I was very happy to read this article on Copland by Ivan Hewitt in the Telegraph this week. To say that American music has become less popular in the last few years in is something of an understatement, although I find that once in the concert hall, audiences respond as well as ever.

Hewitt is right to make the case that Copland belongs in the pantheon, and that the American-ness of his music is part of the reason for it, but he doesn’t touch on the key to understanding Copland’s vernacular voice. He rightly points out-

“Copland’s real achievement … was to create an American vernacular from materials that were mostly self-fashioned.”

Which may also be true when you are discussing his major America-themed music of the 1930’s and 40’s, but was not always true throughout his career. In fact, in works like the Second Symphony, Connotations, Vitebsk and Statements, Copland could be thorny, frenzied and abstract. He had a profound understanding of, and respect for, all the techniques and approaches of the early 20th Century, and in Connotations even used his own 12-tone system. Bernstein himself often said there were two Copland’s- the gently-loving grandfather of “American” American music, and the forbidding Old Testament prophet who wrote Inscape and the Short Symphony. Aaron the prophet could write music that was as forbidding and foreboding as anyone’s.

However, during the years of national crisis from the beginning of the Great Depression through the end of World War II, Copland felt it was his mission to contribute to the good of society with his music, and what a contribution he made. His idealized America was a powerful source of hope and optimism in a period of American history when hope and optimism were in profoundly short supply. Hewitt says eloquently-

“To have given musical voice to a nation as heterogeneous as America is a staggering achievement, all the more surprising when you consider that this vision of a rural WASP uprightness was achieved by an urban, left-wing, homosexual Jew.”

Quite true. However, Hewitt also says-

“Though the music may show none of the alienation of a Mahler or the expressive frenzy of a Schoenberg, it comprehends the loneliness inherent in American individualism, and accepts it as a price worth paying.”

Copland’s own stylistic evolution reflects his judgements of what constituted “a price worth paying” as he made a conscious choice to turn toward a more direct and accessible musical idiom for the good of his fellow citizens. A choice he made knowing that many of his more conservative fellow citizens would never entirely accept him as one of their own, and many of his colleagues and peers would condemn him for selling out. In the early years of his American project, he agonized over the distance between musicians and society, saying in 1933-

“Here in the US we composers have no possibility of directing the musical affairs of the nation- on the contrary… I have the impression that more and more we are working in a vacuum. There seems to me less than ever a real rapport between the public and the composers and of course that is a very important way of creating an audience, and being in contact with an audience. When one has done that, one can compose with real joy.” –Aaron Copland

When I say that classical music should charge the ramparts, that we should be fearless participants in the struggle to shape a better world, it may sound a bit silly. Yet, in 1933, who would have thought a “left-wing, homosexual Jew” could help heal, sustain, reinvent and redefine the nation for the better simply through his music? As Christoph von Dohnanyi said in an interview a few years back, nobody remembers who the ruler of was when Beethoven was writing his Fifth Symphony. Art is the single most enduringly powerful positive force in society. Copland ended up doing exactly what he feared had become impossible in 1933- he’d helped direct the affairs of the nation.

Even as we feel that great music in all genres has never been more pushed to the sidelines of our culture than it is now, we can hear in Copland’s words that we were not the first generation to feel that ours was becoming a hopeless cause. Copland escaped the vacuum without sacrificing the depth and integrity of his musical approach. Appalachian Spring may be a more accessible work than the Dance Symphony, yet its musical construction is just as sound and sophisticated and integrated as anything by Berg or Brahms, never mind the rest of his own music. He literally wrote the soundtrack for his country’s modern history. If only the country we’ve become were as loving, as humble, as charitable and as hopeful as the one he imagined for us.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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2 comments on “Copland”

  1. Charles Coleman

    Hi Ken!
    I think this post of yours is very accurate.
    As a composer myself, I have to think about this issue of accessiblity in conjunction with artistic expression all the time, paticularly in this uncertain, hard time in America, which, as you elequently pointed out, is nothing new.
    I think, despite the current climate, there are a few great american composers out there that are in a great position to pick up where Copland left off. Perhaps John Adams may be at the top of that list.
    I myself have been able to haggle a few orchestral commisions over the next year or two. I suppose, if an idiot like me can do that, there’s hope after all. 🙂

    I enjoy reading your posts every week!

    All the best,

    Charles Coleman

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Dear Charles-

    Thank you very much for writing.

    I think that we have gotten in to trouble in recent years because many have come to confuse accessibility with a simplistic and one-dimensional approach to composition. Copland’s achievement was not only in what he said, or in who he chose to say it to, but in how compellingly he said it. He created public statements for his time that have endured because they can withstand critical and musical re-examination. It’s music you can come back to again and again and love it more each time. Very impressive.

    I look forward to hearing some of your music some day!

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