Aaron Copland was born on November 14th, 1900 in Brooklyn, New York. Copland is of Lithuanian Jewish descent, as his parents emigrated from Lithuania to the States before Aaron and his five siblings were born. Copland grew up in a good family, with good musical exposure. His mother was very musical; she sang, played the piano, and arranged music lessons for her children. Copland’s brother Ralph was an excellent violinist, and his sister Laurine taught him piano.
Most of Copland’s early exposure to music was through his family and through summer music camps he attended throughout his elementary and high school years. At age eleven, Copland composed what is known to be his first piece of music, titled Zenatello, which consisted of 7 bars of a new melody. Starting at age thirteen, Aaron began taking lessons from noted pianist Rubin Goldmark, whose previous students included George Gershwin. Aaron studied with Goldmark for four years, and had established a solid foundation with piano, especially in the classic Germanic tradition. At age fifteen, Aaron knew he wanted to be a composer.
In 1917, at the age of 17, Aaron Copland traveled to Paris, France to study at the Fontainebleau School of Music for American Musicians. While studying here, Copland was inspired and the cultural atmosphere of Paris heavily influenced his music. Writers, poets, artists, and intellectuals of the early 1920s developed his own sense of identity, and helped further establish his point of view on music. He traveled around Europe, gaining historical knowledge and personal experience in the world of music. He also began writing classical music critiques, which spread his word and name to many musical hotspots throughout the world.
While in France, Copland studied with Nadia Boulanger, which played a very important role in his life. Not only was Nadia one of the best pianists in the entire world, but she was also a women. Given the time period, it was uncommon for women to have such an important role within the music community, but her guidance and instruction helped guide Copland into the composer that he came to be.
“This intellectual Amazon is not only professor at the Conservatoire, is not only familiar with all music from Bach to Stravinsky, but is prepared for anything worse in the way of dissonance. But make no mistake…A more charming womanly woman never lived.”
Copland returned home to New York and lived in the Upper West side of New York City, close to Carnegie Hall and other musical venues within the city. Because Copland was a composer, he relied heavily on any money he could obtain. Copland taught, wrote essays, received awards, performed recitals, took out personal loans, and received commissions to stay financially afloat. Copland also received two $2,500 Guggenheim Fellowships in 1925 and 1926.
Through his music, Copland hoped to establish a sense of American pride. Classical music was born in Europe, and the appreciation and culture across the ocean was much, much different than in the states. There hadn’t been an American Sound for the people, a sound that the nation could really call it’s own. Copland was highly influenced by jazz music and the power it had on the people, and it was from Jazz that he drew his inspiration to create a distinct sound – he wanted to make ‘American Classical’ as popular as Jazz Music.
Copland’s draw on classic folk tunes and his inspiration of the West created the American Sound that is identified today. His 1935 composition El Salón México had roots in Mexican folk music. One of his most popular Ballet’s, Rodeo, is inspired by the west. It captures the sound of the cowboys, frontier life, and the folk tunes that blended throughout southwestern society.
As Copland had developed the incredible folksy-American sound, he began to develop a nationalistic musical taste. In 1942, Copland composed A Lincoln Portrait, consisting of famous Lincoln quotes with Copland’s melody in the background. This was seen as extremely nationalistic, and gave America it’s patriotic sound. Aaron Copland also composed the famous Fanfare for the Common Man, though this music was for no common man. It was for American men. It gave Americans pride and honor, and this piece inspired many other American composers. This is the sound, the sound that Copland was looking to create. Anybody would hear this melody, this general compilation of instruments and melodies and harmonies and instantly think of American Patriotism.
As Copland’s influence rapidly grew throughout the 1930s, his repertoire greatly increased as well. Copland began composing ballets, Appalachian Spring (1944) represented country life and folk tradition, and was, and still remains, to be one of his most iconic and most famous compositions. It captured the hearts of thousands, and Copland received the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his work on this ballet.
In addition to standard classical compositions and ballets, Copland also branched into the Film Industry. His first film composition was for Of Mice and Men, in 1939, which was the film interpretation of John Steinbeck’s famous novel. In 1940 Copland wrote for Our Town, and in 1949, Copland composed the Oscar-Winning score for The Heiress.
Ironically, Copland’s personal and political life varied greatly from the respected American life. Though Copland never officially registered as a member of any political party, he had progressive views and many friends in the Popular Front. He also identified with the Communist Party USA and supported the party in the 1936 presidential election, though he did not vote. He remained a committed opponent of militarism and the Cold War, and was a strong supporter of Henry A. Wallace on the Progressive Party Ticket. Copland was later investigated by the FBI during the Red Scare of the 1950s, and found himself to be blacklisted.
The country was very, very anti-commie during the 1950s, as the Cold War had a large impact on society, and the fear of communism was spreading. Copland was targeted because of his associations with the communist party, his Jewish Lithuanian heritage, and his travels around the world. The investigations died down in 1955, and though his political reputation was dampened, his musical reputation and influence was not affected.