Aaron Copland

Selection from "Fanfare for the Common Man"

Aaron Copland, one of America's greatest composers, was the fifth child born into a family of Russian-Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, New York. He was born on November 14, 1900. However, it was not until he reached his teens that Copland began to show an interest in music. He learned to play the piano from his older sister Laurine, and in less than one year, Copland had learned everything she could teach him. Following much pestering of his father, Copland was allowed to take formal lessons. After attending his first concert at age 15, Copland decided to become a composer.

Upon graduating high school, Copland studied harmony and counterpoint through a correspondence course, a very difficult way to learn music. He was then referred to Rubin Goldmark, who was a specialist in harmony. Copland dreamt of studying music in France, and for the next several years, he saved his money and continued to practice. In 1920, Copland was granted a scholarship, and in the summer of 1921, he traveled to the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau.

In France, Copland studied with Nadia Boulanger and became her first American student in composition. Copland studied in France for three years, then returned to New York with a commission from his teacher. While working as a pianist in a Pennsylvania resort, Copland composed the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, for Boulanger's American appearances. The work premiered at Carnegie Hall with the New York Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Walter Damrosch.

After his successful debut, Copland spent several months composing in New Hampshire. His early compositions were influenced by jazz rhythms. He described this style as symphonic jazz. Music for the Theater (1925) and Piano Concerto (1926) were written during this period of Copland's career. During this time, Copland was awarded the first monetary grant from the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, enabling him to continue his work.

Copland soon moved into a more austere and abstract style. Piano Variations (1930) and Statements for Orchestra (1933-35) reflect this change. Copland made another abrupt style change in the mid-1930s with a move towards simplicity and melody, in an effort to be more accessible to the general public. He wanted to bring more music to more people.

The next 10 years were Copland's most productive. Using elements of American folk music, Copland produced lyrical compositions such as the ballets Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944). He composed music for films, including Of Mice and Men (1937), Our Town (1940), and The Heiress (1949). Copland also produced two works for high school students called The Second Hurricane (1937) and An Outdoor Overture (1938). Additional works of this period include Lincoln Portrait (1942), Third Symphony (1946), and El salon Mexico, an orchestral piece based on Mexican folk music.

Copland again returned to a more austere style in the 1950s. The Piano Fantasy (1957); Connotations (1962), which was commissioned for the opening of Lincoln Center in New York City; and Inscape (1967), reflect the 12-tone style popularized by composer Arnold Schoenberg. These works were not as well received as Copland's previous works.

In the 1970s, Copland virtually stopped composing, although he continued to conduct. His final work, Proclamation (1982), was performed during a concert celebrating his 85th birthday. Aaron Copland died on December 2, 1990.

In addition to composing and conducting, Copland wrote several books, including What to Listen for in Music (1939), Music and Imagination (1952), and Copland on Music (1960). He was influential in promoting contemporary composers and organized numerous musical events. Copland received more than 30 honorary degrees. He was a distinguished teacher at the Berkshire Music Center, and in 1945, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Want to learn more?