parents. Because of his family’s financial status, he started formally training as a teen, and moved to Paris where he became the first American student of Nadia Boulanger. It was here that Copland developed much of his neo-classical style. Although he enjoyed the precise structure that Boulanger had taught him, Copland’s heart was truly in creating music that people other than musicians could appreciate. It was upon his return to America in 1924 that he decided that he would write “. . .truly American music.” He traveled throughout America, getting a taste of what the “common man” was listening to. During these travels he strayed into Mexico, and wrote the highly successful El Salon Mexico. A quote from the fall of 1932 sums up his intentions in writing this piece: “Any composer who goes outside his native land wants to return bearing musical souvenirs.” This is exactly what he did. The piece is a lively adaptation of Frances Toor’s Cancionero Mexicano, with a very loose tempo, and heavy use of the horn section.
It was after the success of El Salon Mexico that Copland proceeded to produce what is now considered the epitome of “American” music. He combined his neo-classical schooling with jazz-like syncopation and a new, more “open” use of old chordal progressions. He created Billy The Kid in 1938, producing the first “Western” musical. The score achieved a remarkable balance between outright humor and pathos, and oftentimes bordered on tragic. It was this base understanding of humanity that made Copland’s music what it is. Many texts also refer to a certain built in sympathy that Copland may have had for the main character, citing his homosexuality as a cause for his deep understanding of what it is to be looked down upon by society.
Another rowdy musical followed, entitled Rodeo. This piece was comprised of a similar hybrid of popular western themes, and used as a story line the universally known as “The Ugly Duckling”. Rodeo had its premiere in 1942 at the Metropolitan Opera House, and was judged as an unqualified success. Copland was clearly breaking down barriers with his “common” music. The Metropolitan Opera was known at this time for its stuffy renditions of Verdi and Puccini’s operas, and not for the joyful playfulness of such a work. The warm exuberance of Copland’s music attracted Martha Graham in 1943. She commissioned him to write a score for her ballet entitled Appalachian Spring, which is impossible not to mention. (Despite the fact that we heard it in class) Appalachian spring brought nothing but good fortune to Copland, assuring him an eternal place in classical music. It was after the widespread success of spring that he produced his most prolific piece, and perhaps the best summation of his attitude towards classical music, “Fanfare for the Common Man” Finished in 1942, this was one of 18 pieces commissioned by Eugene Goossens for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. The horns and the timpani play a major role, producing a strong and bold urgency. This provides an interesting paradox: “Common Man” seems to be as “American” as a piece could get. It is strong, bold, to the point and unquestioning. Interestingly enough, Copland was spending much of his time with an extreme leftist group of friends who made plays about the injustice and hypocrisy that existed in society during the 1940’s.
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Copland was not only known for his prolific style and unquestionable compositional language. He was also a great supporter of other musicians, sponsoring event after event, and starting the career of the now world renowned Leonard Bernstein. He spoke and taught at countless Universities across the country, and gave to the American people a style of music that they could claim as their own. All of this is an example of the caring and humanity that was both the cornerstone and the trademark of his music. Although he died in 1990, his music will live on in the hearts and minds of the American people as long as there is a place called “America.”