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Collection Aaron Copland Collection

Early Years and "An American Music"

Aaron Copland in Paris, early 1920s, Music Division, Library of Congress.

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 Orchestra were 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 1927-30 Sonata 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.)