updated 23 May 2013

Aaron Copland

American composer born 14 November 1900 in Brooklyn; died 2 December 1990 in North Tarrytown, New York.

Aaron Copland was born in Brooklyn on 14 November 1900 to a family of Russian-Jewish émigrés. He began playing piano with his sister at the age of eleven, continuing to perfect his playing with Ludwig Wolfsohn. In 1918, he graduated from the Boys’ High School in Brooklyn, but did not go on to pursue university-level studies. From 1917 to 1921, he studied harmony and counterpoint privately with Rubin Goldmark and piano with Victor Wittgenstein (1917-1919), and then with Clarence Adler (1919-1921). From 1921 to 1924, he travelled to France, where he studied with Nadia Boulanger (harmony, composition) at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, and then in Paris. He also studied piano with Ricardo Viñes and conducting with Albert Wolff (1921). Returning to the United States, he embarked on a brilliant career as a pianist, composer, orchestra conductor, and teacher.

In 1925, his Symphony for organ and orchestra (1924) premiered in a performance with Walter Damrosch and Nadia Boulanger as piano soloist. He also composed Music for the Theater and wrote his first reviews for Modern Music at this time (he would go on to be a regular contributor to the magazine between 1936 and 1939). In 1927, with Serge Koussevitzky conducting (who would go on to become a major figure in Copland’s career), Copland premiered Concerto for piano (1926), whose jazz inspirations were considered to be quite scandalous. At this time, he also began a lecture series at the New School for Social Research in New York, which continued until 1938. The lectures were ultimately published in two volumes titled What to Listen for in Music (1939, revised in 1957) and Our New Music (1941, revised and reissued in 1968 with the title The New Music: 1900-1960).

In 1928, along with Roger Sessions, Copland founded the Copland-Sessions Concerts (1928-1931) to promote modern American music. That same year, he joined another major formation of the musical avant-garde, the League of Composers, remaining a member until 1954 and serving as its director from 1948 to 1951. Copland continued to play a key role in American musical institutions and organizations, notably as director of the Yaddo Festival of American Music (1932-1933), a member of the American Composers Alliance (1939-1945), and a co-founder of the American Music Center in 1939.

In 1930, he composed Variations for piano (orchestrated in 1957), which rapidly became one of the masterpieces of the American piano repertoire. In 1932, he traveled to Mexico, where Carlos Chávez conducted the first concert entirely dedicated to Copland’s compositions. The folk music of Mexico – a country he visited frequently – inspired El Salón México (1932-1936). Copland’s socialist convictions grew stronger during the Great Depression, inspiring him to support the Composer’s Collective, the Young Composers Group, and the Group Theater, all of which had ties to the Communist Party. In 1935, he gave his first courses at Harvard University, where he would teach until 1944. He returned to Harvard in 1951 to hold the prestigious one-year post of Norton Professor of Poetics. His Norton Lectures were published the following year in a book titled Music and Imagination.

In 1937, Copland wrote his first opera, The Second Hurricane. The following year, he composed Billy the Kid for Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan, which brought him wide recognition. That year was also the one in which he met Leonard Bernstein, with whom he would develop a deep friendship and who would play a crucial role in the world renown of Copland’s music. In 1939, he composed his first film score, The City (O. Sterlin) and (L. Milestone); twenty years later, he won an Oscar for best film score for The Heiress (W. Wyler).

From 1940 to 1967, Copland directed the music department of the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, where he also taught composition. The 1940s was the most productive decade of his career. He became the United States’ most beloved composer of classical music. His compositions from this period include wildly popular ballets such as Rodeo (1942) and Appalachian spring (which won the 1944 Pulitzer prize), in addition to the orchestral works A Lincoln Portrait and Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), whose patriotic sound reflect his participation in “the war effort,” as well as Symphony n° 3 (1944-1946), In the Beginning (1947), his most ambitious choral work, and Concerto for clarinet (1947-1948), commissioned by Benny Goodman.

