Open Daily 9:30–6:00, Monday Until 8:00

1900-1990

Aaron Copland

By Lukas Foss

When an artist leaves this world for that other world that we know nothing about, his work, though much acclaimed during his life, usually begins to fade—to lose relevance. Not Aaron Copland’s. It is almost redundant to point out that his music is as alive as ever. It is here. Therefore—to me—you are here, Aaron. Allow me to address this tribute to you personally—and to express my gratitude to you in the name of all American composers who succeeded you. You are a father of twentieth-century American music. And you have been a father figure to me from my fifteenth year onward. I had the good fortune of being introduced to you in 1938, less than a year after my arrival in New York (from Paris). I did not know enough of your music when I met you. I certainly made up for that lack subsequently. Your music, Aaron, presented America to me. It helped to make me love my newly adopted country.

There is a freshness, an open-air quality in your music which no one captured before you. In fact, before you, the world thought of American music strictly in terms of jazz and Gershwin. Classically oriented American composers, such as MacDowell or Chadwick, looked to Europe for guidance and style, and emulated Dvořák, Grieg, or Liszt—except of course Charles Ives, another great father of American music. But Ives, though 25 years older than you, did not begin to leave his mark on American music until 25 years after you—because his music was hardly known at the time he wrote it, let alone studied by fellow composers. By the time the Ives legacy gathered momentum, your music had been studied, loved , and revered—and it had left its mark on every one of us. Through your work you created an original “American” image for American music. Your ingenious, totally personal way of using folk music gave us works like the ballet Billy the Kid, which you let me arrange for piano when I was seventeen (so I would make a little money). Then there is El Salón México, in which you use Mexican folk music ever so adventurously. Just as Ravel composed Bolero, the most amazing Spanish piece ever written even though Ravel was not Spanish, so you wrote the most inspired Mexican piece though you are not Mexican. But I do not mean to imply that your art is about the use of folklore. Your influence was just as potent in your early avant-garde compositions, such as the Piano Variations or the Piano Sonata, or the too-rarely performed opera, The Second Hurricane, which I had the honor of introducing to England two and a half years ago. These are pivotal pieces and your signature is in every bar. Until you came along, a self-dramatizing German rhetoric was considered the hallmark, the necessary ingredient for “great music.” Your matter-of-fact unprententiousness was totally new to American classical music and it characterizes in its freshness even a work such as Lincoln Portrait, an endeavor that would trap any other composer into grandiose, corny, patriotic gestures. In your Americanism there is no gesturing, no déjà vu, no touch of Broadway, no commercial exploitation—and you found a way of reintroducing simplicity, tonality, even the dominant-tonic progression (as in Appalachian Spring) via a voice-leading that is fresh and pure and void of any cliché. I missed my chance to study with you in Tanglewood, where my teachers were Koussevitzky and Hindemith. I was seventeen then, and it was not until two years later that I began to fully understand your music. Another two years passed and I became one of your many young composer friends who would gather in the now no longer existent back room of the Russian Tea Room after Carnegie Hall concerts. You presided. William Schuman, David Diamond, Elliott Carter, Arthur Berger, Leonard Bernstein, all of us were there, eagerly discussing the  latest piece of new music we just listened to—by Roy Harris, or Roger Sessions, or Copland, or Stravinsky. We were like a New Music family, of which you, Aaron, were the father. I also recall a few years later our lunches and dinners together at the American Academy in Rome. But the time I remember best was 35 years ago in Russia. The State Department got involved in a composer’s exchange between the USA and the USSR. So they picked the great “Dean of American music,” you, and the “enfant terrible,” me, to travel to Russia and Poland and give concerts in Moscow, Leningrad, Tiflis, Riga, and Warsaw. (After Moscow, Warsaw felt like Paris.) On that journey I graduated, so to speak, from young composer to colleague. But even at that time I would continue to look to you, Aaron, for criticism and advice, which you gave in your inimitable, understated, down-to-earth style, both kind and severe and ever-so objective. Your objective simplicity (never naive simplicity) was characteristically void of all showmanship, whether you taught, lectured, or conducted. In fact, I have never known anyone to conduct an orchestra with such total lack of ego display—or to narrate the Lincoln Portrait without emoting, addressing the public in a sober, straightforward manner—and I am speaking from personal experience, having conducted that work with wonderful narrators such as Carl Sandburg, Marian Anderson, Yolanda King, etc. You, Aaron, had as much self-confidence as any one of them but not a trace of the prima donna in you. Your disarming lack of self-indulgence may account for the fact that, unlike most of your colleagues, you had no enemies—except, of course, Senator McCarthy, who managed to misinterpret your liberal zeal and who gathered misinformation about your life, accusing you, of all people, of un-American behavior.

Cornelia, my wife, saw you on the afternoon after the hearings and said to me: “He has aged by 20 years.” Since your whole life was one of continuous service to an American ideal, this must have been the lowest blow, the worst affront and assault.

I seriously contemplated resigning from my teaching post at UCLA when that university endorsed the McCarthy witch-hunt for a month or two; fortunately, they came around. Just the other day all this came back to me when I found my letter to you, about that nightmare, in the Copland autobiography (brilliantly compiled by Vivian Perlis).

Except for that encounter with malignment, I have never seen you unhappy. You had a cheerful attitude toward life, which prevailed even during your last fifteen years when you became more and more isolated by Alzheimer’s disease. I remember when the symptoms first appeared and you said to me: “So I went to my doctor and said to him, ‘Help me, doctor, my memory is going, prescribe your medication.’ You know what the doctor answered, Lukas? He said, ‘Forget it!'” And you laughed—we laughed.

The last concerts we attended and shared were all part of the 80th Anniversary Copland Festival I directed in Milwaukee—and the last time I saw you was three years ago in your house in Peekskill. Bernstein had warned me: “Don’t, Lukas. Don’t go; it’s too sad, he won’t recognize you.” But I went—and I am glad; maybe you did not know who I was when you gave me that friendly hug and said: “How are you, my boy?” But you were cheerful and when I sat down at your piano and played your notes for you, your face lit up. You certainly did recognize the music, as indeed we all recognize you and your music.

I conclude. Aaron Copland gave birth to an era. His death marks the end of an era—but his music, with its message of love for America and belief in American music, will live forever. Thank you.

 

 

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters