Born in Brooklyn, the fifth and youngest child of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Aaron Copland was introduced to music by one of his sisters. He soon learned not only the rudiments of playing the piano, but found a world ranging from ragtime to grand opera. He began attending New York Symphony concerts and saw performances by Paderewski, Isadora Duncan, and the Dyagilev ballet. After his graduation from high school he studied harmony, counterpoint, and sonata form under Rubin Goldmark, who tried to keep his young student from becoming "contaminated" by the new music of Scriabin, Scott, and Ives——to no avail. By the age of twenty, Copland had saved enough money to go to Paris, where he enrolled in the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, refined his pianistic skills, and studied composition with the renowned Nadia Boulanger. Instead of "smoothing his edges," she gave him the confidence to discover his own voice and encouraged him to explore the latest musical ideas. During his four years in Europe, Copland immersed himself in the wealth of both traditional and modern music that surrounded him, made the acquaintance of Prokofiev, Milhaud, and Koussevitzky, and became determined to develop a sophisticated musical style that was recognizably American.
The challenges of musical life in America between the World Wars required both flexibility and creativity from those who would survive, and Copland and his music evolved. His voice, however, remained consistent and recognizable, featuring contrasting meter and accent and tempering dissonant textures with a strong sense of tonality. By the late 1940s Copland was widely regarded as the foremost American composer of his time. During this period he traveled extensively in Central and South America on behalf of both the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (1941) and the State Department (1947). There he found vast sources of new musical material, and the forms, harmonies, and rhythms were different yet familiar enough to add fascinating new sparkle to his vast musical vocabulary.
Paisaje Mexicano (Mexican Landscape) and Danza de Jalisco (Dance of Jalisco, a state in northwestern Mexico) were written in Acapulco early in 1959, but Copland soon decided both works were too brief to remain in the concert repertoire. André Kostelanetz asked him for a third piece in 1971, and the result was Estribillo. The collected Three Latin American Sketches was premiered by the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Kostelanetz in 1972. Estribillo, which refers to a particular type of refrain structure, was also Copland’s last orchestral composition. It is based on a melodic fragment that he had heard in Venezuela, and is a bold, sharply accented work. Paisaje Mexicano, the contrasting second piece, is poetic and lyrical, reflecting the gentle shape of Mexican melodies as well as its terrain, while the lively, vigorous Dance features alternating contrasting rhythms, typical of much Latin American music.
Quiet City (1940) is also a brief work, but one of a completely different character. Copland had composed abstract music in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but felt he was working in a vacuum. He decided to change his focus and challenged himself "to see if I couldn’t say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms." He ventured out of the concert hall to ballet companies, films, schools, radio and theatres. Harold Clurman asked Copland to compose incidental music for an experimental play by Irwin Shaw. Copland remembered it as "a realistic fantasy concerning the night-thoughts of many different kinds of people in a great city," and the music featured the lonely voice of the Trumpeter as he attempts to arouse the consciences of his friends.
The play closed after two dress rehearsals, but the next year Copland created a suite based on thematic materials from the score. He changed the orchestration from the usual theatre band to include only trumpet, cor anglais, and strings, and the result is an entirely original, atmospheric, one-movement work, evoking feelings similar to those in the play–even though the audience could hardly be expected to know anything about that. This piece reveals the introspective Copland, who, incidentally, liked to compose during the late night hours and enjoyed the idea of quiet streets before a city awakens for a new day. In 1942 Koussevitzky conducted Quiet City with the New York Philharmonic, and this subtle gem has enjoyed enduring success ever since.
The Clarinet Concerto, commissioned by Benny Goodman in 1947, has also proven to be an enduring masterpiece. Like Copland’s only other Concerto, written in 1926 for piano, it is in a two-movement fast-slow format linked by a solo cadenza. The lyrical opening movement is one of his most romantic and one of his personal favorites: "I think it will make everyone weep." Jazz elements appear in the cadenza, which is entirely written out and introduces fragments of melody from the second movement. This movement presents a direct contrast of style — a spiky, fragmented, syncopated rondo in which Copland said there was "an unconscious fusion of elements obviously related to North and South American popular music: Charleston rhythm, boogie woogie, and Brazilian folk tunes." The concerto ends with a clarinet glissando — the same sort of "smear" that begins Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
The difficulty of the solo writing in the cadenza and the fast movement concerned Goodman, who told Copland he was "only a jazz man" and might not have the technique to handle the work. Despite Copland’s assurances, Goodman hesitated, and there was no public performance. Copland finally arranged for a Philadelphia Orchestra performance on November 28, 1950, soon after Goodman’s two-year exclusivity would expire. Aware of this, Goodman gave the world premiere on November 6 on an NBC Symphony of the Air radio broadcast conducted by Fritz Reiner. He would record the work many times, twice with Copland conducting.
The Suite from Appalachian Spring, the ballet composed for Martha Graham’s dance company in 1944, is the work that made Copland the first American composer to win global recognition and popularity. First performed on October 4, 1945, by Artur Rodzinski and the New York Philharmonic, the Suite received both the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Critics’ Circle award, and is widely considered Copland’s most impressive achievement in what he called his "vernacular style." Copland said of Appalachian Spring: "…it was her [Martha Graham’s] very personal manner that inspired the style of the music. Martha is rather prim and restrained, simple yet strong, and her dance style is correspondingly direct. One thinks of these qualities as being especially American and, thus, the character of my score, which quotes only one actual folk tune, "Simple Gifts," but which uses rhythms, harmonies and melodies that suggest an American ambiance." The official synopsis of the ballet reads: "a pioneer celebration in spring around a newly-built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania Hills in the early part of the last [i.e., nineteenth] century. The bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, their new domestic partnership invites. An older neighbor suggests, now and then, the rocky confidence of experience. A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end the couple are left quiet and strong in their new house."