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A Brief Introduction to the Music of Aaron Copland

Author’s Note: The Copland Works List that is part of the online Aaron Copland Collection from the Library of Congress lists all Aaron Copland’s compositions save for unpublished juvenilia. This essay briefly places many of Copland’s best known and most significant works in the context of his development as a composer. While it cites the works as examples of various tendencies in Copland’s music, the reader should remember that like any work of art, every work mentioned is an entity in itself–and knowing where a work stands in an interpretive scheme such as that outlined in the present essay is no substitute for knowing the work itself. Yet this essay may suggest interesting Copland works to each reader while offering ways to think about them at a first hearing.

Wayne Shirley

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Early Years and "An American Music"

When Aaron Copland boarded a ship for Paris in June 1921, a few months short of his twenty-first birthday, he already had a good musical training thanks to his conservative but thorough American teacher, Rubin Goldmark. He carried in his luggage the manuscript of what was to be his first published piece, the "scherzo humoristique" The Cat and the Mouse, which played with the progressive techniques of whole-tone scale and black-note versus white-note alternation. Nevertheless, it was in France, under the encouragement of his teacher Nadia Boulanger, that Copland produced his first large-scale works: the ballet Grohg (now known principally through the excerpt Dance Symphony, and the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, with which he introduced himself to American audiences.

Grohg and the Symphony for Organ and Orchestrawere written in a style suggested by European modernism (Copland confessed that Grohg was written under the spell of Florent Schmitt's La Tragédie de Salomé). In the works that followed Copland sought to discover a particularly American style, an interest that continued for the remainder of his career as a composer. Yet Copland did not seek to establish a single "American" style, nor did he ask that an American work contain particular references to American idioms: it was of Roger Sessions's 1927-30Sonata for Piano, a very un-Coplandish work with no audible Americanisms, that he said "To know [this] work well is to have the firm conviction that Sessions has presented us with a cornerstone upon which to base an American music."

At first Copland sought for Americanism in the influence of jazz—"jazz" as he had played it (see letter from Copland to Nadia Boulanger, August 1924) as part of a hotel orchestra in the summer of 1924. The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, the Music for the Theatre, and the Two Pieces for Violin and Piano contrast jazzy portions with slow introspective sections that use bluesy lines over atmospheric ostinati—the latter sometimes suggesting Charles Ives's song "The Housatonic at Stockbridge," a work Copland could not have known during the 1920s.

No later Copland works rely on jazz textures as these works do, though many are infused with rhythms suggesting jazz. (Copland's one mature work with a seeming jazz reference in its title, the 1949 Four Piano Blues, uses "blues" to suggest an informal music of American sound, his equivalent of intermezzior impromptus.)

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Previous: Introduction

Major Works for Orchestra and for the Voice

Copland also continued to write works for the concert hall, often using the somewhat simplified musical language he had developed for his ballet and film scores and for a series of works for young performers, including the school opera The Second Hurricane, of 1937 and An Outdoor Overture from 1938, the latter an orchestral piece accessible to very accomplished student players. Among these pieces for the concert hall Fanfare for the Common Man and Lincoln Portrait (both 1942) reflect the patriotic spirit of the World War II era. Others were straight concert music: notably Quiet City (1939), based on incidental music for a play about New York; the landmark Piano Sonata (1941), inspired by the piano playing of the young Leonard Bernstein and written in response to a request by Clifford Odets; and the Sonata for Violin and Piano (1943), which speaks the most radically simplified language of any Copland concert work.

The climactic composition of this period is the Third Symphony (1946). It is Copland's most extensive symphonic work, drawing on the language ofAppalachian Spring and of the Fanfare for the Common Man (and on the notes of the latter) to celebrate the American spirit at the end of World War II. It is also Copland's most public utterance, moving in the world of the major Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich symphonies of the 1940s.

In the late 1940s Copland wrote two of his most popular and frequently performed works, the long 1947a cappella chorus In the Beginning (which he wrote sequestered in a Boston hotel room against the deadline of a performance at Harvard's Symposium on Music Criticism) and the 1948 Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra, written for Benny Goodman. At the same time he was also meditating what would be another of his key works.

As a teenager Copland had admired the songs of Hugo Wolf, and his early production had included several individual songs; "Poet's Song" (1927) was the one completed song of a planned cycle on poems of e.e. cummings. In 1950 Copland completed his only song cycle, the Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson for voice and piano. Avoiding the most famous of Dickinson's poems save for the final setting of "The Chariot" ("Because I would not stop for Death"), this cycle "center[s] around no single theme, but . . . treat[s] of subject matter particularly close to Miss Dickinson—nature, death, life, eternity, " as he explained in the note published at the start of the cycle. One of the century's great song cycles, it is regarded by some Copland scholars as his finest work.

