Composer. He was one of the leading figures of American music during the 1900s. Copland worked in a wide range of styles, from atonalism to jazz, but his fame rests on the folk-based music he wrote from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. His "Appalachian Spring" (1944), commissioned by dancer Martha Graham, is probably the best-loved American ballet. It received the 1945 Pulitzer Prize. He also created several notable film scores and won an Academy Award for "The Heiress" (1949). Copland was born Aaron Cohen in Brooklyn, of Russian Jewish descent. He studied harmony with Rubin Goldmark, and composition in Paris with Nadia Boulanger from 1921 to 1924. His abundant talent was recognized early, though not always favorably. At the premiere of his Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (1924), conductor Walter Damrosch turned to the audience and declared, "If a young man of 24 can write a symphony like that, in five years he will be ready to commit murder." Copland found a more sympathetic champion in conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who introduced several of his works, including "Music for the Theatre" (1925), the Piano Concerto (1926), and the "Symphonic Ode" (1930). After experimenting with symphonic jazz and different tonalities, Copland achieved a stylistic breakthrough with the overture "El Salon Mexico" (1936), based on popular Mexican tunes. "I felt it was worth the effort to see if I couldn't say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms," he later reflected. His writing became more lucid, melodious, and broad-based in appeal, and made free use of the rich resources of American folk music. For the ballets "Billy the Kid" (1938) and "Rodeo" (1942) he quoted old cowboy songs; Shaker hymns and white spirituals form the backbone of "Appalachian Spring." Even Copland's entirely original compositions, such as the "Outdoor Overture" (1938), the famous "Fanfare for the Common Man" (1942), the "Lincoln Portrait" (1942), and the Third Symphony (1946), have a folk-like spirit. His other works of this period include the Piano Sonata (1941), the Clarinet Concerto (written for Benny Goodman, 1948), "Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson" (1950), "Old American Songs" (1952), the opera "The Tender Land" (1954), and scores for the films "Of Mice and Men" (1939), "Our Town" (1940), and "The Red Pony" (1948). Copland's outspoken liberal views, as well as his known homosexuality, made him suspect during the 'Red Scare' of the 1950s. In 1953 his music was pulled from President Eisenhower's inaugural concert, and later that year he had to testify before Congress about his political beliefs (he had been a Communist sympathizer in the 1930s but had never joined the Party). Soon afterwards Copland abandoned his "Americana" idiom and turned to composing astringent serialist pieces. Among his later efforts are the "Orchestral Variations" (1957), the ballet "Dance Panels" (1959, revised 1962), "Connotations" (1962), and "Inscape" (1967). Copland was always an ardent and unselfish promoter of other composers, and was concerned with improving a general understanding of modern music by organizing concerts and writing such books as "What to Listen for in Music" (1939), "Our New Music" (1941), "Music and the Imagination" (1952), and "Copland on Music" (1960). In 1940 he became a founding member of the Tanglewood Music Center in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, where he taught summer courses in composition for decades. He was also a fine conductor, and in the 1960s he recorded several of his works for Columbia Records. Copland was well enough to participate in the nationwide celebrations of his 80th birthday in 1980, but after that he fell victim to Alzheimer's Disease. He died two weeks after turning 90. Although Copland has been viewed as a foremost representative of American Nationalism, his best music transcends national boundaries. As Igor Stravinsky said of him, "Why call Copland a great American composer? He is a great composer."
Bio by: Bobb Edwards