Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Manby Howard Pollack
A candid and fascinating portrait of the American composer.
The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Aaron Copland (1900-1990) became one of America's most beloved and esteemed composers. His work, which includes Fanfare for the Common Man, A Lincoln Portrait, and Appalachian Spring, has been honored by a huge following of devoted listeners. But the full richness… See more details below
A candid and fascinating portrait of the American composer.
The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Aaron Copland (1900-1990) became one of America's most beloved and esteemed composers. His work, which includes Fanfare for the Common Man, A Lincoln Portrait, and Appalachian Spring, has been honored by a huge following of devoted listeners. But the full richness of Copland's life and accomplishments has never, until now, been documented or understood. Howard Pollack's meticulously researched and engrossing biography explores the symphony of Copland's life: his childhood in Brooklyn; his homosexuality; Paris in the early 1920s; the Alfred Stieglitz circle; his experimentation with jazz; the communist witch trials; Hollywood in the forties; public disappointment with his later, intellectual work; and his struggle with Alzheimer's disease. Furthermore, Pollack presents informed discussions of Copland's music, explaining and clarifying its newness and originality, its aesthetic and social aspects, its distinctive and enduring personality.
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A Copland Portrait
In maturity Copland stood just under six feet tall, a lanky figure weighing only about one hundred and fifty pounds. He had his mother's oblong face and craggy features, with sensitive pale blue-gray eyes that looked out from under heavy lids with a kind of bemused curiosity. When he was a young man, his spectacles, dark suits, and thinning brown hair made him look older than his years, whereas in old age his boyish grin gave him a remarkably youthful appearance. His countenance changed little over the years.
Interviewing Copland over the radio, the dance critic John Gruen pictured for his audience "this marvelous, strong, splendid Coplandesque face that we have all come to love and be familiar with." Minna Lederman, who for many years edited Copland's writings, concurred that artists and photographers found him "always the perfect subject, the face one could never forget--after Stravinsky's, THE face. A hawk, yet not predatory. Not what you would call good-looking--something much better, more striking." Others similarly described him paradoxically as "stunningly ugly," as "endearingly homely," as having a "wonderful ugly/beautiful Copland grin"--that toothy smile that even after one meeting the composer Robin Holloway found "unforgettable." More than one person thought of Ichabod Crane; and by coincidence he spent his later years in Washington Irving country up on the Hudson.
Copland humorously deprecated his looks, finding in his gaunt physique, narrow face, prominent nose, and buckteeth a comic resemblance to a giraffe. He considered himself an "ugly duckling"; when his friends Irving and Verna Fine acquired a cubist painting of a clown, he told them, "I bet you bought it because it reminds you of me." Especially sensitive about his crooked teeth, he avoided smiling for the camera for years.
He was likewise modest about his musical accomplishments. When honored or complimented, he reacted with almost disbelief, like a surprised, delighted child. He spoke about his work lightly, with a slight chuckle or sardonic inflection, and emphasized his good luck, never dwelling on any disappointment or sadness.
Copland's calm self-effacement struck many as extraordinary, especially in the context of the temperamental art world. "He is always perfectly relaxed," observed his lifelong friend Harold Clurman. Another friend, the Chilean composer Juan Orrego-Salas, wrote to him, "I admire greatly your serenity. You are a man and an artist at ease with yourself. I truly believe that it is exactly there from which the greatness of your contribution rises." "He exuded calm," agreed a painter friend, Richard Hennessy. When asked late in life what had "hurt him," Copland answered,
I don't hurt easily and I don't bear grudges without working at it a little bit. So that nothing immediately jumps to mind, as to what hurt me. I'm very sensitive I think to the atmosphere in which we all live. At the time of Hitler, Hitler hurt me, if that's what you mean. I was considerably upset. You see, I think it uses up a lot of energy to get really angry. And I save my energy [laugh] for moments where I think it's really worth extending all that energy.
