Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland

1900 - 1990

Aaron Copland's music seems to define the sound of America, from his settings of old folk tunes to his ballets to his instrumental works. In addition to composing, teaching, and writing, Copland was active in creating institutions that brought music to the general public and enhanced the lives of musicians.

Photo: Aaron Copland, Photograph by Margery Smith, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Digital ID: ppmsca 13454


The audio recordings, provided in the audio player to the right, feature Thomas Hampson, baritone, and Craig Rutenberg, piano. These songs were recorded for Instant Encore as part of American Public Media's Performance Today series, presented by Classical Minnesota Public Radio. To listen, please click on the track name itself. You can download a recording of this entire recital for free through the Instant Encore website with the download code: THSOA2009.


It is perhaps ironic that a composer of Russian-Jewish immigrant extraction would be more closely identified with Americanist music than any of his Yankee colleagues. Yet, in many ways, Aaron Copland, and his contemporary Leonard Bernstein, exerted such profoundly shaping influences on American music that they became institutions in their own right. Composer, conductor, writer and lecturer, teacher, advocate of modern music, a founder of the American Composers Alliance and the Tanglewood Festival, Copland commanded a central role in this country's musical life for almost seventy years.

Born in Brooklyn on November 14, 1900, Copland's early musical inclinations surfaced in his childhood fondness for making up songs. At 12 he began piano lessons and at 17 played his first public performance, at Wanamaker's Department Store in Manhattan. Fixing his sights on a musical career, Copland undertook harmony studies with Rubin Goldmark and advanced piano lessons with Victor Wittgenstein and Clarence Adler, all musicians in the conservative European mold. \t 1921 proved to be a watershed year for Copland. He encountered what his teachers called radical modern music--Ives and Ravel; he won a scholarship to a newly formed school for American musicians at Fontainebleau; and he set sail for Paris in June of that year. For the next three years he would study with Nadia Boulanger, compose his first serious works, and associate with a stimulating circle of American expatriates and French intellectuals, among them his cousin and later the distinguished theatre critic Harold Clurman, the cubist painter Marcel Duchamp, the conductor Serge Koussevitsky, and composer Roger Sessions.

Upon returning to America in 1924, Copland received the first public performances of his compositions, his Organ Symphony in 1924 with Walter Damrosch conducting, Music for Theatre in 1925, and his Piano Concerto in 1926. After another brief sojourn in Paris in 1926-27, Copland settled in New York to engage in a number of ventures that would have significant effects in creating a public for contemporary American music. He began his pedagogical career in 1927, as a lecturer at New York's School for Social Research, creating the material for his 1938 book What to Listen for in Music. In 1928, with Sessions, he launched an influential concert series that showcased experimental contemporary composers such as Theodore Chanler, Walter Piston, Carlos Chàvez, Virgil Thomson, Marc Bltizstein, Roy Harris, Paul Bowles, Darius Milhaud, as well as his own and Sessions's work. That same year he joined the League of Composers and founded the Cos Cob Press, dedicated to publishing new American music.

The decade of the 1930's and the Great Depression created a climate of social awareness and political ferment, in which Copland, with his progressive-leftist political philosophy, would search for ways to make music more accessible to the masses. The composer's major works from this period include his opera The Second Hurricane (created for children and performed at the Henry Street Settlement), and his popular ballet Billy the Kid, the first work in which Copland began to use American folk elements in his music. The era's focus on labor issues also had its effects on the music business, where Copland became active in a number of institutions designed to further musicians' professional lives: ASCAP, Arrow Music Press, the American Composers Orchestra, and the American Music Center. But perhaps the most significant institutional involvement for Copland began in 1940: his association with the Berkshire Music Center and the Tanglewood Festival, where he would teach and work for several decades to come.

A spate of enduring compositions followed in the 1940's, among them A Lincoln Portrait (1942), into which Copland incorporated American folk tunes, his ballet Rodeo (1943), his Fanfare for the Common Man (1943), and his modern dance work for Martha Graham, Appalachian Spring (1944). It was the last of these, with its haunting Shaker tune "Simple Gifts," that won for Copland the Pulitzer Prize and catapulted him into national prominence. The composer inaugurated the new decade by completing his song cycle Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson (1950), eight of which he later orchestrated. While composing the Dickinson cycle, Copland worked on his two sets of Old American Songs, arrangements that became so popular in their piano and orchestral versions as to eclipse the original folk tunes on which they were based. To this period of vocal writing also belongs Copland's second opera, The Tender Land, to a Steinbeckesque libretto by Erik Johns about a Midwestern family during the Depression. Premiered by the New York City Opera in 1954 and revised for Tanglewood in 1955, the work failed to win critical approval.

The 1950's were also marred for Copland by the McCarthy hearings. A controversy over programming A Lincoln Portrait at Eisenhower's 1953 inauguration led to Copland's being summoned to testify in a secret session. Refusing to implicate any of his colleagues and skillfully fielding questions about his own socialist politics, Copland managed to survive the ordeal without betraying any of his friends or principles. In the remaining 20 years that Copland would compose, he briefly flirted with serialism before returning to a tonal style. After 1973 he devoted himself increasingly to conducting. In his final decade, as awards and tributes poured in, Copland's mental powers began to fail him. He withdrew to his home in Peekskill, New York to mourn the passing of colleagues and friends, among them his companion, Victor Kraft, who had died in 1976. Copland died on December 2, 1990.

--Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing

Most people know that Aaron Copland was a composer and that his compositions include Appalachian Spring, Fanfare for the Common Man, and the “Hoedown” from Rodeo. What people may not realize is that Copland’s influence on American music extended far beyond the realm of composition--he was also a teacher, lecturer, author, editor, and conductor. Because of his involvement in these different facets of artistic expression, and because he created a distinctly American style of composition, he is frequently referred to as the “Dean of American Music.”

Aaron Copland was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 14th, 1900, the youngest of five children. His parents, Harris Morris Copland and Sarah Mittenthal Copland, were Jewish immigrants from Russia. They arrived in Brooklyn in 1877, and adopted an Anglicized version of their original surname, Kaplan. Aaron’s earliest musical training came in the form of piano lessons from his sister Laurine. His formal training began in 1914, with piano lessons from Leopold Wolfsohn; at age sixteen he began studying counterpoint and composition with Rubin Goldmark. He was discouraged, however, by Goldmark’s strict adherence to the conservative masters of the 19th century, and took it upon himself to explore the music of the more innovative and modern composers of his day, including Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Alexander Scriabin. After four years under Goldmark’s tutelage, Copland decided to follow in the footsteps of many of his contemporaries and head to Europe to further his musical training.

He moved to France in June of 1921 and attended the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau. It was during his study at Fontainebleau that Copland became acquainted with the legendary pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. Upon completion of the summer courses, he followed Boulanger to Paris for composition lessons at her home on Rue Ballu. Among the other young American composers in Boulanger’s studio were Herbert Elwell, Melville Smith, and Virgil Thomson. Copland studied with Boulanger until 1924, and she was one of the most important influences on his compositional career. She encouraged him to expand his horizons by studying all periods of classical music. It was through Boulanger that Copland’s first composition was published: The Cat and the Mouse, a work for piano solo. This “scherzo humoristique,” which Copland completed in March 1920, was published by Durand and Sons in 1921.

Upon his return to the United States in 1924, Copland was preoccupied with a work he was writing on commission for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Through her associations with Walter Damrosch, then conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra, and Serge Koussevitzky, the recently appointed conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Boulanger had secured the commission for Copland, as well as two performances. The result was Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, which was first heard on January 11th, 1925, with the New York Symphony Orchestra under Damrosch’s baton and with Boulanger as soloist. The premiere was a success and essentially launched Copland’s career as a promising young American composer. It was also during this time in New York that Copland became involved with the League of Composers, and with the organization’s journal, Modern Music, which started publishing articles by Copland in 1925. In addition, along with his colleague Roger Sessions, Copland organized the Copland-Sessions Concerts of Contemporary Music, which took place from 1928 to 1932, mostly in New York. The objective was to expose audiences to European avant-garde works that had not previously been heard in the United States.

During the Great Depression, Copland sought to produce works that appealed to mass audiences, works that spoke to a wide variety of individuals during difficult economic times. His move in this direction may have been inspired by the composition of El Salón México (1936), which he described as a model of “imposed simplicity.” The piece was influenced by a trip to Mexico in 1932. By infusing elements of Mexican folk music into the writing, Copland was able to communicate to a larger public. This conscious use of folk materials to produce music in a melodic and accessible medium foreshadowed Copland’s success with ballets such as Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Appalachian Spring (1944). This last piece is known especially for its masterful set of variations on the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts.” Copland also generated music of a patriotic nature during this time, with works such as A Lincoln Portrait (1942) for orchestra and narrator, and Fanfare for the Common Man (1942) for brass and percussion, both of which were intended to boost American morale. These works remain synonymous with American patriotism.

During the 1950’s, Copland focused his attention on writing for the voice. He produced the majority of his vocal works during this decade (a notable exception is his children’s opera, The Second Hurricane, written in 1936). The first major vocal work was completed in 1950: Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson, considered among the great song cycles of the 20th century. Copland also fashioned two sets of song collections based on American folk tunes, which he dubbed Old American Songs; the first set appeared in 1950, and the second set followed two years later. During this decade, Copland produced his only full-length opera: a commission by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein to create music for The Tender Land (1954), an opera based on James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Although the work has not entered the mainstream repertoire of the operatic stage, it has met with some success, and one of its most memorable arias is often performed as “Laurie’s Song,” for soprano and piano.

Toward the end of his life, from about 1960 on, Copland found himself more occupied as conductor than composer. In his later years he had great difficulty capturing his inspiration through composing; in his own words, “It was exactly as if someone had simply turned off a faucet.” He spent his time revising his earlier compositions and preserving his extant works, through a series of recordings in the 1970s for Columbia Records. Despite his energy and commitment to these projects, Copland suffered from the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease and was frustrated by his inability to harness his memory. By the 1980s, his mind had deteriorated. He succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease and respiratory failure on December 2nd, 1990, a few days after his ninetieth birthday.

Further information, including holograph manuscripts, sketches, letters, and other primary resources are available through the Library of Congress' Online Aaron Copland Collection.

--Stephanie Poxon, Ph.D.

Songs & Song Collections BY Copland (entered to date)

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