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About the American Composer, Aaron Copland's Works and Life

Aaron Copland: Overview 

  • Born: 1900 - New York, USA
  • Died: 1990 - New YorkUSA
  • Historical Period: The 20th Century 
  • Musical Media: orchestra, chamber music, keyboards, songs, ballet 

Composer, Alan Copland

As one of the finest American composers of the 20th century, Aaron Copland was instrumental in creating a new culture for music enthusiasts and lovers around the world. Born in New York, U.S., in the year 1900, Copland had a unique talent for composing which he gained through a lifelong characterization of American music via a contemporary style. He was well known for a number of award-winning pieces and achievements before he passed away in New York, in the year 1990. 

Aaron Copland: America’s Very Own Musical Virtuoso

He came from a heritage of Russian-Jewish ancestry and had an older sister who guided him in learning the piano. The instrument and the learning process was so endearing for the young man that by 15, he was determined to become a composer. Copland attempted a musical course to get a grasp of harmonic patterns but didn’t find what he was looking for as he didn’t find adequate support to push him on. The year 1921 was when he was admitted to Fontainebleau’s school for Americans. This is where he met Nadia Boulanger, a well-known composer, who had a distinct effect on Copland’s development into his eventual brilliance. 

Copland was comfortable during his stay in France as he found a lot of like-minded musical artists there, which was completely different to anything he had ever known. He sold a piece that he wrote to Durand and Sons during this time and went on to meet famous composer Serge Koussevitzky, on whose demand, Copland wrote Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (1925) for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He also wrote Music for the Theater that year, followed by Piano Concerto in 1926, which had strong inclusions of the jazz musical style of that era. The young artist considered jazz as an American musical identity and decided to use it to demarcate American music from the rest of the world. 

A time came in Aaron Copland’s musical career when he became swayed by the concept of Neoclassicism by Igor Stravinsky, changing his own style to something complete with textural richness. This change is evident in Piano Variations (1930), Statements for Orchestra (1933–35) and Short Symphony (1933). The next decade was full of the best-written compositions of Copland’s entire body of work, particularly the ballets - Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944), the last winning him the Pulitzer Prize. 

Appalachian Spring is a story that shows pioneers from the 19th-century, who construct a farmhouse for a couple. As for Rodeo, its concluding section is the popular ballet named Hoedown. This is where folk songs are sung to produce a scene where a social gathering takes place. The dance choreography was carried out by dancer Agnes de Mille, who herself performed in the world premiere at the American Cowgirl in 1942. The premiere took place at the Metropolitan Opera House, was met with critical acclaim. 

Other works that highlight Copland’s incredible gifts in composition are as follow. These are further testaments to his genius. 

  • El salón México (1936), a piece written for the orchestra, using Mexican tunes as an orchestral piece
  • The Second Hurricane (1937)
  • An Outdoor Overture (1938)
  • The soundtracks for films such as Of Mice and Men (1939)
  • Our Town (1940)
  • Lincoln Portrait (1942), based on Lincoln’s original speeches
  • Letter from Home (1944)
  • Third Symphony (1946), written in WW II and post-WW II eras.

Copland also wrote pieces late in his career such as The Tender Land in 1954, Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1950, specifically for the vocal and piano and Nonet in 1960. This time was also full of displays of musical techniques which showed that Copland was extremely fond of the “12-tone school”, belonging to Arnold Schoenberg. Such influences resulted in Piano Fantasy of 1957, Connotations of 1962, and finally Inscape in 1967. Since this new pattern was not received well, Copland stopped writing music after 1970, although there were lectures and conductions that he was still active in. 

Copland’s repertoire also included books such as What to Listen for in Music in 1939, Music and Imagination in 1952 and The New Music 1900-60 in 1968. He also went on to write his autobiography in a dual-volume format, assisted by Vivian Perlis. 

Aaron Copland was so incredibly masterful in what he composed, that his compositions built a new age of American musical style. This was a totally novel and excellent development in world music and the best part is that Copland was also a teacher and conductor, in addition to being a composer. From ballets to orchestral pieces, from film scores to the piano, he rightfully received many awards for his work. A notable one is the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he received from 36th U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.


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