Read an Excerpt
For a long time I harbored the pleasant notion that I was a child of thetwentieth century, having been born on 14 November 1900. But some authoritiesclaim that the twentieth century began on 1 January 1901. I calculatetherefore that I spent my first forty-eight days in the nineteenthcenturyan alarming thought! Unlike some creative artists, I have nomemory of a lonely childhood. It seems to me I was always surrounded bypeople. Certainly, at birth, I must have been stared at in my crib by myfour considerably older siblings: Ralph, twelve, Leon, ten, Laurine, eight,and Josephine, seven. I might have been stared at more by my father andmother if they hadn't been so preoccupied with the management of thesource of our livelihood: a fair-sized department store located at the cornerof Washington Avenue and Dean Street in Brooklyn, New York.
I mention the store right off because it provided the central core of ourlives. It most certainly proved to be influential in the shaping of my formativeyears. I grew up in the midst of a larger world than would havebeen supplied by a mere "home." The store's "help"as our dozen ormore employees were calledand the customers themselves provided me,at times, with a wide audience at a tender age. And the family as audiencewas ever present, for we lived above one section of the store, being the soleoccupants on three floors of a red brick tenement-style building. I hastento add that this seemed luxurious livingto me at the time, partly because Ialways had my own bedroom, and partly because we always had domestichelp and plenty to eat. I remember comparatively little surveillance as faras growing up was concernedeveryone was too busy with his own affairs.Moreover, my guess is that by the time I came along, my parents had expendeda large measure of their guiding instincts on the four older children,so that I had a sense of being on my own from an early age.
The daily routine at the store was demanding. Saturdays and Sale Dayswere particularly exhausting, and Christmas was the busiest time of all. Idistinctly remember "helping out" in the toy department (after schoolhours, of course). In retrospect, it occurs to me that I was selling toys toother children at an age when I might well have been playing with the toysmyself. In any event, I was always paid for working in the storean excellentway of feeding a child's ego. In my teens I bought music with my storemoney. I occasionally acted as relief cashier when the regular employeewas off duty. The cashier's perch was a balcony area near the ceiling fromwhich one could survey most of the premises. Cash and sales checks arrivedwith a bang via a system of wired "trolley cars," which gave the posta certain dramatic punch. But most important was the responsibility andtrust that the job implied. Artists have usually been thought to be nitwitsin the handling of money. No one has ever accused me of that particularfailing.
Both my parents were members of large families, my father being theoldest of eight children and my mother one of nine. All of my fifteenuncles and aunts were either born in the United States or brought herefrom abroad. Even a child could sort them out, if only because of the waythey spokewith or without a foreign accent. (I mention this detail becauseit may have had something to do with my later stressing the need fora specifically American speech in our serious music.) On Sundays we generallyvisited relations in Manhattan or the Bronx, where Grandma Mittenthallived with her youngest son, Nathan, who married late. Iparticularly recall visits to our affluent branch, the Uris family, at theirroomy apartment on upper Madison Avenue. When spring came, the familywent on outings down Ocean Avenue to Brighton Beach in our horseand buggy (the same horse that pulled the delivery wagon On weekdays).By 1914 or thereabouts, we bought our first automobile. One felt like anabsolute plutocrat riding around the neighborhood in that new grayChalmers. Now on Sundays or holidays we were able to travel as far awayas Arverne or Rockaway Beach. My older brothers Ralph and Leon drove,of course, but it was when my lively sister Laurine took the wheel that allheads turned to stare at the sight of a girl driving a car. I learned to drivethe Chalmers from Laurine when I was about sixteen.
In a brief autobiographical sketch, written in 1939 at the invitation ofthe Magazine of Art, I began: "I was born on a street in Brooklyn that canonly be described as drab...." To my surprise, the idea of a composer ofso-called serious music being born on a drab street seems to have caughtthe fancy of many a commentator. But that was the way Washington Avenueseemed in retrospect, long after I had left it. To any boy living there itwould have seemed like an ordinary Brooklyn street. There were ourneighbors Vollmuth the baker, Peper the painter, Levy the butcher, thecandy store man across the street from our house, the large grocery storedown the block (no chain stores yet), and, of course, the corner saloonwith its occasional neighborhood drunks. Culture could hardly be said tobe a familiar word on our street, yet it wasn't entirely absent from the area.A ten-minute walk up Washington Avenue brings you to Eastern Parkwaywhere you will find the Brooklyn Museum. (It was there, aged ten, that Isuffered my first "cultural" shock at the sight of a nude statue.) Ten minutesin the opposite direction from our house was the Brooklyn Academyof Music, where I heard my first symphony concert when I was sixteen.How pleasant it is to be able to point out that both the museum and theacademy continue to fulfill their cultural mission on their respective sitesthree quarters of a century later.