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Modernism Mexico and Beyond

Copland's music of the late 1920s drives towards two of his key works, both uncompromising in their modernism: the Symphonic Ode of 1929 and the Piano Variations of 1930. The fate of these compositions contrasts sharply. While the Piano Variations is not often performed in concert, it is well known to pianists because although it does contain virtuoso passages, even those of very modest ability can "play at" the work in private. It represents the twentieth-century continuation of the great tradition of keyboard variations—the tradition that produced such works as the Bach Goldberg Variations, the BeethovenDiabelli Variations, and the Brahms Handel Variations. The Symphonic Ode, on the other hand, remains almost unknown: an intense symphonic movement of the length and heft of a Mahler first movement, it was considered unperformable by the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, otherwise the most potent American champion of Copland's work during the first half of the century. Koussevitzky did perform a revised version in 1932; but even with a second, more extensive revision in 1955, the Ode is seldom played. It is Copland's single longest orchestral movement.

Perhaps as a reaction to the performance problems of the Symphonic Ode, Copland's next two orchestral works deal in shorter units of time: the Short Symphony of 1933 requires fifteen minutes for three movements and the six Statements for orchestra of 1935 last only nineteen minutes. Yet in fact these works were somewhat more complex than the Ode; in particular, the wiry, agile rhythms of the opening movement of the Short Symphony proved too much for both the conductors Serge Koussevitzky and Leopold Stokowski. In the end it was Carlos Chávez and the Orquesta Sinfónica de México who gave the Short Symphony its premiere. In 1937 Copland arranged theShort Symphony as the Sextet for piano, clarinet, and string quartet (the ensemble is an homage to Roy Harris's 1926 Concerto for the same combination of instruments); and it is in its sextet form that the Short Symphony is most often heard.

It may have been partly Copland's friendship with Carlos Chávez that drew him to Mexico. Copland first visited Mexico in 1932 and returned frequently in later years. His initial delight in the country is related in his letter of January 13, 1933, to Mary Lescaze; photographs of his visits to Mexico may be found in this online collection. His interest in Mexico is also reflected in his music, including El Salón México (1936) and the Three Latin American Sketches (1972).

Mexico was not Copland's only Latin American interest. A 1941 trip to Havana suggested his Danzón Cubano. By the early 1940s he was friends with South American composers such as Jacobo Ficher, and in 1947 he toured South America for the State Department. (Some of the folk music he heard in Rio de Janeiro on this trip appears in the second movement of hisClarinet Concerto of 1948.) Copland in fact envisioned "American music" as being music of the Americas. His own use of Mexican material in the mid-1930s helped make his style more accessible to listeners not committed to modernism: El Salón Méxicois the earliest of his works to appear regularly in anthologies Copland's best-known music.

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Music for Dance and Film

In the mid-1930s Copland began to receive commissions from dance companies. The first, from the Chicago choreographer Ruth Page, resulted in the 1935 score Hear Ye! Hear Ye!, a ballet with a Rashomon-like plot set in a court of law. Hear Ye! Hear Ye! was a local success but did not make the transition to repertory; when asked about it in later years Copland would say "I wrote that piece very fast." His second commission, from Lincoln Kirstein's Ballet Caravan in New York, resulted in Billy the Kid (1938), one of his best-known works and the work which first definitely identified him with the American West. (Music for Radio, written in 1937, was given the title Saga of the Prairie as the result of a contest, so some people heard the West in Copland's music even before the first of his works to have a specifically Western subject.) Kirstein wanted the score of Billy the Kid to contain quotations of cowboy songs and sent Copland off to Paris with several cowboy songbooks; thus the score's heavily folk-music texture is partly a result of the commission.

Copland again made extensive use of folk material in his next ballet score, Rodeo, written in 1942 for the choreographer Agnes DeMille. (In it he included one fiddle tune from a Library of Congress field recording, which he knew through its transcription in John and Alan Lomax's Our Singing Country.)

Two years later Martha Graham's introspective scenario about life in Pennsylvania when it was the frontier elicited Copland's score Appalachian Spring, first performed in the Coolidge Auditorium in the Library of Congress. Appalachian Spring won Copland the Pulitzer Prize for music; it is widely thought of as the quintessential Copland work. After Appalachian Springhe turned away from dance until 1959, when he wrote the abstract dance score Dance Panels.

Copland wrote for film as well as for the stage in the late 1930s and 1940s. His first film score, The City(1939), was for a documentary by Ralph Steiner that was shown at the New York World's Fair. In 1945 he did another documentary score, The Cummington Story, for the U.S. government. Otherwise his film scores of the period were for Hollywood films: Of Mice and Men (1939), based on John Steinbeck's novel;Our Town (1940), based on the Thornton Wilder play;The North Star (1943), for a film to a script by Lillian Hellman concerning a Russian town's resistance to the Nazi invasion (and Copland's only dramatic score afterGrohg that did not have an American setting); The Red Pony (1948), after John Steinbeck's story; andThe Heiress (1948), after Henry James's novelWashington Square. Copland's score to The Heiresswon an Academy Award for best film score. In 1942 he assembled sections of the scores for The CityOf Mice and Men, and Our Town into a suite entitled Music for the Movies.

