Aaron Copland

Composer Aaron Copland

20th-century American composer, often nicknamed "The Dean of American Composers," for the quintessentially American musical sound he created.

Vital Statistics
14 Nov 1900, Brooklyn NY
2 Dec 1990, North Tarrytown, NY, Alzheimer’s disease and respiratory failure
20th Century
Performed As:
Pianist, conductor
During Lifetime:
After World War I, Americans flock to Paris and many live there as expatriates. The Great Depression and New Deal help to forge a new strand of populism in American art. After World War II, Cold War tensions make such art a little outdated, even suspicious.
Biographical Outline
  • Beginnings: In high school and after graduation, he takes composition lessons with Rubin Goldmark. Bypassing college, he studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, 1921-24, who soon becomes world famous as a composition teacher. He meets other American expatriate intellectuals and falls under the musical spell of Stravinsky.
  • Boost: Boulanger arranges for the premiere of Copland's Organ Symphony (1924) by Serge Koussevitzky, who has recently become the Boston Symphony's music director, with herself as soloist. Koussevitzky becomes one of Copland's biggest supporters, giving the premieres of 12 of the composer's works, including some he commissions himself.
  • Tepid 20s: In spite of this high-level support, Copland's music is poorly received by audiences and critics. He writes some works with jazz influences, such as the Piano Concerto (1926), which flops at its Boston premiere. A few commissions and short teaching gigs allow him to pay the rent. He writes journalism and organizes new music concerts (the Copland-Sessions Concerts, the Yaddo Festival (1932-33).
  • Finding an audience 1936-45: Partly inspired by socialist/communist politics, Copland forges a new style, eschewing the abstract complexities of his earlier works in favor of direct, popular appeal. Works include El salón Mexico (1936), Saga of the Prairie (1937), and two famous wartime works, Fanfare for the Common Man (194 ), and A Lincoln Portrait (1942). In his famous trio of ballets, Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944), Copland includes American folk music, which he subsequently also exploits in his sets of Old American Songs (1950). Success vaults him to the forefront of American composition and culminates in the triumphant Symphony No. 3 (1945).
  • Snubbed, 1952: A Lincoln Portrait is removed from the program of Dwight Eisenhower's presidential inauguration on suspicions of Copland's communism. In 1953, he appears before a closed hearing of a Congressional subcommittee, where he denies being a communist, or associating with them.
  • Getting away from it all: Copland moves out of New York City. He continues to compose and teach actively and, in 1958, begins a conducting career, in which he records most of his orchestral music. With his opera The Tender Land (1954) ignored, and his colleagues turning to serialism, Copland jettisons his populist manner for advanced techniques.
  • Later years: Copland continues to accrue honors and mentor younger composers, but stops composing in 1972. In his last years he is increasingly debilitated, and dies just after his 90th birthday.
Fun Facts
  • Mentor: From early in his career, Copland interested himself in the careers of his contemporaries. The list of people who benefited from his efforts to promote new music and as a mentor is almost a Who's Who of American composition.
  • Name-dropping: The Clarinet Concerto (1948) was written for Benny Goodman.
  • Scholar: Copland was the first American composer to serve as Harvard's Norton Professor of Poetics in 1951-52. (Leonard Bernstein followed in 1971.)
  • What's in a name: Saga of the Prairies was given its title in a radio contest.
  • Private life: Copland kept his private life to himself, but, unusually for his time, he never hid his homosexuality, and lived on and off with the photographer Victor Kraft in the 1930s.
  • High honors: Copland received a number of awards over his lifetime, beginning with his election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and continuing through various honorary doctorates and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, to the Kennedy Center Honors (1979) and international awards.
Recommended Biography
Explore the Music
Copland's music defines an "American sound" of the Depression and World-War II era. It is still used in movies to evoke American pastoral scenes and wide-open spaces. His populist works are among the most successful pieces of 20th-century modernism. But even in his more abstract works, Copland has a less-is-more aesthetic, using sharply defined gestures and transparent orchestrations.
Recommended Websites
  • Stage
    • Billy the Kid (1938), ballet
    • Rodeo (1942), ballet
    • Appalachian Spring (1944), ballet
    • The Tender Land (1954), opera
  • Orchestral
    • Music for the Theatre (1925)
    • El salón México (1936)
    • A Lincoln Portrait (1942)
    • Symphony No. 3 (1946)
    • Clarinet Concerto (1948)
    • Music for Movies
  • Vocal
    • Old American Songs (1950)
    • 12 Poems of Emily Dickinson (1950)
    • Canticle of Freedom (1955)
  • Piano
    • Piano Variations (1930)
  • Chamber
    • Vitebsk: Study on a Jewish Theme (1928), piano trio
    • Piano Quintet (195)
    • Threnody in Memoriam Igor Stravinsky (1971)