Timeline: Aaron Copland

Feb 27, 2017

As a composer, Aaron Copland desired to be as American in his music as Mussorgsky and Stravinsky were Russian. He was always interested in expressing his Inscape, the true emotions happening within him. His writings, music and instruction helped bring the rigor of the European tradition to American music and influenced a generation of composers.

Copland’s parents were immigrants to the United States and settled in Brooklyn, New York. He was the fifth of seven children and his first piano teacher was his older sister. He learned as much as he could from her and then went out on his own to seek further instruction from various pianists in New York. As a teenager, he began to take lessons in harmony and counterpoint from Karl Goldmark. But Goldmark was devoted to the Romantic masters, Beethoven and Wagner, while Copland was far more interested in the works of Debussy and Ravel.

When he was 20, Aaron moved to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger. In his four years as her pupil, he traveled extensively across Europe, met Prokofiev and Milhaud and was exposed to the music of Webern, Bartok and Hindemith. Nadia commissioned Copland to compose his Organ Symphony for her first American tour in 1924.

When Aaron returned to New York, his European experience and pedigree earned him quite a reputation. He joined with Roger Sessions, another young composer, and together they produced concerts of new music from 1928-31. Copland’s writing about music became influential in multiple cultures. He was a well-respected teacher and was sought out by many younger composers, including Leonard Bernstein.

Aaron Copland wrote for film and the concert stage, but some of his best known works were his ballets: Billy the Kid, Rodeo and Appalachian Spring. The titles of these works display Copland’s individual style he cultivated in the middle of the 20th century – a distinct American voice. He utilized folk tunes and harmonic idioms that evoked the people and culture of America, much in the same way that Dvorak and Bartok exemplified their nationalism.

Aaron Copland photographed composing at the piano in 1962.
Credit US-PD

By the 1950s, Copland’s popularity with younger composers began to wane. He flirted with other styles of music yet his voice remained consistent even as the musical landscape of the 60s and 70s changed around him. He retired from teaching in 1965 and lived at Cortlandt Manor in New York. His health slowly deteriorated and he lost his battle will Alzheimer’s in 1990. After his death, his substantial wealth became a charitable fund benefiting composers and performers of new music.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Listen through the Timeline on our new web app.