Aaron Copland (1900–1990) enjoys a reputation as America’s most esteemed composer of classical music. Much of his music is also said to embody a sense of Americana, a quality that is too rarely defined with any precision beyond the feeling of “wide open spaces” and the use of certain American folksongs as thematic material. This sense of “open spaces,” evocative of pastoral life and the vastness of the American landscape, resulted from his particular use of musical texture, of the highs and lows of pitch, and his use of intervals like open fifths, redolent of the open strings of a fiddle. Copland, however, did not start out with any intention of evoking Americana in his music. His early work was imbued with European modernism, learned during his studies in Paris with the great teacher Nadia Boulanger. Such challenging, harmonically pungent pieces as the Piano Variations and Organ Symphony bear witness to this early phase of his career. These works no longer sound shocking or troubling as they did to audiences a hundred years ago, but rather strike us as vintage early-20th-century music.
However, by the late 1930s, Copland desired to reach a broader public than was possible with his modernistic works. One of his means of doing so was to produce incidental music for new mass media like radio and movies. But on a deeper level, there was also a need to modify his style. Copland realized that the new electronic media were fostering a new audience for music, one distinct from the traditional concert audience. In his words, “it made no sense to ignore them and to continue writing as if they did not exist. I felt that it was worth the effort to see if I couldn’t say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms.” Copland had already experimented with interbreeding classical technique and jazz and had found this too limited and constricting. He arrived a new solution, that of combining modern classical technique with American folksong.
Curiously enough, the first sign of this new style came in the form of a piece with decided Latin American overtones, the orchestral tone poem El Salon Mexico of 1936. Not long after he followed up with the ballet Billy the Kid, where both the subject matter and the musical themes were U.S. American, based on cowboy ballads and frontier songs in a retelling of the life of the notorious outlaw. Rodeo, with a simpler scenario of a cowgirl who attends a dance, came in 1940. The trilogy was completed in 1944 by Appalachian Spring, about a pioneer wedding at a Pennsylvania farmhouse—its musical centerpiece a transformation of a Shaker hymn tune, “Simple Gifts.” (Speaking for myself, Rodeo, with its abundant humor and its rousing “Hoe-Down,” has always been my favorite of the trio.)
It seems to be a popular assumption that Copland created his new Americana style singlehandedly. This is not the case. His slightly older colleagues Roy Harris and Virgil Thomson were working along these lines too, and they and Copland were in close contact (listen to Thomson’s Symphony on a Hymn Tune of 1928 for a foretaste of where Copland would be headed a decade later). The search for a style of music with an “American heartland” sound was a common endeavor of a whole school of U.S. composers during the Great Depression and World War II. The move toward a musical style that might seem “patriotic” was a response to the troubled times, as was the new ideal of writing music “for the people.” More broadly, this was all part of a “coming of age” of American classical composition, where composers sought to establish a style that would sound as American as Debussy sounded French and Wagner German.
It’s interesting, however, that only Copland’s examples have proved truly enduring and have remained in the repertoire and the public consciousness. Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring made Copland’s name famous internationally, are still played continually as orchestral concert pieces, and are familiar to millions of listeners. They are part of the permanent reservoir of Americana.
On paper, Copland seemed an unlikely candidate to invent such musical Americana. Born in New York City as the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Copland had an upbringing that was about as far from the American heartland as possible. Copland’s composer colleague Arthur Berger writes amusingly that “the nearest the composer of Billy the Kid and Rodeo ever came to a cow was when the car he was driving ran into a heifer … outside of Tanglewood on a dark night.” Berger again: “It is ironic that it should have been a Brooklynite with none of the credentials of someone born on the western plains or in New England, a composer of Jewish parentage and exposed to all the cosmopolitan experiences of New York, who developed an idiom that encompasses a wide swath of the American landscape.”
