Born in 1900, Aaron Copland was the last of five children. His sister Laurine gave Aaron his first piano lessons and quickly recommended that his talents be cultivated by a professional. It took years, however, for their parents to agree, at which point Copland fell under the tutelage of Leopold Wolfsohn followed by Rubin Goldmark with whom he studied theory and composition. Copland personally sought to supplement his education with lots of concert attendance, schooling himself to as much of the music world as he could.
Copland’s earliest works reflected characteristics of Italian opera and eastern European Jewish music as well as influences of Chopin’s and Liszt’s piano works; despite these influences, though, his style was his own from the beginning, laying stepping stones towards his mature style. Most of this early music was for solo piano. Characteristics that became notably “Copland” during this time included avoidances of major and minor triads and authentic cadences in favor of seventh chords, diminished chords, augmented triads and a particular affinity for the tritone. His harmonic choices were often ambiguous, even when concluding with a triad, whether with an unusual choice of harmony or a rapid key change which perhaps would not return to the tonic. His early works also commonly features elided phrases and deceptive cadences.
When Copland began to seek more than what local education could offer to him, he enrolled in a summer school for American musicians in France at the palace of Fontainebleau, near Paris. Unfortunately, he found the instruction to be rather routine and subsequently headed to Paris. There he remained for three years after falling under the tutelage of Nadia Boulanger, an accomplished organist/theorist/critic. Boulanger kept Copland on a rigorous compositional regimen. All the while she had him sharpening his skills with orchestration, score reading and analysis and performing for influential musicians – among them Stravinsky and Ravel – at private home gatherings.
It is no surprise, seeing his talent and education coming out of his European studies, that Copland took his inherent skills and his labored-upon technique to enjoy a long and successful career. His distinct “American” sound was influenced less by his American predecessors than from popular music such as jazz and blues. Other important influences included observations of everyday life and an affinity towards nationalistic styles. This interest was apparent in his occasional usage of Mexican, South American, Jewish and other folk pieces. His latest works experimented with 12-tone techniques.
His focus shifted mainly to larger works as years passed. This included ballets, such as his famous Billy the Kid (1934) and the renowned Appalachian Spring (1944). Copland also fairly successfully tried his hand at opera with The Tender Land in 1952. Similar themes and styles abound in these: all set in characteristically American settings and feature Copland’s trademark usage of “American” sounds and, often, American folk idioms. Copland also composed orchestral works throughout his career, with perhaps his most famous being 1942’s Lincoln Portrait (on the lighter side of his orchestral pieces). He did not abandon song writing completely, though; his Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson (1950) for voice and piano is among his most famous works today. Copland also pursued other musical engagements throughout his career, with a substantial foray into conducting and occasional employment as a teacher, lecturer and writer.
Tonality dominates Copland’s works. His melodies often feature large leaps; he tended toward perfect intervals of fourths, fifths and octaves, evoking for many the characteristically wide open spaces of America. Short but prominent motives were common in his works, developed in bursts or expanded over time with each repetition. His modulations would often be brief and abrupt, usually with contrasting key areas, some of which never return to the tonic. Rhythmically, his pieces were declamatory, sometimes in quicker tempos which served as subtle segues into jazz. Syncopation, polyrhythmic layering and frequently changing meters/tempos were abundant in even his most basic compositions. Copland favored small forms, but for his larger works he stressed three-movement structures (typically slow-fast-slow) and assembling and layering of sections rather than “composing” from beginning to end in a traditional sense. He also often incorporated pre-existing melodies into his works, whether from the American tradition of folk and parlor-type songs (such as those of Stephen Foster, whose “Camptown Races” was quoted in Copland’s Lincoln Portrait) or from native hymns (e.g. “Simple Gifts,” a traditional Shaker hymn which has realized new popularity since being utilized in Copland’s Appalachian Spring).
In the last seventeen years of his life, Copland all but stopped producing new compositions with the exception of several works for piano. This was, in part, due to an onset of dementia symptoms which hindered this ability, including memory loss. This affliction worsened throughout the 1980’s, and in December of 1990 Aaron Copland passed away. He left his musical manuscripts, recordings and other such memorabilia to the Library of Congress which now houses this collection as a remarkable tribute to a man who helped America find its voice.