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An American Spirit

AARON COPLAND: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man;\o7 By Howard Pollack; (Henry Holt: 690 pp., $37.50)\f7

May 30, 1999|JOSEPH HOROWITZ | Joseph Horowitz is the author of five books, including "Understanding Toscanini," "Wagner Nights" and "The Post-Classical Predicament."

During its pre-World War I heyday, classical music in the United States produced a multitude of distinguished orchestras in Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, New York and Philadelphia led by world-class conductors; a couple of opera companies in New York and Chicago stocked with the world's great singers; and a community of critics in New York and Boston unsurpassed abroad. An American school of composers, based in Boston, was nascent but vigorous. A visiting composer, Anton Dvorak in New York, provoked vibrant debate over the proper sources of an indigenous musical culture with its own American accent. Music reigned as "queen of the arts." Future developments were eagerly awaited.

Then came the Great War. A phobia against all things German--cultural, intellectual, scientific--condemned the German-born and -trained musicians who had dominated American concert life. To an amazing degree, the subsequent search for an American musical identity was pursued from scratch. The search's major embodiment in high-culture circles, Aaron Copland, was a modernist, born in Brooklyn, N.Y., schooled in France, with no use for precursors aspiring to Beethovenian uplift or flaunting Romantic Leipzig and Stuttgart pedigrees. Even if he had not been late to discover Charles Ives, even if he had managed to appreciate George Chadwick (like Ives, a turn-of-the-century American nationalist), Copland was looking for something different. As the inter-war "dean of American composers," he--not Ives, not Chadwick--came to embody the American composer "come of age." More than any other serious musician, he defined the project of creating a fresh American voice, a vigorous and unpretentious American sound.

The obstacles confronting this enterprise were formidable. Not only did Germanophobia foreclose roots in the past, but a continued influx of powerful musical immigrants--first from Russia, then from Europe--competed with contemporary native talent. Postwar New World audiences, expanded by the new middle classes, were eclectic, unschooled and overly susceptible to foreign glamour.

Copland's attainments as symbol, spokesman and composer, as Howard Pollack's invaluable new biography, "Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man," makes clear, were a complex product of intellect, temperament and personality. He was a tenacious cultural nationalist. He hungered for a usable past. He sought an indigenous cultural community. He condemned the obsession with European masterpieces.

At the same time, Copland was singularly equable. He seemed immune to anger or jealousy. He inspired trust. The Copland personality was direct, affirmative, energized--"American." In fact, he himself characterized American music as "plain and bare," invested with "simplicity and naturalness" and "optimistic vitality."

Copland's "Billy the Kid" and "Appalachian Spring"--and countless other works less well-known--fulfill this prescription. Compared with Chadwick's Germanic musical furnishings with their rich upholstery or the grand rhetoric and riotous eclecticism of Ives' musical pageantry, the Copland style is clean, even austere, yet conveys a homespun warmth. Even when not applied to cowboy tunes or Shaker hymns, its hardness and precision evoke the open space, urban intensity and rhythmic vigor of American life.

Leonard Bernstein (whose American voice, unlike Copland's, can sound vulgar) once cannily extolled Copland as "plain, plain, plain!" And yet--another source of his wide appeal--Copland's plain-spoken manner was notably free-spirited. At various times, he praised or promoted (and Copland was an influential essayist and presenter) the music of Pierre Boulez, Witold Lutoslawski, Toru Takemitso and Iannis Xenakis. He was, Pollack informs us, relaxed about his homosexuality. Even his relatively compact musical output--clearly and copiously described in this book, if not with much flair or originality--was more varied in genre and style than we tend to realize.

And Copland was a political free spirit. Here, especially, Pollack unearths an important part of the Copland story not previously told. Copland's Norton lectures of 1952 espoused social responsibility: "The artist should feel himself affirmed and buoyed up by his community. In other words, art and the life of art must mean something, in the deepest sense, to the everyday citizen. When that happens, America will have achieved a maturity to which every sincere artist will have contributed."

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