Whenever a film or television score evokes America – the wide-open prairie or pastoral New England, the rowdiness of a Western frontier town or loneliness in a big city – the melodies and harmonies and orchestral colouring will inevitably owe a good deal to the music of Aaron Copland.

In a series of popular ballet, film and concert scores in the 1930s and ’40s, Copland virtually created the sound of his nation. Yet in the 1950s he was identified as among the ‘dupes and fellow-travellers’ of Soviet Communism, and hauled before one of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s notorious committees investigating ‘un-American activities’; his Lincoln Portrait was removed from the programme of President Eisenhower’s inaugural concert; he even found it difficult to renew his passport.

When was Aaron Copland born?

He was born in November 1900 in the New York borough of Brooklyn, the youngest child of shopkeepers of Russian Jewish origin. Having played the piano from an early age, he studied composition with the New York teacher Rubin Goldmark, a pupil of Dvorák who also taught another Brooklynite, George Gershwin.

At the age of 20, however, Copland departed America for France where he became one of the first pupils of the great teacher Nadia Boulanger, and through her met Stravinsky and other leading figures in the artistic ferment of the 1920s.

Before his return to the States, Copland had begun to ponder how best to create ‘immediately recognisable American music’. His first answer was jazz, and jazz colours and clichés permeate two of his works of the mid-1920s, the suite Music for the Theatre and the Piano Concerto (written for himself as soloist). Thereafter, though, the jazz influence disappeared from his music, returning later in more sublimated form.

Aaron Copland and politics

The quintessential American composer accused of being ‘un-American’: that’s the startling paradox of Copland’s career. And it’s sharpened by the fact that his best-known works had come about precisely because of his left-wing political stance.

Although he was never a Communist Party member, it was the dictates of the Soviet-inspired Popular Front that encouraged him to reach out to a mass audience by finding new outlets outside the concert hall, by incorporating folk songs and popular idioms into his works, and by simplifying his musical language.

Yet, as McCarthy and his allies refused to recognise, most activists on the pre-war Left were simply pursuing the same democratic idealism that underlay the founding and history of the United States.

Copland’s life story is also quintessentially American, chronicling a rise from an unprivileged background in an immigrant family to the status – after the McCarthy storm had abated – of a respected and admired leader of his profession.

Who influenced Aaron Copland and his style?

In the late 1920s, he composed his only piece directly reflecting his East European Jewish heritage, the piano trio Vitebsk, adapted a Dance Symphony from his early ballet Grohg, and wrote a fiercely rhetorical Symphonic Ode.

Then in the early 1930s he turned to a more severe style, sometimes dubbed ‘constructivist’, exemplified by the bold, spare Piano Variations, the orchestral suite Statements, and the Short Symphony, also arranged as the Sextet – a work of complex dancing rhythms and luminous textures that may well be Copland’s most perfect achievement.

Copland responded to the miseries of the Depression and the rise of Nazism in Germany by turning to left-wing politics. His allegiances are displayed overtly in only a handful of pieces: a workers’ song, a satirical ballet and a didactic school opera. However, his political sympathies also inspired him to reach out to listeners beyond the specialist new-music audience of the time. In El salón México, for example, he turned to Mexican tunes to create a colourful portrait of a country he had visited many times.

Copland conducts El Salon Mexico

He branched out into writing for the radio, for the theatre and for the Hollywood studios. Above all, he made an impact as a composer for dance with his three great ballet scores on American subjects that included American melodies: Billy the Kid, and the wartime Rodeo and Appalachian Spring.

Copland’s specific contribution to the Second World War effort produced two of his best-known works, the Lincoln Portrait and Fanfare for the Common Man. After the War, he incorporated a version of the Fanfare into one of his most ambitious concert works, the Third Symphony; and he wrote a Clarinet Concerto for the celebrated band leader Benny Goodman

Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man

Such high-profile compositions of the 1940s were complemented by his smaller-scale works, including Sonatas for piano and for violin and piano, and the choral In the Beginning.

In the 1950s, the rise of a younger generation of modernist composers seems to have left Copland uncertain as to which way to turn. He continued to write some works in his earlier populist vein, notably the arrangements of Old American Songs and the opera The Tender Land – a touching coming-of-age story that has yet to achieve the success it deserves.

He explored new ground in his only song-cycle, a sensitive response to the poems of Emily Dickinson, and in a Nonet for strings. And in his Piano Quartet of 1950 he experimented with 12-note serial techniques in an attempt to refresh his harmonic vocabulary. He pursued this in a magisterial Piano Fantasy, and in his two major orchestral statements of the 1960s, the challenging Connotations and the more reflective Inscape.

It’s all too easy to trace a dividing line between Copland’s ‘popular’ and ‘serious’ works – and he himself acknowledged the dichotomy, while finding it ‘not at all worrisome’. But with the passage of time it has become easier to discern features common to all his music: integrity, directness, rhythmic life, and a highly personal combination of public rhetoric and private sensitivity.

Anthony Burton