Family life in the Copland household might be characterized as livelyand industrious; there was little dawdling. My father, Harris Copland, wasa strong figure in the eyes of both his family and his employees. Father wasjustifiably proud of what he had accomplished in the business world. Butabove all, he never let us forget that it was America that had made all thispossible. A longtime member of the local Democratic Club, he voted astraight Democrat ticket at every election. Moreover, he depended on theclub for his principal diversion: playing pinochle on many an evening withhis fellow members. Once in a while he took me on an outing. I recallespecially going together to the Lafayette Baths in Manhattan, topped offwith an evening at Minsky's Burlesque!
Of my parents, I was closer to my mother. She might best be describedas everything a maternal parent should be. She was affectionate, and a verynice mother to have. More sensitive than my father, she had profited bythe experience of bringing up the four older children, and by a seven-yearhiatus before I came along. I don't know if our family doctor brought us allinto the world, but Mother had great confidence when one of us was sickthat all would be well once Dr. Dower arrived. Fortunately for us, shecould always be depended upon to act as sympathetic intermediary whenmy fatherreferred to as "The Boss" by everyonehad to be swayed.Mother led a busy, fruitful, and sometimes hectic life between overseeingthe household and aiding my father in the store. If ever she was depressedor irritable, she managed to hide it well. I can only conclude that I musthave inherited some of my own comparative evenness of temperamentfrom my mother.
Because of Mother's involvement in the store, we always had a maid-of-all-workto take charge of household affairs. I remember best Lily Coombs,a native of Barbados, who stayed with us longest and left the deepest impression.Of a calm disposition, she had a gift for intuiting the underlyingmotives of those around her. I was a favorite of hers, and took her seriouslywhen she would prophesy, as she did more than once: "Mr. Aaron, somedayyou're goin' to be swingin' in circles!" As one way of showing my appreciationfor her many kindnesses, I took it upon myself to teach herdaughter Ena how to play the piano. When I was in Paris in the twenties, Iwrote home about a soirée at Mademoiselle Nadia Boulanger's apartmentattended by many famous musicians: "Tell Lil I am finally swingin' in circles!"
Another "servant girl" I particularly remember was Tessie Tevyovitch,from Hungary. It was she who was delegated to accompany me on my annualone-day spree to the Amusement Park at Coney Island. What thefamily never knew was that Tessie had prearranged a rendezvous with aboyfriend at the end of the Coney Island trolley line. That left me free togo off on my own for a glorious day of hair-raising rides, sideshow visits,and hot dog interludes. At the appointed time we met again at the trolleycar barn for the ride home, during which, with a far-off gaze, she seemed tobe lending only half an ear to my excited recital of the daring exploits ofmy day.
Sometime before I was born, my parents had enrolled as members ofBrooklyn's oldest synagogue, Baith Israel Anshei-Emes, situated at Kaneand Court Streets in downtown Brooklyn. On high holy days you weren'tsupposed to ride, and it took us about forty-five minutes to walk there. Bythe time I was almost thirteen and being readied with Hebrew lessons formy Bar Mitzvah, my father had been president of the synagogue for severalyears. By curious coincidence our rabbi, Israel Goldfarb, was himself acomposer of liturgical music and the possessor of a fine baritone voice.Rabbi Goldfarb was a sensitive human being and an effective leader of hiscongregation. The part of my Bar Mitzvah I recall most vividly was thebanquetit actually took place in the store! Relations came from near andfar. The merchandise was moved away and an area cleared where we couldset up tables. Religious observance in the Copland family was mostly amatter of conventional participation rather than a deep commitment toother-worldly experience. Despite this, one very solemn moment remainsvivid in my memory: on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the eldergraybeards of the congregation stretched themselves out prone in the aislesof the synagogue and prayed for forgiveness of man's evil ways. In a lightervein, it was the small dance bands at Jewish weddings and parties that fascinatedme.
