Cat and mouse(Federal Bureau of Investigation Files on Composer Aaron Copland)

By Friedman, John S. | The Nation, December 18, 1995 | Go to article overview

Cat and mouse(Federal Bureau of Investigation Files on Composer Aaron Copland)


Friedman, John S., The Nation


Secret government files reveal that composer Aaron Copland was monitored for at least a decade by the F.B.I. and was even considered for criminal prosecution by the Justice Department. The government worried that Copland, considered by many the greatest U.S. composer of the twentieth century and author of such memorable Americana as Appalachian Spring, Rodeo and Billy the Kid, might have been un-American.

The F.B.I. files on Copland, almost 200 pages of censored documents, recently obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, show that the bureau began tracking the renowned composer in 1950 when a "confidential informant" alleged that Copland belonged to Communist front organizations. Copland, an internationalist who fostered relationships with foreign composers, had joined several organizations (the Friends for Russian Freedom, the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship and the American-Soviet Music Society, for example) at the request of his friend and mentor, conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who was pursuing Soviet-America goodwill. An informant also pointed out that just as Communists used "the names of great Americans for their clubs and schools, Copland entitled one of his compositions `The Abraham Lincoln Symphony' [sic]."

Copland's Lincoln Portrait was scheduled to be performed at the inaugural concert for Eisenhower in 1953 but was abruptly dropped a few days before the event after Representative Fred Busbey, a Republican from Illinois, protested against Copland's political associations. "My `politics' - tainted or untainted - are certain to die with me," Copland responded, "but my music, I am foolish enough to imagine, might just possibly outlive the Republican Party."

A few months later Copland was ordered to testify before the McCarthy committee. "My impression" Copland wrote in his diary, "is that McCarthy had no idea who I was or what I did, other than the fact I was part of the State Department's cultural exchange program at one time." In 1955 the F.B.I. asked the Justice Department to re-examine Copland's testimony to determine if he had committed perjury when he told Congress that he had never been a member of the Communist Party.

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