Magazine article The Spectator

Adding to the Gaiety of the Nation

Magazine article The Spectator

Adding to the Gaiety of the Nation

Article excerpt


by Howard Pollack

Faber, L30, pp. 704

The United States of America produced some of the 20th century's most important composers, ranging from the recondite cult figure of Charles Ives to the immensely popular George Gershwin, and Aaron Copland is regarded by many as the finest of them all. Born in Brooklyn in 1900 into a family of Russian Jews whose name was anglicised from Kaplan, he discovered as a child that he loved music and had an aptitude for it. He began to study composition at the age of 17, and four years later went to Paris to become Nadia Boulanger's first American pupil.

It was not long after his return to New York in 1924 that Copland's music began to be performed. Some compositions, such as his Short Symphony, were at first considered complex and difficult, but others - El Salon Mexico for example - were immediately successful, and his scores for the ballets Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1945) made his name known to a much wider public. By the time of his death at the age of 90, he was loved and revered as the quintessential American composer.

It was the distinguished New York director Harold Clurman, when he was in London to stage a Giraudoux play in 1955, who first made me aware of Copland's real stature, for at that time I knew only the delightful but lightweight orchestral piece, El Salon Mexico. Clurman, who was a close friend of the composer, rhapsodised to me about Copland's Third Symphony and also the Clarinet Concerto composed for Benny Goodman.. They were works, he said, that expressed the very essence of America. I rushed off to buy recordings, and found the symphony especially impressive, American certainly in its lyrical spaciousness though with something of the spirit of Bruckner hovering over it.

Copland's latest biographer, an American professor; understandably emphasises the purely American qualities in his music, but also addresses himself to other identity issues. He points out that, although Copland only occasionally used explicitly Jewish subjects or themes, many listeners perceived his music as Jewish in one way or another, perhaps because, especially in the 1920s, Jewish composers were generally associated with the avant-garde and with jazz. Some critics detected in Copland's scores traces of Bloch, Mahler and even Schoenberg.

Professor Pollack also addresses the question of the composer as homosexual, quoting an American critic who considered that, unlike America's `macho modernists,' its homosexual composers tended to write the `tonal, lyrical, more conservative music America wanted to hear'. …

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