Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Born Today in 1900: The Dean of American Composers, Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland was born in Brooklyn, New York, today, November 14, in 1900. He was an American composer, composition teacher, writer, and later a conductor of his own and other American music. 

Copland was referred to by his peers and critics as "the Dean of American Composers." The open, slowly changing harmonies in much of his music are typical of what many people consider to be the sound of American music, evoking the vast American landscape and pioneer spirit. 

He is best known for the works he wrote in the 1930s and 1940s in a deliberately accessible style often referred to as "populist" and which the composer labeled his "vernacular" style. Works in this vein include the ballets "Appalachian Spring," "Billy the Kid," and "Rodeo;" his "Fanfare for the Common Man;" and "Third Symphony." In addition to his ballets and orchestral works, he produced music in many other genres including chamber music, vocal works, opera and film scores.

After some initial studies with composer Rubin Goldmark, Copland traveled to Paris, where he first studied with Isidor Philipp and Paul Vidal, then with noted pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. He studied 3 years with Boulanger, whose eclectic approach to music inspired his own broad taste. 

Determined upon his return to the U.S. to make his way as a full-time composer, Copland gave lecture-recitals, wrote works on commission and did some teaching and writing. He found composing orchestral music in the modernist style he had adapted abroad a financially contradictory approach, particularly in light of the Great Depression. He shifted in the mid-1930s to a more accessible musical style that mirrored the German idea of Gebrauchsmusik ("music for use"), music that could serve utilitarian and artistic purposes. During the Depression years, he traveled extensively to Europe, Africa, and Mexico, formed an important friendship with Mexican composer Carlos Chávez and began composing his signature works.

During the late 1940s, Copland became aware that Stravinsky and other fellow composers had begun to study Arnold Schoenberg's use of twelve-tone (serial) techniques. After he had been exposed to the works of French composer Pierre Boulez, he incorporated serial techniques into his "Piano Quartet" (1950), "Piano Fantasy" (1957), Connotations for orchestra (1961) and Inscape for orchestra (1967). 

Unlike Schoenberg, Copland used his tone rows in much the same fashion as his tonal material—as sources for melodies and harmonies, rather than as complete statements in their own right, except for crucial events from a structural point of view. From the 1960s onward, Copland's activities turned more from composing to conducting. He became a frequent guest conductor of orchestras in the U.S. and the UK and made a series of recordings of his music, primarily for Columbia Records.

Copland's biographer, Howard Pollack, wrote that Copland was gay and that the composer came to an early acceptance and understanding of his sexuality. Like many at that time, Copland guarded his privacy, especially in regard to his homosexuality. He provided few written details about his private life and even after the Stonewall riots of 1969, showed no inclination to "come out." However, he was one of the few composers of his stature to live openly and travel with his intimates. They tended to be talented, younger men involved in the arts, and the age-gap between them and the composer widened as he grew older. Most became enduring friends after a few years and, in Pollack's words, "remained a primary source of companionship." Among Copland's love affairs were ones with photographer Victor Kraft, artist Alvin Ross, pianist Paul Moor, dancer Erik Johns, composer John Brodbin Kennedy, and painter Prentiss Taylor.

Victor Kraft became a constant in Copland's life, though their romance might have ended by 1944. Originally a violin prodigy when the composer met him in 1932, Kraft gave up music to pursue a career in photography, in part due to Copland's urging. Kraft would leave and re-enter Copland's life, often bringing much stress with him as his behavior became increasingly erratic, sometimes confrontational. Kraft fathered a child to whom Copland later provided financial security, through a bequest from his estate.

Copland's health deteriorated through the 1980s, and he died of Alzheimer's disease and respiratory failure on December 2, 1990, in North Tarrytown, New York (now Sleepy Hollow) and his ashes were scattered over the Tanglewood Music Center near Lenox, Massachusetts. Much of his large estate was bequeathed to the creation of the Aaron Copland Fund for Composers, which bestows over $600,000 per year to performing groups.


1 comment:

Raybeard said...

For a long time it's been a source of wonder to me (though maybe it shouldn't be) how many of America'a most renowned classical composers have been gay. One gets the impression that the proportion may be higher than for any other country. And not only for 'classical' but for other types of music too, though for classical music especially. Very interesting.