Aaron Copland's music is synonymous with Americana. While he is best known for his orchestral works including Appalachian Spring and Fanfare for the Common Man, his piano compositions are just as inspiring.
Copland was born on November 14th, 1900 in Brooklyn. His older sister taught him to play piano at age 12, and by the age of 15, he had decided to become a composer. As a first step, Copland took a correspondence course in harmony. His first 'gig' was at Wanamaker's Department Store in Manhattan, located at Broadway and Ninth.
His interest in composition strengthened as he grew older and in the summer of 1921, Copland attended the newly founded school for Americans at Fontainebleau, where he came under the influence of Nadia Boulanger, a brilliant teacher who shaped the outlook of an entire generation of American musicians, including Burt Bacharach, Philip Glass and Quincy Jones. Boulanger encouraged Copland in trying to find a style of music that sounded American rather than European.
Upon returning to America in 1924, Copland received the first public performances of his compositions, his Organ Symphony in 1924, Music for Theatre in 1925, and his Piano Concerto in 1926. He began his pedagogical career in 1927, as a lecturer at New York’s School for Social Research, creating the material for his 1938 book What to Listen for in Music. In 1928, he joined the League of Composers and founded the Cos Cob Press, dedicated to publishing new American music.
The decade of the 1930’s and the Great Depression created a climate of social awareness and political ferment, in which Copland, with his progressive-leftist political philosophy, would search for ways to make music more accessible to the masses. The composer’s major works from this period include his opera The Second Hurricane (created for children and performed at the Henry Street Settlement), and his popular ballet Billy the Kid, the first work in which Copland began to use American folk elements in his music.
A spate of enduring compositions followed in the 1940’s, among them A Lincoln Portrait (1942), into which Copland incorporated American folk tunes, his ballet Rodeo (1942), his Fanfare for the Common Man (1943), and his modern dance work for Martha Graham, Appalachian Spring (1944). It was the last of these, with its haunting Shaker tune “Simple Gifts,” that won for Copland the Pulitzer Prize and catapulted him into national prominence.
The 1950’s were also marred for Copland by the McCarthy hearings. A controversy over programming A Lincoln Portrait at Eisenhower’s 1953 inauguration led to Copland’s being summoned to testify in a secret session. Refusing to implicate any of his colleagues and skillfully fielding questions about his own socialist politics, Copland managed to survive the ordeal without betraying any of his friends or principles. In the remaining 20 years that Copland would compose, he briefly flirted with serialism before returning to a tonal style. After 1973 he devoted himself increasingly to conducting.
Copland remained active as a composer well into his 70s. His post-World War II efforts saw him, to some extent, revisiting his past compositional stopping points. His powerful Piano Fantasy (1952-57), the unabashedly twelve-tone Connotations, and the equally compromising Inscape (1967). A populist, musical color was never far away in Down a Country Lane (1964) and the Three Latin American Sketches (1972). Copland even renewed his early marriage to jazz in the Benny Goodman-inspired Clarinet Concerto (1947-48).
Copland’s true achievement, concert pianist Samuel Lipman once observed, was not the composer’s use of rhythm, harmony, counterpoint or inventive structure, but his ability to evoke through melody the “mood of America” from the Civil War to World War II.
The sweep of his honors attests to his wide appeal. They included a Pulitzer Prize, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Guggenheim Foundation’s first music fellowship and an Oscar. His “Fanfare for the Common Man” became an anthem played around the world and was heard in such disparate places as the opening ceremony of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and the 1981 inauguration of Ronald Reagan in Washington. His Academy Award came for the score for William Wyler’s 1949 “The Heiress.”
In his later years Copland refined his treatment of Americana: “I no longer feel the need of seeking out conscious Americanism. Because we live here and work here, we can be certain that when our music is mature it will also be American in quality.”
“I couldn’t understand why we in America couldn’t create serious music which people would recognize as typically American,” he told an interviewer before his 80th birthday, “particularly since the jazz boys and the ragtime fellows had succeeded in doing it.”
Copland was celebrated at length and interviewed often at the time of his 80th birthday in 1980, three years after his last composition “Midsummer Nocturne.” He was living, as he had for years, in a rambling hilltop house overlooking the Hudson River at Peekskill, N. Y.
His 90th birthday was marked by concerts and tributes stretching across the country. But this time his health was too frail for interviews or even comment.
He never married and lived alone with his grand piano, stacks of music manuscript, a dog and a cat. A housekeeper, a cook and a secretary attended to his needs.
“This is my hideaway, my solitude,” he told one reporter many years ago. “You know what the composer’s life is like in Manhattan. The telephone is always ringing, people are always dropping in. You are expected to go places and take part. It’s a matter of keeping yourself free from interruptions.”
Copland died on December 2, 1990, a few days after his ninetieth birthday.
Corral Nocturne (1942) - Corral Nocturne is the 2nd movement from Copland's ballet titled Rodeo. While it was originally written for orchestra, the piece became so popular that Copland arranged a version for solo piano. It's a great example of the Americana sound that was so often associated with Copland.
Down a Country Lane (1962): This gently flowing pastoral piece was written by Copland in 1962 and was commissioned by Life Magazine. It's a great example of the beauty and reflective nature of Copland's later works. My dog Tucker apparently is a Copland fan as well, and you'll see him wander into the frame in the lower right as I begin.
Story of Our Town (1944): Thorton Wilder's stage play Our Town is a well known classic of the American theater. Copland accepted the invitation to compose the musical score for the screen version of life in the small town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. He explained, "I tried for clean and clear sounds and in general used straight-forward harmonies and rhythms that would project the serenity and sense of security of the story." While the music Copland composed for the film was for orchestra, he decided to arrange three excerpts for solo piano. "The Story of Our Town" is the first of those excerpts and beautifully captures the spirit and serenity of small town life.
Locating The Music
Copland's piano music is widely available, and good sources include Sheet Music Plus, Amazon, and Boosey & Hawkes.
Compositions for Piano
Three Sonnets (1919)
The Cat and the Mouse (1920)
Three Moods (1921)
Sonata in G Major (1921)
Petit Portrait (1921)
Four Piano Blues (1926-48)
Piano Variations (1930)
Sunday Afternoon Music (1935)
The Young Pioneers (1935)
Our Town -version for piano (1940)
Piano Sonata (1941)
Rodeo - version for piano (1942)
I. Buckaroo Holiday
II. Corral Nocturne
III. Ranch House Party
IV. Saturday Night Waltz
V. Hoe Down
Midday Thoughts (1944/82)
Midsummer Nocturne (1947/77)
Fantasy for Piano (1955-57)
Down a Country Lane (1962)
Night Thoughts (1972)