In 1949, he returned to Europe after a 12-year absence and grew interested in the young generation of avant-garde composers working there, in particular Pierre Boulez, the leader of the serialist movement. He used serial composition techniques in Piano Quartet (1950) and in Piano Fantasy (1952-1957). In this same period he also composed Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson (1950) for voice and piano, and two sets of folk song arrangements called Old American Songs in 1950 and 1952.

In 1951, he received a Fulbright fellowship for a residency at the American Academy in Rome, and travelled to Israel for the first time. In Jerusalem, he gave a lecture on Jewish composers in which he affirmed his conviction that a composer could hold a strong national identity while remaining deeply Jewish. In 1952, he began composing his opera The Tender Land, which premiered at the New York City Opera in 1954. During the Red Scare of the 1950s, he was briefly blacklisted and summoned to testify in a closed hearing before Senators Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn in 1953 about his activities and affiliations. The investigations ended in 1955. In 1958, he conducted the New York Philharmonic for the first time. As his career as a conductor, which included multiple international tours, grew more intensive, his composing slowed significantly. He composed two serialist pieces for orchestra, Connotations, in 1962, for the inaugural concert at the new Lincoln Center Philharmonic Hall in New York and Inscape, in 1967, for the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

By the early 1970s, Copland had stopped composing almost entirely, devoting himself to his conducting, which he continued until 1983. Afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease, his health began deteriorating, and he died on 2 December 1990 in North Tarrytown, New York, of respiratory failure.

Over the course of his illustrious career, Copland toured the world, particularly Europe and South America, and received numerous awards and honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1964) and a Gold Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1986).

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2013

Aaron Copland, ou l’expression sonore de l’âme américaine

By Max Noubel

Aaron Copland: The Sound of the American Soul

It was after attending a recital by Jan Ignacy Paderewski at age fifteen that Aaron Copland’s desire to become a composer became real. He first tried to learn composition through correspondence. Then he took theory and composition classes with Rubin Goldmark, who had studied with Johann Nepomuk Fuchs in Vienna and with Antonín Dvořák. Like most composers from his generation, Goldmark deeply admired the German music tradition. Nevertheless, he heeded Dvořák who, in an 1893 article published in the New York Herald, declared that the future of music in America was tied to the music sung by black people. In his Negro Rhapsody (1912), Goldmark tried to express a conception of nationalism by making references to African American music. His referential composition process had an impact on the young Copland, fueling him to realize the historical significance of his country’s early aspirations to a musical identity. Four years under the tutelage of Goldmark, from 1917 to 1921, taught him solid composing technique and knowledge of the great Romantic repertoire, but it did little to open his mind to broader and newer musical landscapes. Copland nevertheless enriched his musical background by assiduously attending concerts and operas performed in Manhattan, where he heard pieces by Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Scriabin, Claude Debussy, and Maurice Ravel. He was also influenced by popular music played in the cosmopolitan Brooklyn of his childhood, including blues, ragtime, and the jazzy accents of Tin Pan Alley songs.

The pieces Copland composed while studying with Goldmark continue the academic path traced by his teacher, as exemplified in the Romantic aesthetic of the Piano Sonata (1921). Copland is bolder and more original in other pieces for piano such as Three Moods (1920-1921), in which he uses jazz idioms for the first time, and The Cat and the Mouse (1920), a piece undoubtedly inspired by Debussy. Copland did not show these pieces to Goldmark for fear of receiving negative feedback. This need to free himself from the grip of his teacher — whose importance Copland nonetheless recognized as critical in his training as a composer — is similar to Charles Ives’s attitude toward his teacher Horatio Parker. During Copland’s student years, Ives was relatively unknown. Copland had once seen the score of Ives’s “Concord” Sonata on Goldmark’s piano, but Goldmark had warned his young pupil against the dangerous influence of such a work on a young creative spirit. Copland thus was left to build his own conception of what it meant to compose authentic American music, in complete ignorance of Ives’s essential input. When he finally came across Ives’s music much later, the encounter was something close to a revelation: “There we were in the twenties searching for a composer from the older generation with an ‘American sound,’ and here was Charles Ives composing this incredible music — totally unknown to us!”1


