Aaron Copland : American Composer

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Through his compositions, teachings, philanthropy, and desire to create original and inspirational music that was uniquely American, Aaron Copland became one of the most decorated and respected composers of the twentieth century. Born November 14th 1900 to Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, Copland played piano at a very young age. He took lessons in harmony and counterpoint with Goldmark, an old-fashioned teacher who was dedicated to Beethoven and Fux, and against whom Copland rebelled, becoming enamored with Scriabin, Debussy and Ives.

By the age of sixteen he was studying composition and often attended musical symphonies where he was quickly drawn to the historical icons of classical music and left the United States to attend the Summer School of Music for American Students in France when he was only twenty years old. It was here in France that he sold his first composition and was introduced to several prominent composers of the time. One composer in particular, Serge Koussevitsky asked Copland to write a piece for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and in turn launched his professional career in American music.

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Copland believed that coupled with the influences and ideas of jazz he could create and develop a symphonic sound that was distinctly American. In the late 1920s Copland’s attention turned to popular music of other countries. By the late 1930’s Copland had become one of the most popular composers in the country, as well as a leader of the community of American classical musicians. He had moved away from his interest in jazz and began to concern himself with expanding the audience for American classical music.

He worked toward this goal by being an active member of many organizations, including both the American Composers’ Alliance and the League of Composers. He also began the Copland-Sessions concerts, dedicated to presenting the works of young composers. He also introduced the Yaddo Festival of American Music. Furthermore, “El Salon Mexico” was the piece that helped Copland begin his most productive and popular years. The piece presented a new sound that had its roots in Mexican folk music.

In an attempt to reach even greater audiences, Copland began composing for the movies and ballet. Among his most popular compositions for film are those for “Of Mice and Men”, “Our Town”, and “The Heiress”, for which he won an Academy Award for best score. He composed scores for a number of ballets, including “Agnes DeMille’s Rodeo” and “Appalachian Spring” for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. These two works were highly representative of the American folk traditions that Copland was so greatly trying to protect as well as promote.

Many consider his most important and successful composition from this time to be “A Lincoln Portrait” a piece for voice and orchestra that uses quotes from Lincoln’s writings narrated over Copland’s original composition. Throughout the 1950s, Copland worked less and less as a composer and began to focus on conducting. He toured with his own work as well as the works of other great American musicians. Over the next twenty years he traveled the world, conducting live performances and creating a collection of recorded work.

By the early 1970s, Copland had, with few exceptions, completely stopped writing original music. Most of his time was spent conducting and reworking older compositions. In 1983 Copland conducted his last symphony. His generous work as a teacher at Tanglewood, Harvard, and the New School for Social Research gained him a following of devoted musicians. As a scholar, he wrote more than sixty articles and essays on music, as well as five books. He traveled the world in an attempt to elevate the status of American music abroad, and to increase its popularity at home.

On December 2, 1990, Aaron Copland died in North Tarrytown, New York. In keeping with his lifelong devotion to contemporary music, Aaron Copland allocated resources to a Fund and bequeathed to it a large part of his estate. The Fund was officially announced to the public in 1992. The Fund’s purpose is to encourage and improve public knowledge and appreciation of contemporary American music. The fund operates three grant programs and also grants permission for the use of Copland’s music.

The first, a recording fund, maintains three separate grant programs in support of contemporary American music, each with its own objectives and annual application deadline. Second, the Performing Ensemble program’s objectives are to document and provide wider exposure for the music of contemporary American composers, to develop audiences for contemporary American music through record distribution and other retail markets, and to support the release and dissemination of recordings of previously unreleased contemporary American music and the reissuance of recordings that are no longer available.

Finally, the supplemental program’s objective is to support non-profit organizations that have a history of substantial commitment to contemporary American music but whose needs are not addressed by the Fund’s programs of support for performing organizations and recording projects. Organizations eligible for the supplemental program include service organizations and presenters. Organizations whose principal function is to support a specific performing ensemble should apply to the Performing Ensembles Program. Aaron Copland was a pioneer in twentieth century classical music.

He taught generations to draw influence from what was around, whether that happened to be Gershwin, Debussy, jazz, folk-tunes or hoedowns. He created a whole new classical sound that was uniquely American while inspiring others. Copland’s music has been a part of American culture through out the twentieth century. His compositions were popular not only in the world of theatre and cinema but also became recognizable in advertising. Although many Americans may not know Aaron Copland by name, play them a familiar tune and they immediately recognize it as the “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner” television commercial from the 1990s.

The mark of any great artist or any great person for that matter is the influence the have on others and whether or not they leave the world better off than they found it. Not many would disagree that Aaron Copland falls into this category, and his impact on classical and American music will not soon be forgotten. Aaron Copland: THE LIFE AND WORK OF AN UNCOMMON MAN; Howard Pollack; Henry Holt and Company LLC 1999 http://www. incwell. com/Biographies/Copland. html http://www. 8notes. com/biographies/Copland. asp http://www. coplandfund. org/programs. html

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