Aaron Copland and His World

By Birkett, Jennifer DeLapp | Notes, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Aaron Copland and His World


Birkett, Jennifer DeLapp, Notes


Aaron Copland and His World. Edited by Carol J. Oja and Judith Tick. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. [xxi, 503 p. ISBN 0-691-12470-1. $22.95.] Music examples, index, notes, photographs.

Aaron Copland was the subject of the 2005 summer festival at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson. The companion volume, Aaron Copland and His World, edited by festival scholars-in-residence Carol J. Oja and Judith Tick contains seventeen essays by sixteen different contributors. Long involved in Copland scholarship, the editors acutely position each essay in the rapidly evolving body of Copland studies. Contributors range from veteran scholars like Vivian Perlis, Howard Pollack, and Larry Starr, to those who have emerged since the Copland centenary, including Beth E. Levy and Elizabeth B. Crist. Together, the essays provide a fresh and multi-faceted view of the composer and his times.

Copland's Jewish identity receives enlightening treatment in Leon Botstein's "Copland Reconfigured," Pollack's "Copland and the Prophetic Voice," and Levy's "From Orient to Occident: Aaron Copland and the Sagas of the Prairie." Pollack summarizes the Copland family's Jewish background and examines the attribution of "Hebraic" and "prophetic" qualities to Copland's work. Through the lens of Copland's Music for Radio, Levy's nuanced study shows Copland constructing an American identity that includes both the Jew and the American West. Botstein's essay elucidates the diverse Jewish-American communities of Copland's day, comparing Copland's experiences with other musical figures including Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Ernest Bloch, George Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, Lazare Saminsky, and Paul Rosenfeld. Copland "grew up in a professional context in which being Jewish was not exceptional" (p. 457), Botstein concludes. Similarly, he deems Copland's homosexuality an "unproblematic" non-issue; though this position overlooks significant societal prejudices that surfaced at different points in Copland's career, Botstein's point that neither should be considered Copland's primary driving force holds true.

Another issue is the "duality" often attributed to Copland's career. Was he fundamentally modernist or populist? Difficult or accessible? Was there a fundamental impulse that motivated his varied works, styles, and commentary? Martin Brody comes up against one aspect of this duality in his fascinating if loosely organized essay, "Founding Sons: Copland, Sessions, and Berger on Genealogy and Hybridity." When Copland sought to construct a history for himself and his peers in the United States, Brody writes, he "seemed unable to resolve the dialectical opposition of 'indigenous' and 'universal' in his conception of American music" (p. 24). Perlis addresses the issue when she writes that Copland "had an innate talent for what was appropriate, both in musical and literary pursuits. Always aware of his audience, he could adapt to a wide range of circumstances" (p. 156). What did Copland really think? Many who have studied his Music and Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952) find that work frustratingly evasive and self-contradictory on many points. His philosophies and opinions can be hard to pin down. Faced with apparent contradictions in Copland's words and music, most writers take one of two positions. Like Arthur Berger, they may favor one side (in Berger's case, Copland's "difficult" or "serious" works) as more authentic, and excuse the other ("accessible" or "light" music sprang from specific occasions or economic considerations). Others seek to reconcile the contrasts in defense of Copland's "integrity," which sometimes requires employing convoluted explanations.

Because the question of Copland's consistency arises on so many levels, to this reader, the most stimulating essay in the collection is by Paul Anderson: " 'To Become as Human as Possible': The Influence of André Gide on Aaron Copland." Anderson convincingly argues that Gide's thought was at the core of Copland's approach to life, human relationships, aesthetics, and composition. …

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