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Sources returnpage

Copland, Aaron

Category: Musician or composer

with Leonard Bernstein

Aaron Copland (November 14, 1900 – December 2, 1990) was an American composer, conductor, lecturer, teacher, and writer. 

Up until the 1960s, Copland devoted most of his efforts to composing, but from the 1960s onward, Copland's activities turned more from composing to conducting. He became a frequent guest conductor of orchestras in the U.S. and the UK and made a series of recordings of his music, primarily for Columbia Records.

From 1927 to 1930 and 1935 to 1938, Copland taught classes at The New School of Social Research in New York City. Eventually, his New School lectures would appear in the form of two books—What to Listen for in Music (1937, revised 1957) and Our New Music (1940, revised 1968 and retitled The New Music: 1900-1960). During this period, Copland also wrote regularly for The New York Times, The Musical Quarterly and a number of other journals. These articles would appear in 1969 as the book Copland on Music.  Copland also gave a series of lectures under the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship at Harvard University. These lectures were published as the book Music and Imagination.


It was Copland's teacher and mentor Nadia Boulanger who encouraged him to experiment and following her model, he studied all periods of classical music and all forms—from madrigals to symphonies. This breadth of vision led Copland to compose music for numerous settings—orchestra, opera, solo piano, small ensemble, art song, ballet, theatre and film.

Copland wrote a total about 100 works which covered a diverse range of genres. In addition to his ballets and orchestral works, he composed chamber music, vocal works, opera and film scores.  His scores for Of Mice and Men (1939), Our Town (1940), and The North Star (1943) all received Academy Award nominations, while The Heiress won Best Music in 1950.  He was awarded the New York Music Critics' Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize in composition for Appalachian Spring.


Many of these compositions, especially orchestral pieces, have remained part of the standard American repertoire.

The composer himself pointed out, in summarizing the American character of his music, "the optimistic tone", "his love of rather large canvases", "a certain directness in expression of sentiment", and "a certain songfulness".

During his career, Copland met and helped hundreds of young composers.  This assistance was given mainly outside an institutional framework—other than his summers at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood and a few semesters at Harvard and the State University of New York at Buffalo, Copland operated outside an academic setting.  Copland's willingness to foster talent extended to critiquing scores in progress that were presented to him by his peers.

William Schuman
As a teacher, Aaron was extraordinary.... Copland would look at your music and try to understand what you were after. He didn't want to turn you into another Aaron Copland.... When he questioned something, it was in a manner that might make you want to question it yourself. Everything he said was helpful in making a younger composer realize the potential of a particular work."

Copland was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson on September 14, 1964.  He was a recipient of Yale University's Sanford Medal; was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1986; and was awarded a special Congressional Gold Medal by the United States Congress in 1987.



Copland was Jewish by birth.  His family members were active in Congregation Baith Israel Anshei Emes, where Aaron celebrated his Bar Mitzvah.  It seems clear that Judaism provided a solid moral and cultural foundation on which Copland could base his views, music and life, but in fact he transcended organised religion in time, avoiding any prying into his personal beliefs by calling himself ‘an agnostic’, which is a get out clause for those who consider their beliefs private.

Copland had a great interest, for example in Christianity.  Why Christianity?  Copland was the youngest of five children in a Conservative Jewish family of Lithuanian origins. While emigrating from Russia to the United States, however, Copland's father, Harris Morris Copland, lived and worked in Scotland for two to three years to pay for his boat fare to the US.  Scotland even now is an extremely Christian country with both Catholics and Protestants, even an exposure of only 3 years would have had great effect.  Aaron’s faith in the existence of God is expressed in works such as :

  • Help us, O God
  • Sing ye Praises to our King
  • Have Mercy on us, O My Lord
  • Thou, O Jehovah, Abideth Forever

Copland felt a closeness to the celebrations and feast days of Christianity and often spent Christmas Day at home with a special dinner with close friends.  In general, his more religious music seemed to evoke Protestant hymns.

