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Aaron Copland and the American Sound

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Aaron Copland and the American Sound
Aaron Copland searched far and wide to find a sound he could call American. He wanted to break away from European traditions and create a sort of nationalistic music that really felt like the American spirit was within it. To understand his want and persistent need to find this sound, the elements that should be examined are his upbringing, formal training, connections in networking, and his outside influences of different musical styles.
Copland was born the child of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania in Brooklyn, NY in the fall of 1900. He had many siblings, one of which taught him to play the piano. He continued his home studies until he was sixteen-years-old at which time he began to study in Manhattan with Rubin Goldmark. It was with this teacher he learned the ‘fundamentals of counterpoint and composition.’ He attended performances at many venues such as the New York Symphony and Brooklyn Academy of Music to immerse himself in contemporary classical music. This interest in the classical foundations of music fueled his inspiration to study in Europe at the age of 20 with Nadia Boulanger at the Summer School of Music for American Students at Fountainebleau, France. With Nadia he learned about composition and orchestration. Upon his arrival back in the U.S. in 1924, he became an active “pianist, lecturer, and activist in musical societies.” It was in approximately 1925 that his compositions became well known, with the premiere of Music for the Theater, which was conducted by Serge Koussevitzky and performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It should be noted that at this time, he was still only in his twenties. It is argued by the PBS group that this was his first break into professional American music, but Raskin argues that it was after a performance of the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra in New York City, which Walter Damrosch conducted. It was at this performance that he turned to the audience and said, “"If a young man in his twenties can compose a piece like that, by the time he is thirty he should be ready to commit murder."
Though Copland had much experience in the European traditions of classical music, his first genuine feeling of the American sound was through jazz. It was from jazz that Copland wanted to draw inspiration from to create a “new type of symphonic music.” Kleppinger specifies the distinct influence of jazz in the rhythm of his compositions, but notes that, “the music that was designated as “jazz” was commonly understood to overlap with other semi-independent repertoires, including “ragtime,” “popular music,” and various dances like the fox-trot and the Charleston.” This was only one element that led him to his overall sound though. In 1930 he took his first visit to Yaddo, an artist retreat in Saratoga Springs, NY where he began to implement these new elements of music in his compositions and organized a Festival of Contemporary Music to showcase these works. Even during this time, he still felt as if something was missing, but he would come to find his missing piece of the puzzle soon. Shortly after Yaddo, he took his first visit to Mexico, which was arranged by Carlos Chavez. It was here that he found a nationalistic sound that moved him to create “El Salón México” in 1935. The new sound he had created was rooted in Mexican folk music and it allowed him to enter into his most successful and productive years as a composer. There is no contest between any scholar on the popularity of his work in this time period or when it started. 1
After the success of “El Salón México,” Copland started to collaborate with his close friend and colleague, Martha Graham, on a ballet piece that she had been commissioned to choreograph and dance the leading role. She had made it clear that she wanted to implement “pioneering American themes” within the music, however the title of the piece hadn’t been discussed. Initially, his original title for the piece was “Ballet for Martha,” but in watching the choreography and music come together to evoke a reflection of “youthful aspiration in the American heartland,” it was eventually renamed “Appalachian Spring.” He included shaker melodies and imagery through instrumentation that clearly showed the simplistic nature of American life, but not at the sacrifice of beauty of sound. This was probably one of his most noticeable achievements of the real American sound he had been searching for. He continued this same sound in the score for the ballet “Rodeo” which he wrote in 1942, and eventually in his opera “The Tender Land” from 1954.
It is extremely clear that Aaron Copland’s music has made quite an impact on the musical styling of today. It did take him a rather long journey to reach the eventual sound he had been looking for, but it has allowed us to follow a distinct path of music through time to see what led to this sound. We all strive for perfection in our lives, but in terms of ourselves, we often never reach our own versions of perfect. Copland was no different than any other musician in this predicament. Always working, always creating. There is always more that can be done to improve something. You just need to possess the drive to keep moving forward with this idea in hand. As Aaron Copland proved true in his lifetime search for the American sound, anything is possible, you just have to keep working for it.

Works Cited

"Aaron Copland: About the Composer." PBS. July 11, 2005. Accessed November 28, 2014.

Raskin, David. "Aaron Copland." American Composers Orchestra. January 1, 1995. Accessed November 28, 2014.

Kleppinger, Stanley V. "On the Influence of Jazz Rhythm in the Music of Aaron Copland." American Music 21, no. 1 (2003): 74-111. Accessed November 28, 2014.

Boriskin, Michael. "Aaron Copland: Timeline of a Musical Life." Copland Houe. January 1, 2014. Accessed November 28, 2014.

Kapilow, Robert, and John Adams. ""Appalachian Spring" by Aaron Copland." NPR Online. August 1, 1999. Accessed November 28, 2014.

[ 1 ]. "Aaron Copland: About the Composer." PBS. July 11, 2005. Accessed November 28, 2014.
[ 2 ]. Raskin, David. "Aaron Copland." American Composers Orchestra. January 1, 1995. Accessed November 28, 2014.
[ 3 ]. Kleppinger, Stanley V. "On the Influence of Jazz Rhythm in the Music of Aaron Copland." American Music 21, no. 1 (2003): 74-111. Accessed November 28, 2014.
[ 4 ]. Boriskin, Michael. "Aaron Copland: Timeline of a Musical Life." Copland Houe. January 1, 2014. Accessed November 28, 2014.
[ 5 ]. Kapilow, Robert, and John Adams. ""Appalachian Spring" by Aaron Copland." NPR Online. August 1, 1999. Accessed November 28, 2014.

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