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Aaron Copland

By Arthur Berger

In saying a last goodbye to Aaron Copland, I find it hard to single out the most memorable aspect of his life, work, and career since there are so many remarkable things to remember. The warmth and gentleness of his personality, his readiness to listen to our problems and offer solutions—these are attributes that escaped no one who ever knew him. Their memory surrounds me like an aura as I stand here. Copland, however, was not only generous in his personal relations; he also wanted to make this a better place for the American composer in general. How he accomplished this is, I believe, as good a subject as any for comment on this occasion.

When he returned from his studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger in 1925, Copland, as he later recalled, found that his American elders provided no suitable example. In his own words, “We started to search for what Van Wyck Brooks calls a ‘usable past.’ ” It was necessary to build from the ground up, and Copland deliberately went about forging an indigenous idiom: in the twenties with jazz, as in the Piano Concerto; in the thirties with cowboy tunes, as in Billy the Kid—his love affair with folksong from different regions continuing into the forties with Rodeo, Our Town, and Appalachian Spring.

Despite the legitimacy it could claim in an era that spawned the WPA, Copland’s radical move for consolidating American music was, in the larger frame of things, outmoded. Culture and world politics favored internationalism. What Albert Guérard said later when he chided the Africans for their heresy of nationalism was symptomatic of the time: “It was not you who evolved the idea; you borrowed it from nineteenth-century Europe…Many of you jump straight from the jungle to the jet-plane; there is no reason why you should go through the stage of the early-nineteenth century mail coach.”

But in so-called serious American music in the mid-twenties, nationalism was not regressive since it had never taken root, and in art, if not elsewhere, it was a stage that could not be bypassed. An infusion of jazz and folksong was a drastic measure that would be immediate in its effect. At the same time, by its nature it yielded a highly accessible music that fed upon some of the most basic public attitudes. It is a mistake, however, to assimilate Copland’s quest to breast-beating Americanism. It took courage to stem the tide of a world inclined towards internationalism, and for this Brooklyn-born Jew and passionate New Yorker it took imagination to surmount parochialism and encompass the whole of America.

Just as his accessible music benefits from the refinement and mastery of his more absract works, so too do the tougher, abstract works benefit reciprocally from the qualities distilled from the overtly folkish ones. It is in these qualities, not in the compiled folk tunes themselves, that Copland’s essential Americanism lies.

Perhaps the most distinctive of the qualities is a certain immobility. That this is an American trait becomes more convincing when we find it recognized as such by observers abroad. Writing about the Piano Sonata of 1941, the English critic Wilfred Mellers characterized the Andante as “the quintessential expression of immobility,” and though in the Vivace “the pace of the phrase may be brisk,” he found that “the development of it is extremely slow.” He goes on to speculate that “the suggestion of timelessness in [Copland’s] work is…not unconnected with America’s physical, geographical vastness. The stillness and solitude of the prairie lurk behind all his urban sophistication.”*

Another English critic, Peter Evans, has found that in setting Emily Dickinson’s poems, “Copland, always master of the timeless moment, has caught the obsession of the verses with visions of eternity in life and death…” When something in the psyche of an American musician resonates with the sensibility of an American writer, there is reason to believe we have a more significant nationalism than that which may be conveyed by mere quotation of folksong. And I thought it significant when I encountered the same theme again in an old essay by Alfred Kazin with the title “The Stillness of Light in August” in which he refers to a “curious effect of immobility in Faulkner’s characters as they run (as if they were held up in the air by wires)…”**

One’s introduction to Copland these days is likely to be through Fanfare for the Common Man or Appalachian Spring. Mine, around 1930, was through the tough, sometimes clangorous, and seminal Piano Variations, and for decades since I’ve been advocating equal rights for the two Coplands, campaigning for adequate exposure for the works almost totally occluded by those considered the more accessible ones. I cannot emphasize too much that it is not a question of value. It is a question of a distinction between works that give up their secret easily and those that do not. In the best of possible worlds the more difficult music would be what we would hear more often since we need rehearings in order to grasp it. But lacking such Utopian conditions, we must not allow Copland’s huge success to lull us into the complacency of believing there is no need to strive for more attention to what are currently his less-known works. Such an effort would indeed constitute a fitting tribute.

*Mellers, W.H., “American Music” in Kenyon Review (Summer 1943).

**Shapiro, Charles, ed., Twelve Original Essays on Great American Novels (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1958).

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