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The Copland Paradox

How could he be both a populist and a Modernist? A look at the complex composer as his 100th birthday nears.

November 05, 2000|MARK SWED | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

In April 1991, a memorial concert was held for Aaron Copland, who had died Dec. 2, 1990, less than three weeks after his 90th birthday. It appeared that every American composer within reach of Lincoln Center in New York attended. Sitting far in the back of Alice Tully Hall, even John Cage and Merce Cunningham had tears in their eyes.

Forty-seven years earlier, Cunningham had been the young dancer in Martha Graham's company who created the role of the revivalist preacher in "Appalachian Spring," Copland's famous ballet. But that had been his farewell performance with Graham, and he hadn't had anything to do with Copland or his music since. Cage had operated on a different (and often opposing) musical shore from Copland's for half a century. Yet these two lifelong avant-gardists made no effort to hide their affection for an American populist.

Copland was the first, the only and probably the last American classical composer upon whose greatness and importance everyone could agree.

His 100th birthday is Nov. 14, and the celebration has taken on something of an iconic status. If we fall into the temptation to look back at the 20th century as the American century, Copland, born as it began, becomes a ready symbol for a nation coming of age.

Copland defined what we have come to think of as a distinctive and singular American sound. He was our supreme nationalist composer, the voice of cosmopolitan and cowboy, evoker of the brute dynamism of the big city and mystical expanse of the prairie's wide open space. And he was, of course, superpatriot, composer of "Fanfare for the Common Man" and "Lincoln Portrait."

Yet the great irony of Copland was that he was none of those things, really--not cowpoke or big-city sophisticate, and certainly no common man. His politics were far enough left of center that they got him in trouble with Joseph McCarthy. He grew up on what he described as a drab street in Brooklyn over the family store. His ancestors did not come over on the Mayflower--his parents emigrated from Poland and Lithuania. Jewish and gay, he readily identified with outsiders.

A plain-spoken and genial man who was generous to a fault, Copland lived unpretentiously. He did not appear to be complex or conflicted. And conflicted he probably wasn't, but complex is another matter. He created an American voice--immediately recognizable (sometimes by as little as a single chord) as his and also as our nation's--out of the true American Babel. He drew from any number of sources that included the latest techniques from Paris, the folk music of Mexico, South America and the U.S., the Eastern European Jewish song of his parents' roots, and particularly the jazz that seemed to him to supply his native and beloved New York with all its energy.

Jewish song is not always apparent in Copland's prairie pastorales, nor jazz in the prickly abstract Modernist music that he wrote as a young man making a name for himself. Copland could be a severe composer who believed fewer notes were better, but these disparate elements can be found underlying nearly everything he wrote. And it is that that makes it possible for so many disparate listeners to think of Copland as their own.

In Spike Lee's tribute to basketball, the film "He Got Game," Copland's music is lovingly featured on the soundtrack. Strange as it is to see hip-hop kids or prison inmates shooting hoops accompanied by "Appalachian Spring," Lee's logic proved unassailable. "When I listen to [Copland's] music, I hear America," the director said when the film was released in 1998. "And basketball is America." Copland, the film unequivocally asserts, also got game.

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This accessibility and familiarity make it almost too easy to commemorate Copland as the composer who made something for everyone. It is no stretch for orchestras, chamber series or soloists to program Copland. And there cannot be many non-operatic music institutions or schools that won't have joined in with a least a little something of Copland's before the year is out. In Los Angeles, the main events are clustered around the birthday next week. The Los Angeles Philharmonic plays an all-Copland program this afternoon, while tonight the Pacific Symphony begins an eight-day Copland festival centered on Copland's Hollywood connection as an Academy Award-winning film composer. Monday night's Los Angeles Philharmonic Green Umbrella concert is a Copland tribute. The Long Beach Symphony will perform Copland's Third Symphony on Nov. 18. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Monday Evening Concerts series began its season last month with a visit by musicians from New York's Copland House, an institute based in Copland's Hudson River residence and devoted to his music.

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