After The Heiress Copland wrote only once more for film, for the 1961 independent production Something Wild. In this final film score, as earlier in The City, Copland came to grips with his own city of New York: he considered calling the suite drawn from the film The Poet in Manhattan. Written for the London Symphony Orchestra, the suite was finally titled Music for a Great City, the particular city unspecified.

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1950's and 1960's: Opera and Stylistic Diversity

In 1950 it seemed that another of Copland's ambitions was about to be fulfilled: Sir Rudolf Bing approached him with the suggestion that he and Thornton Wilder write an operatic version of Our Town for the Metropolitan Opera. But Wilder declined ("I'm convinced that I write a-musical plays . . . that in them even the life of the emotions is expressed contra musicam"). In 1952-54, responding to a commission for an "opera for television," Copland wrote his one full-length opera, The Tender Land. In its final form The Tender Land is an opera for the stage rather than for television, "conceived with an eye to modest production and intimate scale." With its story of growing up in a Midwestern countryside, the opera continues to lead a healthy life in productions in university opera departments and on midsize opera stages; the finale from Act One, "The Promise of Living," is also widely performed as an anthem-like evocation of the American vision.

The 1950s also saw a renewal of Copland's interest in works more challenging to the listener. Many of these were chamber music: the Quartet for Piano and Strings of 1950, commissioned by the Coolidge Foundation in the Library of Congress; the Piano Fantasy of 1957; and the autumnal Nonet for strings of 1960, perhaps his most personal piece, dedicated "To Nadia Boulanger after forty years of friendship." In the Quartet and the Piano Fantasy (but not in the Nonet) Copland used a modified version of the serial technique then increasingly favored by American composers, and in the 1960s he produced two orchestral works, Connotations (1962) and Inscape(1967), which employed classical serial technique. (The score to the 1961 work Something Wild, which has much of the sizzle of Connotations and Inscape, is resolutely non-serial.) In 1968 Copland made sketches for a String Quartet using serial technique; it remained unfinished. It was his final attempt at adapting serialism to his own music.

In parallel with these challenging works, Copland produced a series of pieces in a style similar to the simplified musical language he had developed in the 1940s, including the Canticle of Freedom (1955) and Emblems (1964) for band. He also produced two sets of song arrangements entitled Old American Songs(1950), (second set) (1952). They explore the varieties of American song in the nineteenth century, including minstrel songs, hymns, and songs for children. One arrangement, of the Shaker song "Simple Gifts" (which Copland had first used in Appalachian Spring), has become an American anthem.

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The Achievements of an American Composer

When people talk about the American aspects of Copland's music, they often emphasize the Western flavor of some of his works. This is perhaps understandable, for the three major ballets (Appalachian SpringRodeo, and Billy the Kid), his three most often performed works in the concert hall as well as on stage, all deal with some aspect of the West or of the U.S. frontier: Appalachian Spring with Pennsylvania when it was the frontier, Rodeo with an established Western society, Billy the Kid with the West and frontier as well. And Copland's "Western" language was appropriated by a generation of film composers such as Elmer Bernstein, whose Copland-derived score for The Magnificent Seven, subsequently used also for a series of Marlboro ads, further cemented the association between the Copland sound and the American West.

Yet Copland's identification with American subjects goes much further. One of his central works is a setting of twelve Emily Dickinson poems, and he also set texts by Edwin Arlington Robinson, Ezra Pound, and e. e. cummings. He scored films based on Henry James's late nineteenth century New York and on Thornton Wilder's New Hampshire town seen against the backdrop of eternity; two of his film scores took on contemporary New York. (The City, despite its title, also invokes rural New England.) Nor was Copland's "America" limited to the United States: with such works as El Salón México and Danzón Cubano it embraced the northern half of the hemisphere.

In a letter to Serge Koussevitzky in 1931, Copland commented that Leopold Stokowski was not an ideal conductor for Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex because "there is one quality you must have in order to give a good performance of Oedipus and that is le sens tragique de la vie [the tragic sense of life]. This Stokowski simply has not got—instead he has le sens mystique de la vie[the mystical sense of life] which is something quite different." In his own music—and, one feels in his letters, in his life as well—what Copland had was le sens lyrique de la vie—the lyrical sense of life. Whatever his music may do, it always sings: of his century, of his land, of his life and of ours.

Wayne Shirley

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Final Accomplishments

During the 1970s Copland put his musical house in order, producing works based on earlier sketches, of which the most extensive is the Duo for Flute and Piano of 1971. A second career, that of conductor, opened up for him as he conducted not only his own compositions but those of other Americans and works from the standard repertory. He also recorded much of his own music, the orchestral works with the London Symphony orchestra.

At the same time, Copland made preparations for writing his autobiography, such as requesting that his friends send him copies of the letters they had received from him. Written with Vivian Perlis and including transcriptions of Perlis's oral-history interviews with Copland's friends and associates, the autobiography appeared in two volumes, the first in 1984 and the second in 1989.

Aaron Copland died on December 2, 1990, a few days after his ninetieth birthday.

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