Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland, Composer, NYC

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Aaron Copland

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Aaron Copland (November 14, 1900 - December 2, 1990) was an American composer of concert and film music, as well as an accomplished pianist. Instrumental in forging a distinctly American style of composition, he was widely known as "the dean of American composers." Copland's music achieved a difficult balance between modern music and American folk styles, and the open, slowly changing harmonies of many of his works are said to evoke the vast American landscape. He incorporated percussive orchestration, changing meter, polyrhythms, polychords and tone rows. Outside of composing, Copland often served as a teacher and lecturer. During his career he also wrote books and articles, and served as a conductor, most frequently for his own works.


Upon his return from his studies in Paris, he decided that he wanted to write works that were "American in character" and thus he chose jazz as the American idiom. His first significant work was the necromantic ballet Grohg which contributed thematic material to his later Dance Symphony. Other major works of his first period (austere) include the Music for Theater in 1925, the Piano Variations in 1930, and in 1933 the Short Symphony. However, this jazz-inspired period was brief, as his style evolved toward the goal of writing more accessible works.

Several composers rejected the notion of writing music for the elite during the Depression, thus the common American folklore served as the basis for his work along with revival hymns, and cowboy and folk songs. At a time when conservatories were teaching more astringent methods of composition, Copland held onto the respect of academics with the reasonable statement that he wanted to see if he couldn't say what he had to say in the simplest possible terms. His second period, the vernacular period, began about 1936 with Billy the Kid and El Salón México. Fanfare for the Common Man, perhaps Copland's most famous work, scored for brass and percussion, was written in 1942 at the request of the conductor Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. It would later be used to open many Democratic National Conventions. The fanfare was also used as the main theme of the fourth movement of Copland's Third Symphony, where it first appears in a quiet, pastoral manner, then in the brassier form of the original. The same year Copland wrote A Lincoln Portrait which became popular with a wider audience, leading to a strengthening in his association with American music. He was commissioned to write a ballet, Appalachian Spring, which he later arranged as a popular orchestral suite. The commission for Appalachian Spring came from Martha Graham, who had requested of Copland merely "music for an American ballet". Copland titled the piece "Music for Martha", having no idea of how she would use it on stage. Graham created a ballet she called Appalachian Spring, which was an instant success, and the music acquired the same name. Copland was amused and delighted later in life when people would come up to him and say: "You were so right - it sounds exactly like spring in the Appalachians", as he had no particular program in mind while writing the music.

The ballet Rodeo, a tale of a ranch wedding, written around the same time as Lincoln Portrait in 1942 is another enduring composition for Copland, and the "Hoe-Down" from the ballet is one of the most well-known compositions by any American composer, having been used numerous times in movies and on television. In the early- to mid-1990s, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association used "Hoe-Down" as the background music to their marketing campaign "Beef...it's what's for dinner," and was also used during the 78th Academy Awards.

Copland composed three numbered symphonies, but applied the word "symphony" to more than just symphonies. His early three-movement Organ Symphony was rewritten omitting the organ, calling the result his First Symphony. His fifteen-minute Short Symphony was the Second Symphony, though it also exists as the Sextet. The Third Symphony in the more traditional format (four movements; second movement, scherzo; third movement, adagio) with a forty-five minute approximate run-time. His Dance Symphony, was hurriedly extracted from the earlier unproduced ballet Grohg to meet an RCA Records commission deadline.

Copland was an important contributor to the genre of film music; his score for William Wyler's 1949 film, The Heiress won an Academy Award. Several themes he created are encapsulated in the suite Music for Movies, and his score for the film adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel The Red Pony was given a suite of its own. This suite was one of Copland's personal favourites. His score for the 1961 independent film Something Wild was released in 1964 as Music For a Great City. Posthumously, his music was used for Spike Lee's 1998 film, He Got Game, which featured a neighborhood basketball set to the music of "Hoe-Down". It is difficult to overestimate the influence Copland has had on film music. Virtually every composer who scored for western movies, particularly between 1940 and 1960, was shaped by the style Copland developed.

Copland was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in composition for Appalachian Spring. In 2007, he will be inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame. He is also a recipient of the Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia's distinguished Charles E. Lutton Man of Music Award for 1970.

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