What’s the Big Deal About Aaron Copland?

As the Paramount’s Aug. 24 “Tribute to Aaron Copland” draws near, some residents might be asking, “Why all this fuss about this Copland fellow? 1 mean he wrote music, right? Classical music. And he lived here in Cortlandt, right? But what’s the big deal?” Well, for those who are not regular frequenters of Lincoln Center this is a perfectly reasonable question and deserves a reasonable answer.

In the United States at the turn of the 20th century, classical music meant basically one thing: European music. Most Americans who cared about it were either European immigrants, who brought their interest with them, or wealthy natives who viewed an appreciation of Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky as a sign of their high social status and cultural refinement.

Was any classical music composed in America? Yes, but for the most part, by people who had gone to Europe to learn how to write European music –– music that sounded like Brahms and Tchaikovsky. These poor folks were a sorry lot. They would return to the United States only to have their own music totally ignored, because, since it was written by an American, it wasn’t likely to be any good –– certainly not as good as the “masters.”

This was the situation when Aaron Copland came on the scene. He was born in Brooklyn in 1900, and, like others of his generation, went to Europe to learn how to write music. 
But, unlike most of his contemporaries, when he returned to the states during the early 1920s, he wanted to try something different. He heard the sounds of jazz and popular music in the air and he decided that it was about time American classical music had its own sound – – a sound that reflected qualities that were truly and distinctly American: the ruggedness, the spirit of individualism, the nervous, earthy excitement, and the affection for our pioneer history. He did this by adopting the latest modernist European techniques, infusing them with elements drawn from jazz and American folk music, and holding it all together by his own inner vision– what the spirit of America sounded like to him.

Initially, his efforts were met with horror by the staid classical music aristocracy. But many other musicians appreciated what he was trying to do and joined him in their own ways. However, it was important to Copland that his music be appreciated not just by other professionals or by the elite, but by ordinary folk as well. So, after a few years, he deliberately set about simplifying his music–  retaining the aspects that made it so distinctive, but eliminating elements that people found hard to understand or appreciate. Then, during the late 1930s and early 1940s he wrote music for ballets on American subjects– “Billy the Kid,” “Rodeo,” and “Appalachian Spring”– that really caught on with the public. Their success brought him offers from Hollywood to write the scores for some important films: “Of Mice and Men,” “Our Town,” and “The Red Pony,” among them.

The result of all this was that Aaron Copland’s music became for much of America the sound of the American “heartland.” And it was soon widely imitated by other composers –-especially those who wrote for film and television –-when they were called upon to provide music that suggested “the Old West,” or “small-town America,” or “the hardworking American,” or “the spirit of democracy.”

The truth is that most Americans, whether or not they know the first thing about classical music, have heard something by Copland in some context or other. And when they hear it, their automatic reaction is, “That’s the sound of America.” And that’s the big deal about Aaron Copland.