Only occasionally did he show strong emotions of any kind. He was, in general, extremely discreet and low-keyed. In his hundreds of letters to friends, he rarely alluded to his own feelings, and when he did, he did so almost apologetically, as in a brief admission of depression to Leonard Bernstein on the occasion of his mother's death. "He masks his feelings," said Bernstein, "and there's a great deal going on inside him that doesn't come out, even with his best friends." He kept cool even at the time of his McCarthy hearing, prompting his friend Edwin Denby to write, "It is extraordinary even now I can't detect a sign in you that you have been through any trouble. I mean in the sense of wanting comforting. It is only by imagining how grueling it would be to me to be questioned by the police on suspicion, even if I were sure of my innocence, that I can imagine anything." David Diamond, Leonard Bernstein, and Phillip Ramey--three of his closest friends--all independently observed how strangely uncommunicative he appeared at the death of a beloved family member or friend. Diamond concluded, "There's never a scene with Aaron. He knows exactly what dignity means in the sense of how far you go emotionally."
This temperament naturally paralleled his artistic taste, for example, his great affection for the composers Gabriel Fauré and Darius Milhaud and the essayist Michel de Montaigne. After Jean-Pierre Marty performed his Piano Sonata, Copland complimented this "brother spirit" on his "cold passion." In his journals, he wrote of hating "an emotion-drenched voice."
In reminiscences by friends, the word tact in particular recurred, as in William Schuman's assertion that "Aaron was always tactful." Harold Clurman, recalling an episode in which Copland intervened during an argument between himself and Nadia Boulanger, observed,
Aaron is one of the most balanced persons I know; the most tactful, knowing exactly what to say to each person. He wouldn't yield to anything that he didn't want to do. He wouldn't declare anything he didn't mean. But he is never aggressive in any way, and he always knows exactly the right thing to say in the right circumstances. It has helped him not just as a composer but as a man of the world. The United States could send him abroad with full confidence that he would represent it well because he has an extraordinary sense of justness. He had it when he was young and he has it still. Boulanger recognized this immediately.
Such tact made Copland a moderator par excellence, and in the course of his life he chaired innumerable organizations, committees, juries, and panel discussions. In two concert readings of Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale, he was the obvious choice to play the narrator, whether the Soldier and Devil were Roger Sessions and Virgil Thomson, as they were in one production, or Elliott Carter and John Cage, as they were in another. In his relationships with many younger composers and artists, his role even took on the earmarks of the psychotherapist. When on one occasion Phillip Ramey said to him, "Aaron, you could have been a diplomat," he responded, "Or a psychiatrist."
Although he was sometimes fidgety and skittish in his movements--he joked that he avoided Jell-O because the wobbly gelatin made him nervous--only a fear of heights noticeably disturbed Copland's equanimity. In 1932 the composer Vivian Fine accompanied Copland on a Ferris wheel only to find him, as the carriage reached the apex, terrified and clutching her for dear life. But it was precisely because he was so restrained that even the slightest confession or outburst took on a special intensity and a larger frame of reference. Verna Fine, for instance, never forgot her surprise when he responded to her request that he speak at her husband's funeral by saying, "I can't speak because I'm going to break down." And Minna Lederman felt ashamed of once provoking him to an "unbecoming display of anger" that "was so out of character." If he wished to communicate his disapproval or irritation, he usually did so with a glance that spoke volumes.
Some close friends found Copland almost too reticent. Paul Bowles humorously reproached him for it in a 1933 letter: "You seldom write, you know, and when you do, you say nothing of importance. Sometimes I find an old letter of yours in a trunk, and upon reading it over, manage to imagine that it was written recently and is still valid." "Aaron, for once, tell me," pleaded Leonard Bernstein in reference to Copland's private life.
Some even regarded his reserve suspiciously. In 1930, the writer Chard Powers Smith, who had met Copland at the MacDowell Colony, wrote to a mutual friend, "There is a strange hypocritically good-humoured aloofness about him which, unless he dislikes me, I must put down to a self-consciousness either of race, of humble origins, or perhaps of habits--all of which should be beneath Aaron." Virgil Thomson viewed Copland's reticence as a kind of Machiavellian career tool, while Ned Rorem saw it as a way of distancing people. A few rival composers and their wives simply thought him devious.
