Aaron Copland at 100

Originally appeared August 30, 2000, in the Chicago Free Press.

America's most highly regarded Twentieth Century composer of classical music, Aaron Copland, was beloved for his skill at refining into art music the native sounds of America, from Shaker and Appalachian music to rodeo songs and jazz. "The secret of his wisdom," wrote critic Harold Clurman, "can be traced to his utter acceptance of himself at an early age."

ON NOVEMBER 14, 2000, some of us will celebrate the 100th birthday anniversary of Aaron Copland, America's best known and most highly regarded composer of modern "classical" or "serious" music.

The event is worth celebrating. Copland did more than any other single person to create and promote an authentically American sounding style of classical music and make it accessible to the general public.

The music he created was easily distinguishable from its European counterparts by its folk-style melodies, open harmonies, bright orchestral colors, and the often syncopated, jazzy rhythms. The tempo marking for one piece is "With bounce."

Although he could write complex concert pieces and chamber music, he also sought to bring American music to a wider audience by writing tuneful ballets, Hollywood film music, background music for plays and pieces for high school bands and orchestra. He even wrote a Clarinet Concerto for jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman.

And he wrote patriotic works like "A Lincoln Portrait" and the now famous "Fanfare for the Common Man," a piece which turns up on television occasionally and which he later incorporated into his optimistic and outgoing Third Symphony.

Of his 100 or so compositions, nearly a dozen are now part of the standard concert repertory. Many are fun to listen to; some are easy to whistle. Perhaps no other American composer except Samuel Barber is so often performed and recorded.

His best known works may be the three American-themed ballets "Billy the Kid," "Rodeo," and "Appalachian Spring," the ballet which popularized the old Shaker song "Simple Gifts."

Forty years ago, one foreign critic called "Appalachian Spring," "the most beautiful score to come out of America." It would be hard, even now, to think of more than two or three serious rivals.

Copland has a particular interest for us beyond the merits of his music because he was gay.

Copland's homosexuality was quietly known but little advertised during his lifetime. It has now been elaborately documented, however, in Howard Pollack's recent biography, "Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man."

Despite being born in less tolerant times, after a brief late adolescent period of discomfort Copland apparently accepted his homosexuality with equanimity.

Music critic Paul Moor, a former lover, decided, "By some miracle Aaron remained as free of neurosis as anyone I've ever known." Later Moor added that Copland was "one of the dearest, kindest, most thoughtful and fundamentally good human beings I've ever known."

Copland's friend Harold Clurman added that "The secret of his wisdom can be traced to his utter acceptance of himself at any early age. He made peace with himself and so could be at peace with the whole world."

And Composer David Del Tredici recalled, "In private he was very open about being a gay man. He'd joke about it. It was perfectly natural."

But for Copland being gay was never a political issue. Even after Stonewall (1969), when his friend composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein urged him to "come out" in some public way, Copland grinned and replied, "I think I'll leave that to you, boy."

According to Pollack, Copland had a series of relationships over the years, mostly with young artists and musicians in their early twenties whom he befriended and mentored. The young Bernstein himself apparently was one of them in the early 1940s.

Copland seemed to enjoy being a teacher and father figure, but he also clearly valued the young men's energy and enthusiasm. When David Diamond criticized one of Copland's young lovers for exploiting him, Copland responded, "He's young, he's fresh, he's a lot of fun."

In other words, Copland knew he was getting something out of it too.

The question always arises of whether any artist's homosexuality influences or is detectable in his work. For visual artists and writers, the question may be easy to answer. For composers it seems more doubtful.

Certainly a composer's sexuality can influence the texts he chooses for songs or the stories he makes into operas or writes music about. But is the homosexuality in the music itself?

Erik Johns, one of Copland's lover from the early 1950s, suggested that there might be something there:

"Aaron felt that his sexuality was there in the music ... but also that it was incidental to his major theme. He also knew that homosexual themes may be there in the music, but in a way so abstract that it is very difficult to pinpoint."

Biographer Pollack himself notes that some of Copland's works are infused with a kind of romantic tenderness and relates that once after a good-looking student walked by, Copland, who had written three symphonies remarked to a friend, "There goes my Fourth Symphony."

Finally, some writers have suggested that gay American composers wrote more conservative, accessible music than their heterosexual modernist counterparts. They point to men like Copland, Barber, Bernstein, Menotti, Virgil Thomson, Ned Rorem and others.

But there are so many heterosexual American composers of conservative, tonal music that the idea seems doubtful.

The question is probably not answerable in any very specific way. But if raising it makes us listen to any composer's music more carefully, then it serves a purpose.

In any case, Happy Birthday, Aaron, and many happy returns.

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