School life had begun in the usual way at age six when I was taken bymy mother to be registered at Public School No. 111 at Vanderbilt Avenueand Sterling Place. Our school was situated in the midst of a "nice"neighborhoodthat is to say, Sterling Place boasted rows of upper-middle-classhouses with brownstone fronts. But the trouble was that in walkingthere I had to pass through a few blocks near St. Patrick's CatholicSchool on Dean Street, and that was always "dangerous territory." A Jewishboy had to watch out for himself. For whatever reason, I recall thetough trip to school, but I seem to have blotted out the eight years ofgrammar school attendanceteachers, fellow pupils, and all. I did myhomework, moved ahead each term in the usual way, and graduated fromP.S. 9 in 1914. What left a deeper impression were the summers I spent atboys' camp between 1910 and 1913. Camp Carey was situated on theshores of Lake Carey, not far from Wilkes-Barre in the mountains of Pennsylvania.It was there that I learned to swim (the guy in charge wouldthrow me in and yell, "Swim, you son of a gun, swim!"), to row a boat,and to play tennis. The last was the only sport I was ever any good at.What I remember with special nostalgia, however, were the overnighthikes we used to take along the banks of the Susquehanna River. I can stillhear the wail of the engine whistles of the seemingly endless freight trainson the opposite bank, jangling their way toward Chicago as we slept outunder blankets on the low cliffs above the river. Many years later, in 1976,I was giving a concert in Harrisburg and saw views of what I rememberedof the Susquehanna, and I stood outside to listen for those sounds I hadheard as a boy. One other aspect of summer camp life I still rememberwith considerable pleasure. Though my record at sports was nothing towrite home about, I can recall the satisfaction of being looked up to by theother boys when decisions had to be made. By my third summer at CampCarey, "What does Aaron think?" became a familiar phrase.
My Uncle Alfred played the violin, but I don't recall hearing him oreven seeing him with his instrument. Whatever music we heard at homewas supplied either by my oldest brother, Ralph (violin), or my sister,Laurine (piano). Ralph studied with Heinrich Schradieck, a German violinistof some reputation, while Laurine had her lessons with Mrs. Schradieck.Ralph and Laurine played duets at homemostly potpourris fromoperasbut their top accomplishment was a fair rendition of the MendelssohnViolin Concerto. Ralph was more serious about his music thanLaurine. Her piano studies were for the purpose of accompanying herselfand the rest of us. I clearly recall ragtime and selections from popularshows of the day being played in the evenings at home. One song, "ThePink Lady," made a memorable impression. Music-making at home tookon a glow that the development of the phonograph tended to dissipate.The only phonograph I knew about was at the home of my Mittenthalcousins at 41 Convent Avenue in the Bronx, and there I would sit forhours with my ear to the horn listening to popular records. Laurine, or"La," always the lively one, was a good dancer. She and Josephine triedout their latest dance steps on me. I learned them rather easily, and haveenjoyed dancing ever since I was a boy.
Laurine traveled to Manhattan for singing lessons at the MetropolitanOpera School. She had access to a seat in a box at the old Met, and whenevershe attended a performance, she always brought back a libretto andprogram for my delectation. These served their purpose when I turned seventeenor eighteen and joined the ranks of standees for performances ofCarmen or Tristan at the Met. My brothers and my sister Josephineclaimed that they first became aware of my showing an interest in musicwhen I began hanging about the piano whenever Laurine was practicing,much to her annoyance. If Laurine was fifteen years old, I was seven. Iused to think that my first attempts at "composition" dated from my eleventhyear, but this notion was dispelled when Ralph's wife, Dorothy,whom I had known as a child, produced a letter of mine postmarked"Brooklyn, N.Y., April 19, 1909." Apparently I had been ill and Dorothyhad sent me a present. In my thank-you letter, I am astonished to read thefollowing passage:
Mother said I should tell you in this letter that you
made me very happy this morning when I received your
cherry. I even made up a song with your name in it.
I will be very pleased to sing it for you the
next time I come down, which I hope will be very soon.
With best love to everyone from all, I remain,
These for yourself
X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X
The letter is proof-positive that I was beginning to make up songs at ageeight and a half. The first written-down notes that have survived consist ofabout seven measures for chorus and piano, composed when I was abouteleven. At the top of the page stands the rather ambitious title: "Music foropera, Zenatello, Act I." Also, when I was eleven, I persuaded Laurine tostart me off on piano lessons, and at about this time I decided to re-setCavalleria Rusticana. Laurine must have brought home the libretto. Havingno music paper, I drew a six-line staff and got as far as the offstagewomen's chorus at the start of the opera, about two pages, before givingup. I must have realized even then that opera was tough going. At aboutfourteen, I composed part of a song, "Lola," and copied out music byothers that I could not afford to buy. These feeble attempts are ratheralarming to look at now. I was so naive that I didn't even know how toconnect the notes! But before long, Laurine decided she had taught meeverything she knew, and it was time for me to find a real piano teacher.