But friends like Minna Lederman and Robert Cornell sensed in Copland's reserve nothing more nor less than a "mode of self-protection." "Copland had a way of being pleasant and affable and very noncommittal without being aloof," recalled Cornell. "There was a veneer of self-protection in the way he handled encounters with people that he was not intimate with. And he was very, very skilled at this." Another friend, Sylvia Goldstein, described him as "basically shy."
Copland's reserve, at the very least, was something of an idiosyncratic family trait inherited from his mother and maternal grandmother. "If ever she was depressed or irritable, she managed to hide it well," said Copland about his mother. "I can only conclude that I must have inherited some of my own comparative evenness of temperament from my mother." Copland's older brothers, Ralph and Leon, were similarly inscrutable. "Leon usually keeps his emotions inside," wrote Leon's third wife to Copland, "while I let them out which is good for me at least."
Moreover, Copland's reserve should not be thought of as being in the least unfriendly or imperious. On the contrary, he encouraged a fun-loving, high-spirited atmosphere, often punctuating remarks with a laugh or giggle. His own conversation sparkled with a delightfully wry humor, made all the more winsome by his somewhat arch speech; John J. O'Connor, reviewing a televised appearance in 1976, observed that beneath the mild-mannered gentility he could be "almost devilishly droll." With women friends especially he showed physical warmth, cradling Rosamund Bernier consolingly after a difficult divorce and squeezing Verna Fine's hand during a memorial concert for her husband. Friends and colleagues typically described him as "warm," "sweet," and "lovely." He became "Aaron" to thousands of mere acquaintances, thus setting the precedent for Bernstein's adoption of "Lenny."
Indeed, he maintained an extraordinary number of friendships, devoting a good portion of nearly every day to the reading and writing of letters. Moreover, he relished companionship. "He never, never liked to be by himself," remembered David Walker, his secretary for many years. He enjoyed traveling and sharing rooms with friends, hosting small parties, and introducing people to one another. "Copland bores himself without crowds of people which I consider an immense weakness," complained Paul Bowles to a friend. "Aaron loves parties more than any man I know," Bernstein would say.
Aside from his family, with whom he stayed in regular but rather distant touch all his life, his social world largely consisted of artists or intellectuals of one sort or another--or at least art lovers. This included intimate friends, casual acquaintances, lovers, even cooks and secretaries. Only a few other composers could boast so dazzling an array of artist friends and acquaintances, both in and out of music. The apartments of Montparnasse, lofts of the Upper West Side, brownstones in Greenwich Village, and rustic artist colonies outside New York and Mexico City formed his natural habitat.
His relationships with friends--especially the younger men with whom he formed the bulk of his close friendships--could be, in their own way, highly volatile. One finds a recurrent pattern of a year or two of intense intimacy, a year or so of drifting apart, and the settling of the friendship onto a stable but cooler footing. While this often transpired in the context of romantic or would-be romantic relationships, it characterized more purely professional friendships as well. At the same time, Copland prized loyalty and, often over the objections of well-wishers, remained at least cordial to people who annoyed, used, or even betrayed him, as Oscar Levant humbly discovered.
Copland lived simply and unpretentiously. He dressed modestly, often wearing a simple dark suit, white shirt, and tie or, more casually, an open sport shirt and corduroy pants. When friends teased him about his clothes, he would protest, "But what's wrong with them? They're comfortable." "Can you imagine Aaron wearing a ring, a jeweled cufflink?" asked Leonard Bernstein. "It's unheard of! Or wearing some kind of natty leisure suit? Plain, plain, plain! It goes with Appalachian Spring and Our Town, which I think of as a self-portrait of Aaron. No conspicuous consumption." If he showed a greater interest in having stylish furnishings or nice wines in his later, more prosperous years, he did so usually to please younger friends.