But the people who were his close friends or major influences say a great deal about Aaron Copland’s actual beliefs.  One of his sources of inspiration was Gerald Manley Hopkins (28 July 1844 – 8 June 1889), an English poet, homosexual, Roman Catholic convert, and Jesuit priest. 

One of his works is called ‘Miracle at Verdun’, written in 1931.  Saint Agericus was a Roman Catholic saint, born to a poor family, his parents having prayed for many years to be given a child. His mother gave birth to him in a field where she was working and he was known for performing miracles, and as a great helper to the poor of the region (parts of modern-day France, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg).

Then we have the poet Emily Dickinson, whose entire output of poems is about spiritual experience.  Copland wrote Twelve Poems by Emily Dickinson for medium voice and piano in 1950, taking some of her most spiritual symbolic poems and setting them to music:

    Nature, the gentlest mother
  • There came a wind like a bugle
  • Why do they shut me out of Heaven
  • The world feels dusty
  • Heart, we will forget him
  • Dear March, come in!
  • Sleep is supposed to be
  • When they come back
  • I felt a funeral in my brain
  • I've heard an organ talk sometimes
  • Going to Heaven!
  • The Chariot.

There are further intimations that he knew mystic symbolism with the piece From Sorcery to Science; incidental music for a puppet play (1939). 

Copland was also drawn to and fascinated by the Shakers – a mystic movement – he studied Shaker melodies and his Variations on a Shaker Melody for concert band (1956) and Arrangement of Variations on a Shaker Melody for orchestra (1967) both draw on Shaker hymns.  In Old American Songs No.1 for voice and piano (1950) he included Simple Gifts – a Shaker song.

Copland was a humanist, a man closer to mysticism than institutionalised religion, caring about his fellow man and their sufferings.  His father was a staunch Democrat, but Aaron never enrolled as a member of any political party. Nevertheless, he inherited and developed considerable interest in the plight of the common man – the inspiration for one of his most famous works Fanfare for the Common Man for brass and percussion (1942).

That combination of concern for the common man, his Jewish heritage and his overall humanity is expressed in the work Vitebsk: Study on a Jewish Theme for violin, violoncello, and piano written in 1929.  Vitebsk at the time he wrote this work had a significant Jewish population: at one time nearly half its population was Jewish and one of the most famous of its Jewish natives was the painter Marc Chagall – the mystic artist – whom he met in Paris.  It is worth noting that later under Nazi Germany occupation (10 July 1941 - 26 June 1944), much of the old city was destroyed and most of the local Jews perished in the Vitebsk Ghetto massacre.


In the way that the ignorant tend to classify without any understanding he is described as ‘leftist’ and even Communist, but even though he was hounded for his views he was neither.  Copland developed, in his biographer Howard Pollack's words, "a deep admiration for the works of Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair, all socialists whose novels passionately excoriated capitalism's physical and emotional toll on the average man."  But, Copland was appalled at Stalin's persecution of Shostakovich and other artists and criticised the lack of artistic freedom in the Soviet Union.

He was a committed opponent of militarism and the Cold War, condemning it as "almost worse for art than the real thing" because it threw the artist "into a mood of suspicion, ill-will, and dread that typifies the cold war attitude and he'll create nothing".

Copland was investigated by the FBI during the Red scare of the 1950s. He was included on an FBI list of 151 artists thought to have Communist associations and found himself blacklisted, which says more about the FBI than it does him. 

Thus Copland was no agnostic.  He favoured mysticism and direct spiritual experience as a source of inspiration and morally took the values of his Jewish faith and those of the teachings of Jesus , believing in the equality of man, and the need for love and compassion towards his fellow beings. 

Musical inspiration

Celestial music


Although Copland used folk tunes; Minstrel songs such as The Boatmen's Dance (from 1843) and Ching-A-Ring Chaw; campaign songs such as The Dodger; Ballads such as The Golden Willow Tree and Long Time Ago; Shaker songs such as Simple Gifts; Children’s songs such as I Bought Me a Cat; Lullabies such as The Little Horses; revivalist songs such as Zion’s Walls ;as well as hymns such as At the River ; there is every reason to believe that Copland was also a hearer of celestial music.