In June 1921, Copland decided to pursue his studies in France. Before settling in Paris, he participated in the summer semester of the brand-new American Conservatory of Fontainebleau. There, he took composition lessons with Paul Vidal, whose teachings left him disappointed. He turned to the harmony teacher Nadia Boulanger, whose charisma and exceptional talent immediately pleased him. As was the case with Elliott Carter, Walter Piston, Virgil Thomson, and many other American composers who studied with her, Boulanger played a crucial role in Copland’s training as a musician. She considerably enriched his knowledge of music by introducing him to Renaissance madrigals, cantatas, and the organ works of J.S. Bach. She also introduced him to a broad array of modern pieces by Ravel, by Igor Stravinsky, whose rhythms made a strong impression upon Copland, and by Gabriel Fauré and Gustav Mahler, two composers for whom Copland kept a deep attachment. Copland has shared how Boulanger’s composition lessons taught him the importance of clear conception, elegant proportions, and the *grande ligne*, meaning a continuity in the musical discourse. Boulanger also introduced him to the literary works of Paul Valéry and André Gide, who remained one of his favorite authors.

In the fall of 1921, Copland moved to Montmartre with Harold Clurman, his colleague and a future theater director and critic. He frequented museums and Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company bookstore, then a privileged hub of exchange for intellectuals. He attended numerous concerts and ballet performances where he heard the various avant-garde musical trends of the capital. The premiere of Darius Milhaud’s La création du monde on 25 October 1923 by the Swedish Ballet deeply impressed him, particularly for Milhaud’s use of jazz idioms. Jazz musicians, who could be heard in Parisian bistros where American artists and intellectuals met, further spurred Copland’s interest in this music, which he had not until then considered as an important element in the future of American music. Boulanger encouraged him on this path and taught him to make use of jazz and popular music, which made up the very essence of his country’s musical heritage.


Unlike other American artists and intellectuals of the Lost Generation, Copland looked forward to his return to the homeland: he had great ambitions regarding his role in the making of modern — and resolutely American — music.

He returned to New York in June 1924. There, he finished the score for his first orchestral work, Grohg, a ballet project he had started in Paris. He also composed Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (1924), a work in a hybrid style. It shows the influence of Arthur Honegger, of traditional Jewish music — particularly in the delicate and melancholic melodies of the Prelude and the wild dance rhythms of the last movement — and of jazz, with rhythms that allude to the Charleston. The influence of jazz is more obvious in Music for the Theatre (1925, for small orchestra), a piece steeped in the Broadway spirit, as well as in the Piano Concerto (1926), whose polyrhythmic and polytonal sections dumbfounded the audience attending its premiere. When Copland returned to his home country, Rhapsody in Blue had just premiered on 12 February 1924, and the work had had the effect of a bomb. Even if Copland later denied that he had been under the spell of George Gershwin — who for a time became his rival within the “highbrow jazz” scene (also labeled “sophisticated jazz” for “intellectuals”) — it is likely that Gershwin’s scandalous success had an impact on Copland’s decision to further his pursuit of symphonic jazz. The way certain European composers such as Milhaud had intuitively grasped the interest of jazz, as well as the growing competition among American modernists over how to make use of this fashionable genre, also had an impact on Copland’s positioning as a composer. He barely hid his opportunistic stance when he shared, some years later, how he had been

preoccupied with the idea of adding to the great history of serious music something with an American accent, and jazz seemed to be a comparatively simple way of introducing the American note in an authentic way. […] It was an easy way to be American — quickly American — in a way that the world could recognize as American.2

