Welcome to 'Composer’s Classroom,' an on-air and online feature from WMHT-FM. You can hear Bill Winans on this month's composer just after the 7 a.m. news on Friday mornings on WMHT-FM. *Teachers: For related composer and classical music resources visit PBS Learning Media.*
Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
American classical composer, composition teacher, writer, and later in his career a conductor of his own and other American music.
Often referred to as the “Dean of American Music.” Best known for his works Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, Rodeo and Fanfare for the Common Man.
Aaron Copland was born the youngest of five children in Brooklyn, NY, November 14th, 1900. The family lived above the family store, H.M. Copland’s, which Copland would later describe as a “kind of neighborhood Macy’s.”
Copland’s father had no interest in music, but his mother sang and played the piano and arranged for music lessons for each of the Copland children. His sister Laurine had the strongest connection with young Aaron, giving him his first piano lessons and promoting his musical education and career. Most of Copland’s early music exposure was at weddings and other religious ceremonies.
His first composition was at age eleven, an opera scenario that consisted of eleven bars of music.
It was at age 15 after attending a concert by the noted pianist-composer Paderewski that Copland decided on a career as a composer. He began by taking a correspondence course in music, then went on to formal lessons in harmony, theory and composition from Rubin Goldmark, a noted teacher and composer of American music who had also given lessons in composition to Gershwin. This gave Copland a firm foundation in composition.
After graduating from high school, Copland began playing piano in dance bands and continuing his music education with further piano study.
In his teens and early twenties, Copland composed short works for piano and art songs. His father wanted him to go to college, but his mother agreed to her son’s desire to study in Paris where he attended the prestigious Fontainebleau School where his teachers immediately noticed his talent. Further travels to Italy, Austria & Germany rounded out his European musical education.
On his return to America, Copland rented an apartment close to Carnegie Hall where hi lived frugally on two small Guggenheim fellowships and a modest income writing about music.
Motivated by the plight of children during the Depression, Copland began to compose pieces especially for young audiences.
He continued to travel throughout Europe, Africa and Mexico where he composed one of his earliest signature works, El Salon Mexico.
He began working on film scores in his late 30s; his first two films being Of Mice & Men and Our Town. At the same time he began his famous ballet works with the highly successful Billy the Kid which helped firmly establish him as a serious composer.
The decade of the 1940s was Copland’s most productive period producing the ballets, Rodeo and Appalachian Spring (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize), Fanfare for the Common Man and the Lincoln Portrait.
During the McCarthy Era, Copland was called to testify before the House Un-american Activities Committee where he testified he had never been a Communist.
Copland exerted a major influence on the compositional style of an entire generation of American composers, including his friend and protégé Leonard Bernstein.
From the 1960s onward, Copland's activities turned more from composing to conducting. Though not enamored with the prospect, he found himself without new ideas for composition, saying: "It was exactly as if someone had simply turned off a faucet."
From 1960 to his death, he resided at Cortlandt Manor, New York. His home, known as Rock Hill, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. 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).