One reason we can say this is that he had in his early days, before the commercial interests of the film industry took over, a preference for writing for voices and choirs. One of the things known about those who ‘hear’ music, is that it is frequently heard as either flutes, violins or as voices – the angel’s choir. 

Furthermore, Vivian Perlis, who collaborated with Copland on his autobiography, wrote, "Copland's method of composing was to write down fragments of musical ideas as they came to him. When he needed a piece, he would turn to these ideas (his "gold nuggets")."

If one or more of these nuggets looked promising, he would then write a piano sketch and eventually work on them at the keyboard.  Copland would not consider the specific instrumentation for a piece until it was complete and notated.  In other words, he did not compose by tinkering on the piano, he transposed what he had heard to the piano and developed this from there.  Nor did he work in linear fashion, from beginning to end of a composition. Instead, he tended to compose whole sections in no particular order and decide their eventual sequence after all those parts were complete, much like assembling a collage.

Copland himself said, "I don't compose. I assemble materials."  He considered composition, in his words, "the product of the emotions," which included "self-expression" and "self-discovery."  Spiritual experience.

Of love, unrequited love and angst


One of Copland’s biographers - Howard Pollack – has stated that Copland was gay and that the composer came to an early acceptance and understanding of his sexuality.  But being homosexual at that time was not without its dangers and Copland had to guard his privacy.  The strain must have been quite intense, he provided few written details about his private life.   However, he was one of the few composers of his stature to live openly and travel ‘with his intimates’.

They tended to be talented, younger men involved in the arts, and the age-gap between them and the composer widened as he grew older. Most became enduring friends after a few years and, in Howard Pollack's words, "remained a primary source of companionship." Among Copland's friends were artist Alvin Ross, pianist Paul Moor, dancer Erik Johns, composer John Brodbin Kennedy, and painter Prentiss Taylor.  Victor Kraft seems to have had a special place in Copland’s heart, a violin prodigy when the composer met him in 1932, Kraft gave up music to pursue a career in photography, in part due to Copland's urging.  Kraft fathered a child for whom Copland later provided financial security, through a bequest from his estate.

Communing with Nature

I defy anyone not to be awed and stunned into deep reverence by the landscapes of America.  Seeing those vast vistas is in a sense its own religious experience.  It is humbling and awe inspiring and Copland’s most beautiful music was inspired by the beauty of Nature, another expression as far as he was concerned of God.  Just a few of the works that show this influence by their titles include:

  • The Second Hurricane; high school opera (1937)
  • Prairie Journal, originally called Music for Radio for orchestra (1937)
  • An Outdoor Overture for orchestra (1938) and Arrangement of An Outdoor Overture for concert band (1941)
  • Arrangement of Appalachian Spring for orchestra (1944)
  • Letter from Home for orchestra (1944, revised in 1962)
  • Arrangement of The Tender Land for orchestra (1957)
  • Down a Country Lane for piano (1962) and Arrangement of Down a Country Lane for orchestra (1964)


Born in Brooklyn, New York, Copland and his family lived above his parents' modest Brooklyn shop, H.M. Copland's and most of the children helped out in the store. Copland's father had no musical interest. His mother, Sarah Mittenthal Copland, sang, played the piano, and arranged for music lessons for her children.  Most of Aaron’s early exposure to music was at Jewish weddings and ceremonies.