Copland’s interest in jazz remained intact throughout his career. In the late 1930s, he nursed a deep admiration for Duke Ellington, whom he considered to be “the master of all,” and, in the 1950s, he especially liked Lennie Tristano, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, and Billy Taylor. At the request of Benny Goodman, Copland composed his Clarinet Concerto (1947-1948), a work in which one can hear jazz swing. The music he composed in 1961 for Jack Garfein’s film Something Wild (which he reused in Music for a Great City, 1964) shows the influence of cool jazz. However, reflecting on his Piano Concerto from the late 1920s, Copland declared that he had already reached the limits of what he could do with jazz, whose emotional potential he considered too limited. While his Symphonic Ode (1927-1929) for full orchestra also contains elements of jazz, they are discreet and do not form the primary source material of the piece.

His Piano Variations (1930, orchestrated in 1957), are based on an eleven-measure theme containing a four-note series (E, B-sharp, D-sharp, C-sharp) that also generates the harmonic material of the work. This new composition process is an attempt to find another artistic path through exploiting dissonance. The Short Symphony (1932-1933) further develops the harmonic language and rhythmic complexity of the Variations. While these pieces were well received by a niche audience from the avant-garde, they were met coolly by the public, prompting Copland to reconsider the value of music written for and by the elite. He questioned the radical attitude of the vanguard and eventually concluded that the golden age of pioneers and experimentalists was a thing of the past.

The challenge was to break free from the aesthetic ghetto of modern art music and reach out to a broader audience, all the while using modes of expression that were in tune with the contemporary moment: that of the Great Depression. Copland and an increasing number of other American artists and intellectuals were realizing the severity of the political and economic situation. Like him, these intellectuals often had affinities with the Communist Party and became active in a left-wing social and political movement known as the Popular Front.

For Copland, communication with this broader audience had to be done through what he called an “imposed simplicity.” He founded it on a strong diatonic melodic language that often included American folk songs like the cowboy songs heard in his ballet Billy the Kid (1938) or South American songs like the Mexican melodies in his orchestral piece El Salón México (1932-1936). This musical language also used three-note chord harmonies, sharp dance and song rhythms, the suppleness of prose declamation, and an eschewing of formalism in favor of easily perceptible musical structures. This “imposed simplicity” proved Copland’s desire for aesthetic accessibility: the work needed to be equally artistic and functional. This creative attitude, which is reminiscent of the German Gebrauchsmusik, led him to broach, over the 1930s and 1940s, a wide array of musical genres and forced him to keep in mind the general democratization of culture through the emergent broadcast media: the cinema, the radio, and, later, television.

Starting in 1937, work in Hollywood enabled Copland to achieve his goal: with cinema, he could reach a broad audience all the while maintaining his own musical language. His feature film scores show an exceptional mastery of, and novel approach to, the genre. Among his films are Of Mice and Men (1939) and The Red Pony (1948) — both based on John Steinbeck and directed by Lewis Milestone — as well as The Heiress (1948), based on Henry James and directed by William Wyler. Unlike other composers, notably Max Steiner, who wrote scores in a lavish neo-romantic style, Copland kept his scores in the background of the action and used it subtly to underline the psychological state of the characters. Only at specific moments did he write music that was more at the forefront: usually at the end of a scene. This more imposing voice was meant to strengthen the emotional content of the interaction on the screen.

His first opera, The Second Hurricane (1936), was composed for a high-school ensemble — a choice that reveals how important Copland considered youth education. His second opera, The Tender Land (1952-1954), he initially composed for television, but producers rejected it, and in the end it premiered onstage. His links with members of the theater scene, and most particularly with the Group Theatre, led him to compose numerous stage music works including, notably, Irwin Shaw’s Quiet City (1939). Copland also contributed to the rise of American ballet through his collaboration with great choreographers such as Agnes de Mille for Rodeo (1942) and Martha Graham for Appalachian Spring (1943-1944).


