Aaron Copland occupies an unassailable position in the music of the United States of America. The son of Jewish emigrants from Poland and Lithuania, he was born in Brooklyn in 1900, into circumstances comfortable enough to allow him the study of music. He took lessons from Goldmark, a distinguished emigrant from Vienna, and in 1920 went to Paris, where he studied with Nadia Boulanger, the first of her American pupils. In Europe he was able to meet a number of the leading young composers of the day and to see performances by Dyagilev's Ballets russes. At the same time he was feeling his way towards a characteristically American style of composition, that should be as clearly recognisable as the national style of the late 19th century Russian composers.
In 1924 Copland returned to America, where his compositions began to attract interest. At the same time he continued to maintain contact with musical trends in Europe and with expatriate American composers. He organised important series of concerts of contemporary American music, which he did his utmost to publicise through his writing and lecturing, the second activity intermittently at Harvard. During the course of an exceptionally active career, he exercised a strong influence over a younger generation of composers, without in any way fostering an exclusive nationalism. His achievements won him awards of all kinds, at home and abroad, from the Pulitzer Prize in 1945 to the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1970.
Fanfare for the Common Man, scored for brass and percussion, was written in 1942 and first performed in Cincinnati in the following year under the direction of Eugene Goossens. Billy the Kid, Rodeo and Appalachian Spring, although well enough known in the concert hall, are ballet scores, their subjects as thoroughly American as their musical idiom.
Rodeo was completed in 1942 and first staged in the same year by the Ballet russe de Monte Carlo, with choreography by Agnes de Mille, niece of the Hollywood film-producer and one of the most distinguished American ballerinas of the day. The sub-title of the ballet, The Courting at Burnt Ranch, describes accurately enough its slender plot. The cowboys chase every woman they see, but pay little attention to the girl working with them on the ranch. The situation changes, however, when she appears at a Saturday night ball dressed for the occasion, when the famous Hoe-down is danced, the first time a square-dance had intruded into the world of ballet. The four dance episodes that form the orchestral suite open with Buckaroo Holiday, followed by the tranquillity of Corral Nocturne. The mood changes with Saturday Night Waltz and the final Hoe-down.
The earlier ballet Billy the Kid was written in 1938, commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein for the dancer Eugene Loring, who devised the choreography. Kirstein based the story on the life of the outlaw Billy the Kid, who had killed a man for every year of his life, and was shot at the age of twenty, ambushed by his one-time friend, the sheriff. The Open Prairie sets the scene, an evocation of the Wild West countryside, in all its beauty. There follows Street in a Frontier Town and the Card Game at Night, the occasion for Billy to shoot a man who cheats. Gun Battle follows, succeeded by Celebration Dance, and Billy's Death, shot after he has already escaped from jail by killing his jailer. The Open Prairie, the music of the opening, returns in conclusion.
The third of the series of popular American ballets is Appalachian Spring, commissioned by the Coolidge Foundation for Martha Graham and first staged at the Library of Congress, Washington, in 1944. Copland explains that the ballet depicts a pioneer celebration in spring around a newly built farm-house in the Pennsylvania hills in the early part of the 19th century. The future bride and the young farmer who is to be her husband go through the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, aroused by their new domestic partnership. Mature experience is represented by older neighbours, while a revivalist preacher and his followers remind the couple of the vagaries of human fate, before leaving them to enjoy in peace their new house. If the first ballet, Billy the Kid, had stressed the opposition between the outsider and society, Appalachian Spring breathes reconciliation, its conclusion based on the Shaker song "'Tis the gift to be simple".
ReviewsAn ideal sampler for someone coming fresh to the music. - Birmingham Evening Mail