Copland began writing songs at the age of eight and a half. His earliest notated music, about seven bars he wrote when age 11, was for an opera scenario he created and called Zenatello. From 1913 to 1917 he took piano lessons with Leopold Wolfsohn.  Copland's first public music performance was at a Wanamaker's recital. After attending a concert by composer-pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski, when he was 15, Copland decided he wanted to become a composer.  Copland took formal lessons, between 1917 and 1921, in harmony, theory, and composition from Rubin Goldmark, a noted teacher.  As Copland stated later: "This was a stroke of luck for me. I was spared the floundering that so many musicians have suffered through incompetent teaching."  After graduating from high school, Copland started playing in dance bands.  He also received further piano lessons from Victor Wittgenstein, who found his student to be "quiet, shy, well-mannered, and gracious in accepting criticism."

Copland's passion for the latest European music, plus glowing letters from his friend Aaron Schaffer, inspired him to go to Paris for further study.  He studied at Fontainebleau School of Music with pianist Isidor Philipp and composer Paul Vidal. At the suggestion of a fellow student, he then studied with Nadia Boulanger.  Copland called her an " intellectual Amazon” and wrote that "it was wonderful for me to find a teacher with such openness of mind, while at the same time she held firm ideas of right and wrong in musical matters. The confidence she had in my talents and her belief in me were at the very least flattering and more—they were crucial to my development at this time of my career." Though he planned on only one year abroad, he studied with her for three years. Travels to Italy, Austria, and Germany rounded out Copland's musical education.

Aaron Copland and Ralph Steiner looking at film, 1932

Copland returned to America optimistic and enthusiastic about the future, determined to make his way as a full-time composer.  He lived in New York City's Upper West Side close to Carnegie Hall and other musical venues and publishers, and remained in that area for the next thirty years.  Copland lived frugally and survived financially with help from two $2,500 Guggenheim Fellowships in 1925 and 1926. Lecture-recitals, awards, patrons and small commissions, plus some teaching, writing, and personal loans kept him afloat in the subsequent years through World War II.

Serge Koussevitzky, the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra would prove to be key in Copland's life at this time.  Beginning with the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (1924), Koussevitzky would perform more of Copland's music than that of any the composer's contemporaries.

Copland was not without his critics.  Music critic Paul Rosenfeld, warned in 1939 [as Copland strove to make his music more accessible to the common man], in a breath-taking display of arrogance, that Copland was "standing in the fork in the highroad, the two branches of which lead respectively to popular and artistic success." The appropriately named Dickstein said his style of music was  "hopelessly middlebrow, a dumbing down of art into toothless entertainment."   Copland's response was that "The composer who is frightened of losing his artistic integrity through contact with a mass audience is no longer aware of the meaning of the word art."

In 1949, Copland returned to Europe, and in 1950, received a U.S.-Italy Fulbright Commission scholarship to study in Rome, which he did the following year.  Despite any difficulties that his suspected Communist sympathies might have posed, Copland travelled extensively during the 1950s and early 60s to observe the avant-garde styles of Europe, and experience the new school of Polish music.  While in Japan, he was taken with the work of Toru Takemitsu and began a correspondence with him that would last over the next decade.

In 1957, 1958, and 1976, Copland was the Music Director of the Ojai Music Festival, a classical and contemporary music festival in Ojai, California.


From 1960 to his death, Copland resided at Cortlandt Manor, New York. Known as Rock Hill, his home was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003 and further designated a National Historic Landmark in 2008.

Copland's health deteriorated through the 1980s, and he died of Alzheimer's disease and respiratory failure on December 2, 1990, in North Tarrytown, New York (now Sleepy Hollow) ; his ashes were scattered over the Tanglewood Music Center near Lenox, Massachusetts.

Much of his large estate was bequeathed to the creation of the Aaron Copland Fund for Composers, which bestows over $600,000 per year to performing groups.


In the 1980s, Copland collaborated with Vivian Perlis on a two-volume autobiography,

  • Copland: 1900 Through 1942 (1984) and
  • Copland Since 1943 (1989).

Along with the composer's first-person narrative, these two books incorporate 11 "interludes" by Perlis and other sections from friends and peers.  The use in both books of letters and other unpublished sources, expertly researched and organized, made them what later biographers termed "invaluable."

with Perlis


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