The considerable success with which Copland’s music was met elevated him to the status of a national composer, both in the media and in the public’s opinion, which was quite favorable to the type of patriotism in his most popular works. Fanfare for the Common Man (1942, for brass and percussion) was a response to the entry of the United States into World War II. Copland was particularly inspired by Vice President Henry A. Wallace’s speech, during which he had declared the beginning of “The Century of the Common Man.” Due to its solemn character, simple modal melodies, rhythmic stability, and easy-to-memorize melodic themes, the piece was often used to accompany the credits of television and radio shows or during political, military, and sports events. His Lincoln Portrait (1942, for speaker and orchestra) was often played during official national ceremonies. It used excerpts from Abraham Lincoln’s letters and speeches, as well as folk songs like “Camptown Races” and “Springfield Mountain.”

In 1949, Copland set foot back in Europe after a twelve-year absence. In Paris, he met Pierre Boulez. He was fascinated by Boulez’s Seconde sonate pour piano, a piece that undoubtedly motivated him to renew his writing for the piano in his Piano Fantasy (1957). He also met René Leibowitz and Olivier Messiaen, and he visited Pierre Schaeffer’s studio for musique concrète. Copland was also interested in Anton Webern’s late works, as well as in the music of Frank Martin and Luigi Dallapiccola — two composers who had turned to serialism. These encounters led him to reconsider his musical language. Unable to ignore the input of the European avant-garde, he decided to adopt Arnold Schoenberg’s composition method and make it his own. According to Copland, “twelve-tonism” was “nothing more than an angle of vision. Like a fugal treatment, it is a stimulus that enlivens musical thinking […] It is a method, not a style; and therefore it solves no problems of musical expressivity.”3 He meant to use serialism in a more supple and spontaneous manner than Schoenberg. Copland saw it as a way to update his harmonic language, without abandoning tonality altogether.

Copland’s Piano Quartet (1950) uses a single eleven-note series that, as with Schoenberg, has a harmonic function. However, unlike Schoenberg, Copland wrote tuneful melodies and only rarely used the series in its entirety. Moreover, the series he used — a derivative of his music for the film The Red Pony — could generate several diatonic motives. A similar impression of tonality persists in the three other pieces he composed using series. In Piano Fantasy, he used the last two notes of a ten-note series to secure a tonal center. In Inscape (1967, for orchestra), the opening eleven-note chord and the introductory dissonant harmonies are followed by consonant chords. His use of the series was a way for him to translate into music the drastic changes of a post–World War II society that were evolving further under the tension of the Cold War. In composing Connotations (1962, for orchestra), Copland shared how he meant to express “something of the tensions, aspirations and drama inherent in the world today.”4 His experimentation with the series did not, however, divert his attention from popular music sources, as can be heard in the two song collections Old American Songs (1950 and 1952), as well as in Emblems (1964, for wind orchestra), which makes reference to the hymn “Amazing Grace,” to jazz, and to Latin-American music.

In the early 1970s, Copland stopped composing. By his own account, he had ceased to find inspiration, and he decided to focus on his career as a conductor. He led with an open mind, conducting composers as varied in their approach as Iannis Xenakis, Tōru Takemitsu, and Witold Lutosławski, as well as some of his own compositions. His rich musical legacy conciliated art and popular music, without ever falling into the lures of seeking popularity, and it succeeded in presenting before the whole nation the sound of the American soul.

  1. Cited in Howard POLLACK, Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man, New York, Henry Holt, 1998, p. 111.
  2. Vivian PERLIS and Libby Van CLEVE, Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington: An Oral History of American Music, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2005, p. 309.
  3. Aaron COPLAND, “Fantasy for Piano,” The New York Times, 20 October 1957, cited in POLLACK, Aaron Copland, p. 446.
  4. Aaron COPLAND, program notes for Connotations, cited in POLLACK, Aaron Copland, p. 499.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2013

