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Collection Aaron Copland Collection

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

Aaron Copland sorting his mail, Music Division, Library of Congress.

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.