Birth - Death
1900 - 1990
Presidential Medal of Freedom, National Medal of Arts, Pulitzer Prize, Academy Award
Aaron Copland is considered the first of the truly American style of classical music composers. This was a style intended to be accessible and adopted by the public at large, and encased a public penchant for patriotic fervour into a distinct rhythm, tone, and sophistication of the classical music genre.
Though Copland grew up in a relatively simple and typical American household of his generation, his musical talents and leanings came at an early age. He had already written his first opera by the age of eleven while studying music, and had decided his future lay with becoming a composer by the age of fifteen. He studied music in France after graduation, returning to the United States in 1925 to focus on composing when he received a series of Guggenheim Fellowships.
Copland at first tried to emulate the style and compositional mode of the great European classical composers, but he failed to achieve any notable success both personally and professionally. He therefore decided to change his compositional style, and began writing pieces which incorporated a more utilitarian and popular style to attract attention. This included music for radio, film, theatre, and ballet.
In this effort, Copland was greatly influenced by the popularity of jazz and folk music styles which were newly emerging and receiving great public acceptance. He particularly considered jazz to be a genuinely American musical movement.
This transition worked very well for Copland. Some of the notable material he wrote before and during the war includes the ballets Billy the Kid (1939), Rodeo (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1944). His compositions for film included Of Mice and Men (1939) and Our Town (1939). His larger orchestral pieces during this time included the hugely successful Fanfare For the Common Man (1946). These were undoubtedly Copland’s most productive years.
Copland spent the 1950s and 1960s travelling the world as a conductor and musical director for various entities, and he taught composition. He had a major influence on other notable American composers at the time, including his friend Leonard Bernstein. Copland became known as the man who liberated American music from the confines of the European influence, and he served as an inspiration for a new generation of indigenous composers creating music with this new sound and style. Nevertheless, his most productive compositional years were behind him.
His compositions for the film The Heiress won an Academy Award (1949). His composition Appalachian Spring, written specifically for the Martha Graham modern dance company, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1944. Copland was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1961.
Throughout his life, Copland was an avowed pacifist. He was briefly committed to communism (which enveloped him in some controversy in the 1950s), though he later abandoned this thinking with the atrocities of Stalinist Russia.
Once again we witness a man who was very private and guarded about his sexual life. Author Howard Pollock, in his biography Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man, describes how he generally lived openly and had numerous intimate same-sex affairs. Most notable among these was a long term relationship with photographer Victor Kraft.
Is there a gay sensibility to Aaron Copland’s pioneering work in this new American genre of classical music? There is no question that his work incorporates, and can be seen as an interpretation of, jazz and folk music. These two musical genres portray a freedom of style that has often been associated with the liberating and edgy aspects of the LGBTQ community. His association with other prominent LGBTQ personalities of his time (including musicians, writers, actors, dancers, artists, and so on) suggests that there would be an impact and influence on his output as a composer. It has been academically argued that Copland and his music were at the center of a musical movement incorporating the gay sexuality, homophobia, and cultural anxieties of his time. Regardless, America’s music is richer because of Aaron Copland’s remarkable contribution and leadership.