Aaron Copland was born to Harris Morris Copland and Sarah Mittenthal Copland on November 14, 1900 in Brooklyn, New York. He died of Alzheimer’s disease on December 2, 1990 in North Tarrytown, New York. His father Anglicized his name from Kaplan to Copland, before migrating from Russia to America. He spent his childhood living over his parents’ Brooklyn shop, H.M. Copland’s, at 628, Washington Avenue. He was one of the most famous American composers, composition teachers and conductors of American music. He created a distinct American style of composition, characterized by the open, gradually changing harmonies, reminding listeners of the vast American landscape and leading spirit. He is best known for his works written in 1930s and 1940s. They were deliberately written in an easily accessible style, often referred to as vernacular or populist style. His works were so popular that he was known as the dean of American Composers. His works are comprised of many genres and included ballets, orchestral works, vocal works, film scores and chamber music.
1. Appalachian Spring
Appalachian Spring was composed by Aaron Copland in 1944 and it popularized the orchestral suite as an enduring genre. It also brought Aaron Copland into prominence. It was commissioned by Martha Graham, the famous dancer and choreographer. The Coolidge Foundation funded the ballet, scored on a thirteen member chamber orchestra. It premiered on October 30, 1944 at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. Martha Grahm played the lead role as dancer. Martha Grahm influenced modern dancing and choreography as much as Picasso influenced the visual arts. She was the first ever dancer to perform at the White House and to receive the highest American civil award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The well known Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi had designed the set. Copland was awarded the prestigious 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his outstanding achievement.
2. Billy the Kid
Billy the Kid was a ballet written by Aaron Copland in 1938. It was commissioned by Lincoln Edward Kirstein, who was an American cultural figure and, according to the New York Times, ‘he was an expert in many fields’. He was a writer and was known for organizing concerts, plays and operas. Billy the Kid was choreographed by Eugene Loring for Ballet Caravan. It was premiered by the Ballet Caravan Company in Chicago on October 16, 1938. It is one of the most popular and most frequently performed ballet. This ballet is particularly noted for including many cowboy tunes along with many American folk songs. It was performed in New York City on May 24, 1939. The story is about the notorious Billy the Kid. It opens with the hit song The Open Prairie and shows many pioneers marching towards a small town where Billy and his mother lived. Billy’s mother was killed by an outlaw and in return he killed the murderer, after which he was on the run.
Rodeo is a ballet composition written by Aaron Copland and choreographed by Agnes de Mille for Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. It was a dance company which came to America to compete with the Rival Ballet Theatre. Copland was not ready to accept the offer as he did not want to compose another cowboy related performance. Mille, however, persuaded him, and she played the lead role. As desired by Copland, the set was designed by Oliver Smith. It premiered on October 16, 1942 at the Metropolitan Opera House. The ballet was comprised of five sections including Ranch House Party, Hoe-Down, Corral Nocturne, Buckaroo Holiday, and Saturday Night Waltz. The ballet was a success and received 22 curtain calls, an appreciation received on the stage from the audience at the end of the performance.
4. Fanfare for the Common Man
Fanfare for the Common Man was written in response to the U.S. involvement in the Second World War and also by the famous speech of the Vice President Henry A. Wallace, wherein he proclaimed the dawning of the ‘century of the common man’. Aaron Copland wrote it at the request of Eugene Goossens. He mentioned in his autobiography that ‘Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, had written to me at the end of August about an idea he wanted to put into action for the 1942-43 concert season. …’. A fanfare is a short piece of music written for and played on brass and percussion.
5. Third Symphony
Third Symphony is the third and final symphony scored by Aaron Copland for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It premiered on October 18 and was conducted by Serge Koussevitzky. Written at the end of the Second World War, it is a hybrid of typical American ballet Rodeo and European symphony. The overall tone of the composition is heroic and dignified. Copland had personally recorded this work with the London Symphony Orchestra for Everest Records and CBS, which is now known as Sony Classical.
6. El Salon MÃƒ©xico
El Salon MÃƒ©xico is a symphony named after a dance hall in Mexico City and is subtitled A Popular Type Dance Hall in Mexico City. This work required a long time to complete. Copland started the work in 1932 and completed it in 1936. It was premiered by the Mexico Symphony Orchestra and was conducted by Carlos Chavez. Copland based the symphony on four Mexican folk songs including La Jesusita, El Palo Verde, El Mosco and El Malacate. Critics differ about the number of parts it is composed of. Whereas the critics consider it having three or four parts, many listeners consider it an endless composition.
7. Lincoln Portrait
Lincoln Portrait was written by Copland as a full classical orchestral work. It was written in 1942 as a Second World War patriotic work includes parts from Lincoln’s famous documents like the Gettysburg Address. The conductor Andre Kostelanetz wanted Copland to write a musical portrait of a celebrity, whereupon Copland thought of writing on Walt Whitman, who was a famous American poet, essayist and journalist. Kostelanetz, though, wanted it to be a political personality, and then, in Copland’s words, ‘From this moment, Lincoln seemed inevitable’. In addition to Lincoln’s speeches and letters, Copland made use of some contemporary folk songs, including Camptown Races and Springfield Mountain. Conducted by William Adams, Lincoln’s Portrait was performed for the first time on May 14, 1942 by Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
8. Old American Songs
Old American Songs are two sets of songs written by Copland. The first set was written in 1950 while the second set was written in 1952. They were originally intended for voice and piano, but were modified later on for baritone and orchestra. Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten performed the first set at Aldeburg, on June 17, 1950. The second set was performed by Aaron Copland himself on piano and William Warfield in Ipswich, Massachusetts, on May 25, 1958. The second set was recorded by Copland and Warfield for Columbia Records. Set one contained The Boatmen’s Dance, Long Time Ago, Simple Gifts, and The Dodger and I Bought Me a Cat. Set two included Zion’s Walls, At the River, Ching-A-Ring Chaw, The Little Horses and The Golden Willow.
9. The Piano Variations
Aaron Copland wrote The Piano Variations between January and October, 1930. He dedicated the work to the American writer Geral Skyes. The Cos Cob Press published it in 1932. The work belongs to Copland’s second styled period known as the abstract period. It was characterized by work for instrumentals only. The work was inspired by Nadia Boulanger, with whom he studied at the Fontainebleau School of Music for Americans in Paris. Copland remarked about the creation of this work that ‘One fine day when the time was right, the order of the variations fell into place’.
10. The Tender Land
The Tender Land is an opera with music by Aaron Copland. He was inspired to write the music for this opera after seeing photographs of the Great Depression, particularly the photographs of Walker Evans. He was also inspired by James Agee’s writing Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The opera was performed for the first time at the New York City Opera on April 1, 1954. It was conducted by Thomas Schippers. The opera was criticized for the weakness of characters and loose storyline.
All art forms, including music, are like variously colored and scented flowers of different shapes, and other elements of beauty. A common factor is that all need the seeds to be sown in the fertile land and climate of imagination. When asked about his groundbreaking score Billy the Kid, as to how a Jewish New Yorker managed so well to capture the Old West, Copland replied, ‘It was just a feat of imagination’. Imagination is a great power and in fact prompts unimaginable performances. Art forms are an integral part in the history of nations and each of its genres has an icon. Copland was such an icon in the American history of music.