Mr. Leopold Wolfsohn was giving lessons to the Uris children. Hisclaim to distinction in our minds was that he was a teacher from Manhattanwho spent one day a week in Brooklyn, giving lessons in a rented studioin the old Pouch Mansion at 345 Clinton Avenue. It took some convincingfor my parents to agree to my piano studiesafter all, they had paidfor lessons for their other kids without remarkable results. But they finallyagreed. It was typical that no one in the family accompanied me when Iwent to arrange for lessons with Mr. Wolfsohn. My parents always had akind of basic confidence in me"If he thinks he can do it, let him do it."Fortunately for me, Wolfsohn was a competent instructor, with a well-organizedteaching method. He used the Hanon book of exercises and wasresponsible for my debut as concert pianist, when after studying with himfor three years he invited me to take part in his annual student concertheld in the spacious auditorium of the Wanamaker Department Store indowntown Manhattan.
It was ironic that my debut should have taken place in a store, of allplaces. The year was 1917, and the piece I was to perform was the Polonaisein B by Paderewski. The one memory that comes to mind in connectionwith my debut is that as I approached the stage to make myentrance, Mr. Wolfsohn suddenly began boxing my ears and head, exclaimingexcitedly: "Don't be nervous, don't be nervous!" I was takencompletely by surprise and couldn't imagine what had come over him.Later, he explained that this was a well-tried expedient for taking a student'smind off his stage fright. Despite this contretemps, I think I acquittedmyself well enough. In any event, I don't believe I ever really seriouslyentertained the idea of embarking on a career as a concert pianist.
My piano debut was not my first public performance. As a child I recitedpoems, particularly one that was called "How Would You Like to Bea Dog?" That was spoken with great emotion. I sang in public too, beforemy voice changed. I was in the Glee Club at Boys' High on Marcy Avenue,where I was enrolled during the years of piano study with Mr. Wolfsohn.Here again, as in grammar school, despite four years of attendancebefore graduation in June of 1918, I recall very little of daily school life. Ido remember that there was not much in the way of musical stimulation.Our teacher, Mr. Flint, was a jokeor so the students thoughtand notan entertaining one. The Latin teacher, when moved to call upon me, alwaysdid so by expressively reciting a line from Julius Caesar: "Yond Cassiushas a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much." An apt description,no doubt, because I was undeniably tall and skinny for my age.
My fellow students made a more lasting impression on me than our instructors,perhaps because I still have the photograph of our graduatingclass. That helps to bring many of them to mind, especially Bob Gordon,Daniel Burns, Gus Feldman, and Frank Carroll. My marks were fairlygood, but if I distinguished myself musically in any way it has left no trace.Again, it was the summers away from home that played a significant rolein my development. After Camp Carey, the summer of 1915 was spent ata YMHA camp. The first half of the summer of 1916 was occupied berry-pickingin Marlboro, New York, to help the war effort by taking the placeof men who were drafted. I went with a small group from Boys' High,picked all day, and slept in the hay in the farmer's barn at night.
By August I must have needed a rest, for the family decided to send meoff to spend a few weeks at the Fairmont Hotel in Tannersville, New York.This was the gathering place for well-known Jewish literary people. There Ibecame friendly with a niece of the original owner of the hotel, Martha("Marty") Dreiblatt. We were chums. I taught her how to canoe, and weplayed tennis together. At the weekly Saturday dances we were both happyto have someone to dance with, and later when we returned to Brooklyn,we occasionally went out dancing or to a show at the Orpheum vaudevilletheater. It was also my good fortune to meet Aaron Schaffer at the Fairmontthat summer of 1916. He was my senior by seven years, a young intellectual,the son of a respected rabbi in Baltimore, and himself a studentat Johns Hopkins University concentrating on French and French literature.Best of all, he was a music lover, who liked nothing better than tohave me play the pieces I was studying and beginning to write. After thatsummer when Schaffer occasionally came to New York from Baltimore, heand Marty Dreiblatt and I would get together, and I would play my latestmusical discoveries for them. (Again, there was "Big Aaron" and "LittleAaron," but this time the roles were reversed.)
The summer of 1917 was divided between more berry-picking and a jobas a runner for a Wall Street brokerage firm. That job consisted of deliveringstocks and bonds to other firms in the areanot too onerous exceptthat the summer heat made it hard on the feet. Nevertheless I went backto Wall Street for a second summer in 1918, but this time I was promotedto an inside job. I looked forward to the lunch periods that year because Ihad come upon a basement bookstore that sold second-hand books inFrench. It was there that I invested in my first French book, a batteredcopy of Alphonse Daudet's play Sappho.
Excerpted from COPLAND by Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis. Copyright © 1984 by Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.