Some of these same friends were surprised and troubled to find that Copland, having become well-to-do, spent money so cautiously. But others contended that such habits derived from decades of poverty and from an instinctual sense of economy. "It was part of his plainness, it was part of thrift," explained Bernstein. "One of those Puritan virtues like being fair--you're thrifty." Clurman even related Copland's frugality to his tact: "He never spent more than was necessary on anything; but his economy was a sign not of parsimony but of an almost instinctive sense of measure." "I adore extravagance," Copland would tell his friend John Kennedy, "but I abhor waste."
In fact, he was very generous. "When Aaron traveled all over the world as a conductor," remembered Verna Fine, "he always brought back gifts--a Yemenite necklace from Israel for me, books for Irving, and toys for our three daughters. We never saw the thrifty side of Aaron that everyone talks about." Even during his impoverished years, he supplied loans and cash gifts for friends in need. By the end of his life, he was supporting whole families. If he occasionally hurt a friend like Richard Hennessy by lending him money cautiously, it might well have been because so many of his loans were never paid back, as Hennessy himself acknowledged. He showed special generosity to fellow composers. "Considering that I am a person who lacks no possible human failing," wrote Oscar Levant, "I have been constantly amazed by Copland's generosity."
Copland was a diligent and constant worker, yet another facet of his rather spartan makeup. How else to explain the scores, the books, the mountain of letters, lectures, and speeches? Even when friends visited, the time would come, as Vivian Perlis relates, when he would send everybody back to work, with the command "au travail!"
A night owl, he usually began his day around nine or ten in the morning with a small breakfast, during which he lingered over newspapers and magazines. After breakfast, he read his mail, wrote letters, made phone calls, and otherwise attended to business. Following a light lunch at about one, he might study a few scores at the piano, prepare a lecture or article, meet with musicians, or simply read; at least in later years, he also napped for an hour in mid- or late afternoon. Unless pressed by a deadline, he did his real composing only after dinner, from about eight in the evening to midnight or later. "Music is largely the product of the emotions," he explained to Arnold Dobrin, "and I can't get emotional early in the day." After a late-night snack, he might stay up still later reading. "This was not a man who wasted time," observed his friend the composer John Kennedy.
Copland composed primarily at the piano, working directly on the instrument's music stand or on a nearby work table. Having grown up with the belief that a serious composer should be able to hear his music in his head and reproduce it directly onto paper, he felt somewhat defensive about this practice until he learned that Stravinsky did likewise. This did not mean, he reminded one interviewer, that he merely improvised at the piano:
Actually, it's more like using the piano as a large typewriter: the instant before you start to work, you know what it is you're going to "type." You're one instant ahead of yourself all the time ... primarily it is a feat of the musical imagination. Otherwise why write certain notes down rather than other notes. No, music must be heard in your head; something must be guiding you toward the notes you put down.
Copland usually sketched out a few musical ideas--perhaps a particular motive or harmony or bass line--before plunging into a composition per se. He once explained,
Somehow, suddenly, a musical idea occurs to you; either a whole phrase, or three notes, or a series of chords, something that seems pregnant with possibilities for development. Once you have the kinds of ideas that fascinate you, you're no longer in a position to decide the nature of the animal. It's going to take its essence from the musical ideas that occur to you.... Some musical ideas are too short, they don't seem long enough to carry you through ten minutes of music, so you have to start searching about for other ideas; contrasting ones that seem to fit with the original ones.
In another such discussion he emphasized the fact that he worked not necessarily with a single idea, but with multiple ones: "You might collect a series of ideas without thinking about how they go or where they go, but then, one fine day, looking at them, you get the impression that Idea A and C and G go together in some curious way which you didn't realize before when you were thinking about them separately."
When writing for orchestra, Copland first prepared a piano score of from two to four or more staves, orchestrating the music only after he had completed it thus. He argued for the advisability of this method, as opposed to scoring a work from the start: "Since balance and contrast of instrumental effect are prime factors in good orchestration, it follows that any decision as to timbre, too quickly arrived at, is itself a limitation, since it prevents freedom of action on other pages."
