Today would have been American composer Aaron Copland’s 114th birthday, which gives me an excuse to finally blog about one of my favorite classical artists of all time. Most people may not realize it, but they already know one of his most famous works, Rodeo, from the “Beef, It’s What’s For Dinner” commercial that seemed ubiquitous in the 90s. Remember this?
Copland was born in Brooklyn on November 14, 1900. His story is, in many ways, a strikingly American tale: the son of Jewish immigrants who later became a composer of music that encapsulates the American spirit. He studied music in Paris between 1917 and 1921, part of the larger community of American expatriates including Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. When he returned to the United States, he collaborated with other young composers, and entered Alfred Stieglitz’s community of artists. Copland, like many other artists of his generation, was inspired by Stieglitz’s belief that “the American artist should reflect ‘the ideas of American democracy.'”
In keeping with that ideal, Copland’s work, particularly between the 1930s and 1940s, was deliberately accessible, written in what he referred to as the “vernacular” style. The landscape of the American West became an inspiration for many of his pieces, including ballet scores Rodeo and Billy the Kid, as well as his Fanfare for the Common Man and the Third Symphony.
Copland wrote an impressive array of music, from symphonies and ballets to film scores and even an opera. My favorite, however, will always be Appalachian Spring. In it, he draws on the famed Shaker melody, “‘Simple Gifts.” At just over 30 minutes long, it is a slice of heaven. Below is my favorite recording, performed by the San Francisco Symphony and led by composer Michael Tilson Thomas. If you’d like to see footage from the original 1944 production of the ballet, check out this video clip.
One of the coolest things about Appalachian Spring is the way that it has been used and remixed by other artists to give rise to new works, in the same way that Copland himself draws on the Shaker song. Echoes can be heard in Shaker Loops by modern composer John Adams, as seen in this performance from the Ciompi Quartet below.
Likewise, composer John Williams pulled from Appalachian Spring when he wrote”Air and Simple Gifts” for President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, where it was performed by Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Anthony McGill and Gabriela Montero.
Copland is remembered for his talents as a composer and conductor, as well as his role as a teacher and mentor for countless young musicians. It was the latter role that led to his nickname as the “Dean of American Composers.”
For me, Copland’s work evokes both nostalgia for the past and unbounded optimism for the future, music that is not only timeless and beautiful, but evokes the dignity of the human spirit. I leave you with his Fanfare for the Common Man, introduced by Leonard Bernstein, and conducted by the composer himself (music starts at 2:02).
Anyone else a fan of Copland’s work? If you’re interested in more information about him, including photos, news clippings, correspondence, and other archival treasures, check out this awesome collection from the Library of Congress.