Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland during the Depression and War

Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland during the Depression and War

Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland during the Depression and War

Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland during the Depression and War

Synopsis

In the 1930s, Aaron Copland began to write in an accessible style he described as "imposed simplicity." Works likeEl Salón México, Billy the Kid, Lincoln Portrait, andAppalachian Springfeature a tuneful idiom that brought the composer unprecedented popular success and came to define an American sound. Yet the cultural substance of that sound--the social and political perspective that might be heard within these familiar pieces--has until now been largely overlooked.
While it has long been acknowledged that Copland subscribed to leftwing ideals,Music for the Common Manis the first sustained attempt to understand some of Copland's best-known music in the context of leftwing social, political, and cultural currents of the Great Depression and Second World War. Musicologist Elizabeth Crist argues that Copland's politics never merely accorded with mainstream New Deal liberalism, wartime patriotism, and Communist Party aesthetic policy, but advanced a progressive vision of American society and culture. Copland's music can be heard to accord with the political tenets of progressivism in the 1930s and '40s, including a fundamental sensitivity toward those less fortunate, support of multiethnic pluralism, belief in social democracy, and faith that America's past could be put in service of a better future. Crist explores how his works wrestle with the political complexities and cultural contradictions of the era by investing symbols of America--the West, folk song, patriotism, or the people--with progressive social ideals.
Much as been written on the relationship between politics and art in the 1930s and '40s, but very little on concert music of the era. Music for the Common Manoffers fresh insights on familiar pieces and the political context in which they emerged.

Excerpt

DURING THE GREAT DEPRESSION, two of Aaron Copland's close friends, the director Harold Clurman and the playwright Clifford Odets, found themselves frequenting Stewart's Cafeteria on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. "Though this cafeteria must have represented a high degree of affluence to the really hungry," Clurman recalled, "it struck me as a sort of singing Hooverville. For, strangely enough, this incubator of the depression, with many marks of waste and decay upon it, was in point of fact a place rank with promise." The winter of 1932–33 was "historically cruel," Clurman knew, but even so it seemed to him "a time of renewed faith." In the midst of despair, there was a sense that "something new, not wholly aware of itself … was in an early state of gestation."

Change was in the air well before that bleak winter as the economic prosperity and social energy of the Jazz Age began to wane in the late 1920s. The headlong rush toward the future and unrestrained passion for all things modern in the years after World War I had led to the stunning technological achievements of the Holland Tunnel, Lindbergh's transatlantic flight, the Model A, and the first sound film. But postwar American optimism was already yielding to the forces that would create the Great Depression, and 1927 stood as a unique moment of tension between boom and bust, a year in which F. Scott Fitzgerald saw evidence of "a wide-spread neurosis … faintly signaled, like a nervous beating of the feet." At the same time, the writer Josephine Herbst recalled "a kind of shuddering premonition of a world to come," and Clurman recognized "notes of doubt, fear, loneliness" emerging even before the stock market crash in 1929.

The composer Aaron Copland also noted the passing of one age and portent of another. On returning to New York City in 1924 after three years in France, he committed himself to creating music at once unabashedly modern . . .

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