Nor did he compose straight through from beginning to end. At the least, he used themes sketched out in advance, but he often composed whole sections out of their eventual order; especially well known is the fact that he put together the Piano Variations and the Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson only after completing their separate parts. Such an approach characterized his working methods in general. William Schuman once related Copland's response when asked about the progress of his Connotations (1962):
He said that he had completed writing the end of the movement. I said, "I did not realize that you had finished it." Aaron said, "No, I am not finished. I am just writing the ending." He was astonished when I told him that I never wrote a piece out of sequence, that it was impossible for me. I start at the beginning and work my way toward the end. I never could stop and write an ending.
"I don't compose," he once said. "I assemble materials." This openness to collage--for all his emphasis on stylistic and motivic unity--prefigured postmodernist aesthetics while helping to explain his enthusiasm for such earlier composers as Mahler, Ives, and Nielsen.
Often he used music that he had composed years earlier. As with all his written documents and personal effects, he fastidiously preserved sketches and manuscripts, which he recycled from time to time. For a climactic scene from his film score to The Heiress, for example, he resorted to a long-discarded variation from the Piano Variations; one can find numerous such economies in his work. Some knowing friends even complained to him about this tendency toward self-borrowing. While it seems that he reused only a relatively small percentage of his work and typically only music that he had discarded or suppressed for one reason or another, the materials at the Copland Collection are helping scholars like Daniel Mathers clarify this particular matter.
If necessary, as in the case of his film scores, he could write quickly, but he usually worked slowly and deliberately. When looking over his music with friends, he would often point to a spot with undisguised pleasure and say, "That was the note that cost." One of his most frequent complaints about certain pieces was that they seemed "facile." You have to be more "choisi," he would lecture David Diamond. He personally found it beneficial to put his work aside for a few weeks from time to time: "The passage of time is then a big help in reaching a true and just estimation of what you've accomplished." The eleven-minute Piano Variations took about two years to complete.
For all the care and thought he brought to the creative process, he considered composition as, fundamentally, an emotional experience, an act of "self-expression" and "self-discovery." He spoke of "musical instinct," of the "heat of inspiration," of music as "the product of the emotions." In his Norton lectures, he quoted Santayana, adding, "Yes, I like this idea that we respond to music from a primal and almost brutish level--dumbly, as it were, for on that level we are firmly grounded.... That is fundamentally the way we all hear music--gifted and ungifted alike--and all the analytical, historical, textual material on or about the music heard, interesting though it may be, cannot--and I venture to say should not--alter that fundamental relationship." His characterization of a composer as "cerebral" or "intellectual" carried somewhat negative connotations. He identified rather with the image of Beethoven--attributed to Schubert--as maintaining "superb coolness under the fire of creative fantasy."
Copland realized that not every work of his would be well received. Noting that his family thought it "impractical" of him to write something that would be hard for performers and audiences to grasp, he reflected,
But I don't think one composes to be practical. That's too sensible. You have to be more adventuresome than that. But you do have to be truly convinced about the value of what you are doing, otherwise there are many reasons for not doing it--minimal financial gain, no favorable criticism in the papers the next morning. You really must be brave, but the bravery is derived from inner conviction.
But although he neither condescended nor pandered to the average listener, he never lost sight of him or her either. Reviewing Roger Sessions's Violin Concerto, he questioned the composer's seeming disregard for "audience psychology," writing, "It is not a question of giving an audience what it wants, but of not giving it more than you can reasonably expect it to be able to digest. It is difficult to set those limits." "The ideal listener, it seems to me," he wrote on another occasion, "would combine the preparation of the trained professional with the innocence of the intuitive amateur."
Between composing, writing, and eventually conducting, Copland had little time for much else. Although a skilled pianist, he rarely played the piano simply for fun. As a young man, he went to countless concerts, but after his return from Europe in 1924, he became much more selective about what musical events he attended, generally restricting himself to contemporary music and unusual repertory. When he traveled (as he did extensively throughout his life), he kept busy, allowing himself little time for sight-seeing or mere loafing. Rather, he concentrated on the tasks at hand: composing, conducting, meeting local musicians, hearing new scores. For all his sociability, he had little taste for small talk.
