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Slim Pickings

November 2, 2006 By:
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Aaron Copland (right), sings and plays with composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein in 1945.

I had long considered it a rule of thumb that great artists in whatever field of endeavor are generally excellent writers -- splendid diarists, say, or incisive letter-writers at the very least. There are so many creative types who fit the bill -- Vincent Van Gogh, for example, or Hector Berlioz. But I've recently met the example that undermines my admittedly unscientific theory, and it's quite an example at that. Aaron Copland, an incomparable musician who led a long and fascinating life -- and who was an acquaintance of everyone who was anyone among 20th-century artists -- has had his first collection of letters compiled and it's a curiously ho-hum affair, despite the fact that the editors try to make you believe otherwise. This is not a dreadful endeavor, just not what you would expect considering Copland's accomplishments.

The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland, edited by Elizabeth B. Crist and Wayne Shirley, and published by Yale University Press, is also slimmer than you might have imagined, especially when it's placed next to Howard Pollack's recent brick-solid biography. Considering the great number of things Copland did, you might have expected, at the very least, more in terms of volume. The disparity is striking.

'Can You Make a Living'?

Born in Brooklyn on Nov. 14, 1900, Copland was the last of five children of Harris Copland and Sarah Mittenthal Copland, both immigrants from Russia. The family's original name was Kaplan, which Harris decided to Anglicize on his way to America via Glasgow and Manchester. Like many of his newly arrived relatives, Harris was a businessman -- a store owner -- who ran what his son liked to describe as a neighborhood Macy's on a major thoroughfare in the borough.

Copland's decision to take up music came as a shock to his father. "Where did you get such a strange idea?" father asked son. "Can you make a living from it?" -- a phrase that might qualify as a standard Jewish lament. Still, Harris paid for his son's musical education, and over the years came to take great pride in his youngest child's ever-expanding musical universe.

In Howard Pollack's biography, it was noted that Copland felt far closer to his more sensitive mother than to his father (she had a modest amount of musical talent, it was reported). But you wouldn't gather that the composer felt this way from the letters collected here. From the start, the correspondence, especially the mail sent from Paris, where Copland studied with the legendary Nadia Boulanger (one of his favorite correspondents throughout his life), is addressed to "Dear Ma & Pa," as if they were living somewhere on the great plains, and not in the middle of Brooklyn.

There are glimmers in these letters that Copland had begun his very conscious effort to create an "American" musical vocabulary. The search began soon after his first sojourn to Paris. Back in America, he came under the sway of writers and artists like Van Wyck Brooks and Alfred Steiglitz, who themselves were looking for "a usable past" to build upon. When Copland could not come up with appropriate musical antecedents, he concluded that jazz was the true American sound. He eventually adapted jazz motifs in several of his early works, especially Music for the Theater of 1925 and the Piano Concerto of 1926.

But though jazz elements were utilized in works written throughout his career and expressed Copland's sense of urban American life, he eventually gave more of his composing efforts to the search for a rural American sound, which first appeared in such larger, more expansive works as the ballets Billy the Kid and Rodeo of the late 1930s. The urban would surface again in works like Quiet City, but Copland appeared to cede that territory to Leonard Bernstein (another constant recipient of his correspondence), who acknowledged that he filched many musical ideas from his dear friend Aaron and made them his own, especially in compositions like the score for the Elia Kazan film "On the Waterfront" and the songs that fill the landmark Broadway musical West Side Story.

Perhaps Copland's best-loved score -- and most effective "rural" piece -- is for the ballet Appalachian Spring, written in 1944 for dancer and choreographer Martha Graham (she is never written to directly here, but her name crops up again and again in the correspondence, and among the voluminous footnotes). According to Copland, when he wrote Appalachian Spring, he "was thinking primarily about Martha and her unique choreographic style, which I knew well. Nobody else seems quite like Martha: she's so proud, so very much herself. And she's unquestionably very American: there's something prim and restrained, simple yet strong, about her which one tends to think of as American."

Graham, like Copland, was conducting her own search for national roots that might serve as an underpinning to her work. The famous modern dancer, raised in Allegheny, Pa., did go on to create a distinct choreographic style in a string of distinguished ballets based on American themes, including Primitive Mysteries, American Provincials, Frontier, American Document and Letter to the World.

Initially, Graham sent Copland a script for the ballet that would become Appalachian Spring titled "Daughter of Colchis," which was a "Medea-inspired" story set in 19th-century New England. Copland thought it was "too severe," and Graham revised it. It was next called "House of Victory," and the locale moved farther west. Some of these details are sprinkled throughout several letters in this volume written to composer friends as Copland struggled to complete the score, and meet both Graham's wishes and her demands.

But the choreographer made it clear that the story and the score "need in no sense be western in feeling. My own great Grandmother went into Pennsylvania when it seemed a frontier." And, at some point, Graham actually specified the locale as the region where she'd grown up. She further imagined a set that would simply contain "the bare bones of a home that would divide the stage space into an inside and outside area."

As for the musical language Copland employed, it so perfectly mimics folk-music idioms that people are surprised to learn that the composer employed only one actual folk tune -- the Shaker hymn "Tis the Gift to Be Simple." The end of the piece is perhaps most famous -- a fortissimo restatement of the theme, which gives way to a quiet hymn, representing either a Shaker meeting or an African-American church, and is meant to evoke the sense of a true American place.

As even this small sampling of letters proves, Copland knew most of the musical luminaries of his time and, in addition to Boulanger and Bernstein, also wrote on a regular basis to William Schuman, Virgil Thomson, Eugene Ormandy and Serge Koussevitzky.

The problem with these letters as a whole is that they are jottings, lists of what's going on socially -- who Copland has heard from, what score he's working on and where he's headed to next, in a geographical sense, without a great deal of detail, analysis or philosophizing. And there's not even the kind of heady gossip you sometimes expect to find in such compilations, which is truly unusual considering the crowd Copland ran with. This volume is definitely for the committed Copland-ite, not for newcomers to the composer's world. But the committed should be forewarned; they may come away from it all a tad disappointed.

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