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Bibliographie sélective

  • William W. AUSTIN, « Aaron Copland », Twentieth-Century American Masters, New York, The New Grove, W.W. Norton & Company, 1987, pp. 183-212.
  • Arthur BERGER, Aaron Copland, New York, Oxford University Press, 1953.
  • Neil BUTTERWORTH, The Music of Aaron Copland, London, Toccata Press, 1985. New York, Universe Books, 1986.
  • Theodore CHANLER, « Aaron Copland », American Composers on American Music, Henry Cowell (sous la dir. de), Stanford, CT, 1933. New York, F. Ungar, 1962, pp. 49-56.
  • Edward T. CONE, « Conversation with Aaron Copland », Perspectives of New Music, 6.2, 1968, pp. 57-72.
  • Elizabeth B. CRIST, Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland During the Depression and War, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Aaron COPLAND, Copland on Music, New York, Doubleday, 1960. New York, W. W. Norton, 1963. Da Capo Press, 1976.
  • Aaron COPLAND, « Le Compositeur en Amérique industrielle », traduit de l’anglais par Vincent Barras, Musiques Nord-Américaines, Contrechamps n° 6, avril 1986, pp. 24-34.
  • Aaron COPLAND, Music and Imagination, Cambridge, MA, Havard University Press, 1952.
  • Aaron COPLAND, The New Music 1900-1960, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1968.
  • Aaron COPLAND, What to Listen for in Music, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1939. Rév. et aug. 1939. London, Penguin Books, 2002.
  • Aaron COPLAND, Vivian PERLIS, Copland: 1900 through 1942 (volume 1), Faber and Faber, London, Boston, 1984.
  • Aaron COPLAND, Vivian PERLIS, Copland Since 1943, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
  • Arnold DOBRIN, Aaron Copland: His Life and Times, New York, Thomas Y. Crowell, 1967.
  • Carol J. OJA, Judith TICK (édit.), Aaron Copland and his World, Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2005.
  • Catharine Owens PEARE, Aaron Copland: His Life, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969.
  • Howard POLLACK, Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man, Henry Holt, New York, 1998.
  • Joann SKOWRONSKI, Aaron Copland: A Bio-Bibliography, Westport, Greenwood Press, 1985.
  • Julia SMITH, Aaron Copland: His Work and Contribution to American Music, New York, Dutton, 1955.
  • Lawrence STARR, « Copland Style », Perspectives of New Music, 19, 1980-81, pp. 68-89.

Discographie sélective

  • Aaron COPLAND, Appalachian Spring; Rodeo; Billy the Kid; Fanfare for the Common Man; New York Philharmonic Orchestra, direction : Leonard Bernstein, 1 cd Sony SMK 63082.
  • Aaron COPLAND, The complete Music for Piano, Leo Smit : piano, 1 cd Sony SM2K 66 345.
  • Aaron COPLAND, « Copland The Modernist » : Concerto for Piano and Orchetra; Orchestral Variations; Short Symphony (Symphony n° 2) ; Symphonic Ode, Garrick Ohlsson : piano, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, direction : Michael Tilson Thomas, 1 cd RCA Victor 09026 68541 2.
  • Aaron COPLAND, In the Beginning ; The Second Hurricane, Martha Lipton*: mezzo-soprano, Chorus Pro musica*, Solists and Chorus of the High School of Music and Art, New York City, Leonard Bernstein (dir., narrator), 1 cd Sony SMK 60560.
  • Aaron COPLAND, « Music for Films » : The Red Pony; Our Town; The Heiress Suite; Music for Movies; Prairie Journal (Music for Radio), Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, direction : Leonard Slatkin, 1 cd RCA
  • Aaron COPLAND, Symphony n° 3 ; Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, E. Power Biggs : orgue, Leonard Berstein : direction, 1 cd Sony SMK 63155.
  • Aaron COPLAND, Music for the Theatre; Concerto for Piano and Orchestra; Connotations; El Salón México, Columbia Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, direction : Leonard Bernstein, 1 cd Sony SMK 60177.
  • Copland and The American Sound, Keeping Score, Revolution in Music, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas, 1 DVD, 2006.