What’s not often emphasized, though, is that Copland’s popular American style is the result of a deliberate and sophisticated blend of American sound and themes with modernist European techniques, especially those of the Russian Igor Stravinsky and of Paris of the 1920s. A big part of this is Copland’s orchestration, which is clear, spare, and devoid of lushness or syrupiness; a distinctly modern sound, direct and non-Romantic, which could just as well stand for the simplicity and starkness of pioneer life. There is also the harmonic atmosphere of the Copland scores, with their C-major-ish tonality that is somehow freshened and revitalized.
Copland’s use of rhythm also shows his roots in Parisian modernism and Stravinsky. Many modern composers were beginning to emphasize rhythm again after its comparative neglect during the Romantic age. This was often with an attempt to evoke ethnic folk music, which in many cultures across the globe tends toward syncopation. Stravinsky’s explosive rhythms evoked the Russian peasant past, and his innovations seemed to many American composers a usable resource. They saw an inherent affinity between the Slavic and the American ethos when it came to rhythm and the general rejection of the lushness and emotional excess of Germanic Romanticism. And writing for ballet as Copland did, it was inevitable that rhythmic vitality and a strong sense of gesture would be to the fore of his music.
The way Copland layers his tunes in his musical textures, often building them by colorful rhythmic and melodic fragments, also reflects the techniques of the Parisian neoclassicism that came out of the 1920s. Once you get past the American flavor of the folk tunes Copland uses in Billy the Kid and Rodeo, you realize that the juxtaposing and layering of the themes owes a lot to a work like Stravinsky’s Petrushka. Only instead of a Shrovetide fair outside of St. Petersburg, what is being evoked is cowboys and gunslingers in the Old West. Copland uses such modern techniques as polyrhythm and polyharmony (multiple chords or tonalities expressed simultaneously) to dress the familiar tunes, combining naivete with modern sophistication. Some writers have also noted the influence of Gustav Mahler on some of Copland’s textures—unmistakable if you listen to the last movement of Mahler’s First Symphony, for instance. All this serves to emphasize that artistic styles are not created spontaneously out of whole cloth; they are the result of a conglomeration of influences, rooted in tradition and taking shape in the artist’s personal consciousness and in interaction with other artists.
The reaction of some in the musical community to Copland’s new “popular” style was to suggest that he had “sold out” by writing simple and accessible music. But Copland insisted that a composer may vary his style and write on different “levels” for different audiences. In fact, this is exactly what great composers of the past had done. Mozart wrote both exalted Masses for the church and tuneful serenades for aristocratic dinner parties. And Copland did not abandon out-and-out modernism; throughout the rest of his career, he alternated works in a popular American vein (which he referred to as his “vernacular” style) with more overtly modernist works, as well in-between ones that seemed to reconcile the two styles, like the Third Symphony or the Piano Sonata.
Commenting on his choice to aim musical works at a broad audience, Copland said that “music that is born complex is not inherently better or worse than music that is born simple.” And by respecting the “common man” he won the trust of audiences for classical music, and modern music in particular, both by his compositions and by his prose writings that aimed to explain music to the average listener. Certainly Copland’s humble, down-to-earth attitude toward the public was a corrective to the ivory-tower pose of many another 20th-century artist. In effect, by treating audiences as equals, he elevated their taste.
More to the point, there’s nothing whatsoever simplistic or unrefined about Billy the Kid, Rodeo, Appalachian Spring, or Fanfare for the Common Man (although the populism of Lincoln Portrait is, to my taste, a little on the obvious side). At its best, Aaron Copland’s Americana style is one of the great, ingenious, and enduring achievements in music. Its greatness is not diminished by its widespread imitation by lesser talents in movies, television shows, and commercials, where it has served as a ready way to evoke the Far West, small-town life, or other phases of Americana. Copland’s original product is there for the listening, and its fine qualities endure.
*This was originally published at The Imaginative Conservative, 12 August 2022, and is republished here with gracious permission.
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