Not really athletically inclined, in his younger days he nonetheless became somewhat adept at tennis and enjoyed playing it. During his more senior years, his physical activities were largely restricted to taking walks in the woods or puttering about in his garden. He liked dogs and cats and kept pets throughout much of his life, including in later years a Great Dane named Nadja (in honor of his teacher, Nadia Boulanger) and a cat called Helen.
Copland's involvements with the other arts often centered on connections with one or another friend or collaborator. On his occasional visits to museums, he often headed straight for sculptures rather than paintings, an understandable attraction given the sculptural qualities of his music. His most valuable piece of art, a Picasso print of a bull and a horse, was a gift from Thornton Wilder. "Aaron was not visual," friends often claimed, though Robert Cornell noted that he had, in fact, a "definite aesthetic" and a "visual philosophy," namely, that art and decor should be "pure, simple, and have guts." Michael O'Connor, who served as Copland's cook for a while in the 1980s, thought him "very visual in a sense," recalling his strong reactions to table settings; once, after O'Connor had set out some red napkins, Copland exclaimed, with his characteristic lilt, "You could put this in a museum, just the way it is."
For many years he enjoyed going to the theater and movies. He admired and, as he once admitted, almost resented drama's "naked" emotional power, as opposed to the less engulfing, more distilled musical experience: "Not infrequently I have been moved to tears in the theater; never at music." Leonard Bernstein confirmed that the only time he ever saw Copland weep was at a motion picture: "When at a Bette Davis movie that caused me to ooh and ah and marvel and groan `No no no!' at the unbearable climax--I am always very vocal at Bette Davis movies--he turned to me, his cheeks awash with tears, and sobbed, `Can't you shut up?'"
After 1950 he attended plays and motion pictures with less regularity. Although he purchased a black-and-white television set sometime around 1960, he showed little interest in the medium, tuning in only for particular cultural events. Once, at home, he tried to lure his young friend Phillip Ramey away from the television set with the suggestion that they look over some scores together. After Ramey declined, explaining that he was watching an episode of Star Trek, Copland shook his head and left the room, saying, with a laugh, "What an ape you are!"
His only real preoccupation outside of music was reading. "Composing and reading were most important to him," remembered his friend Gerald Sykes. In 1921 Copland wrote to his parents, "I am doing my usual amount of devouring of books." The following year he further told them, "I wonder if you ever realize what a large part the reading of books on all imaginable subjects plays in my existence. I read, not to learn anything, but from the pure love of it." All of his studios featured a corner with a comfortable chair, a table of current reading material, and a lamp so that he could alternately read and compose, his reading time usually transpiring before and after his major compositional work at night. He enjoyed memoirs, letters, biographies, poetry, novels, history, philosophy, aesthetics, psychology, and the natural sciences. "I read all the time," he stated in 1978. "I prefer what the French call belles lettres--essays and collections of articles about different subject matter."
Some of Copland's friends found his personality--the reserved, charming man with the friendly giggle--embodied in his music. And yet his music had other qualities--sarcasm, sorrow, violence, and nostalgia--that did not seem to fit his public or private image. In a 1979 speech, Bernstein acknowledged that Copland's music "can have an extraordinary grandeur, an exquisite delicacy, a prophetic severity, a ferocious rage, a sharp bite, a prickly snap, a mystical suspension, a wounding stab, an agonized howl--none of which corresponds with the Aaron we loving friends know; it comes from some deep mysterious place he never reveals to us except in his music." Copland himself mused on the relation of art to one's inner life:
An artist can take his personal sadness or his fear or his anger or his joy and crystallize it, giving it a life of its own. Thus he is released from his emotion as others cannot be. The arts offer the opportunity to do something that cannot be done anywhere else. It is the only place one can express in public the feelings ordinarily regarded as private. It is the place where a man or woman can be completely honest, where we can say whatever is in our hearts or minds, where we never need to hide from ourselves or from others.
In Copland's music, we find that fundamental tension between the outer and inner man made whole.
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