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Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

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Aaron Copland was born in New York at the turn of the century, and developed a uniquely American compositional style. Although his older brother and sister had been given music lessons, Coplandís family did not have a great proclivity towards music. In fact, Coplandís parents initially denied him music lessons as they felt that their older children had not benefited from the study of instruments. Thus, Copland began studying the piano at the late age of fourteen. His sister introduced him to the piano, and Copland soon surpassed her skills. He studied on his own for a year and a half, and then beseeched his parents to hire a music teacher. After studying with a local teacher, Copland made arrangements to take a course in harmony from Rubin Goldmark, a renowned theoretician. Around the age of sixteen, he had begun to develop a great interest in composition.

Although Goldmark introduced Copland to the ftmndamentals of composition and harmony, Goldmark was not open to modern forms of musical expression. Therefore, he did not encourage Coplandís initial works. After completing high school, Copland looked to Europe as the site of musical education. He applied to a new American music school in France, and was the first pupil to be accepted. Initially, Copland found the academic overtones at the Fontainebleu Conservatory to be aggravatingly stuft~,í. However, he soon took a class from Nadia Boulanger, a harmony instructor, under whose direction Coplandís abilities burgeoned. Although it was unusual for a musician to study under a woman, Copland found Boulanger to be receptive to the novelty of contemporary music. He discovered the growth of modern styles, and experimented with his own musical preferences. Boulanger supported Coplandís desire to become a composer, and when he completed his three year course at the conservatory, he returned to New York with a commission from Boulanger to write a symphony.

In 1924 the League of Composers accepted and performed Coplandís music for an upcoming concert. This was the first time that Coplandís music was performed in the United States. Serge Koussevitzky, the director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, became an avid supported of Coplandís works, and continually encouraged him to write new pieces that the Boston Symphony would then perform.

By the age of twenty-five, Coplandís work was well recognized, but he was unable to support himself financially. Fortuitously, he won the Guggenheim Fellowship, enabling him to spend two years without financial obligations. Free to concentrate on composing, he began to write prolifically. In the 1930s Copland began examining his works, and decided to establish a simpler, clearer compositional style that would be more accessible to all audiences. During a significant visit to Mexico City, Copland heard some native dance tunes that he then incorporated into a symphony. He went on to include American folk songs into his music, establishing a decidedly unique compositional style that was beloved by his audiences. He wrote pieces for people from all walks of life, producing operas, radio music, and motion picture theme songs.

Copland emphasized the importance of encouraging other composers to produce new music. He founded the Copland-Sessions concerts and the Yaddo Festival, and worked with the National Society for Contemporary Music. Additionally, Copland became a renowned speaker on musical composition and development. He was granted a doctorate from Princeton, and became a lecturer at Harvard. In addition, President Johnson awarded him the Medal of Freedom in recognition of his patriotic music. A man who transcended the bounds of musical tradition, Copland received the Pulitzer Prize in music. A much celebrated composer, Copland transformed American music, going beyond accepted compositional forms, and discovering an untapped world of beauty and harmony.

Notes by Shanaira Udwadia (June-2001)