He was taking the warm afternoon air on the sun deck of his glass-walled home set on four acres of sturdy pines and big rocks 35 miles north of New York. No neighbor can behold him there. Absolute quiet helps a lot in his line of work. His green Mercedes was in the driveway. His cook was in the kitchen. And because he is an uncomplicated man, Aaron Copland was clearly pleased that his friends were making such a fuss over him. The country’s best-known composer was 75 this month, an event that marks a time of enormous personal satisfaction.
This fall there are far more performances than ever before of Copland’s music, more requests for him to conduct it at good fees (as much as $5,000 for two appearances), and more public tributes around the country than he can attend. Those proliferating rites have forced the shy, hawk-faced man to face up to his celebrity as America’s preeminent classical composer.
Even in the commercial music market, there is proof. It is not a boast he volunteers, but if pressed, he will acknowledge that he is the first American composer to live comfortably on royalties of the scores he has written for symphony orchestras. He receives $30 every time his Lincoln Portrait is performed, $35 for El Salón México, $42.50 for the simple ballet score he wrote for dancer Martha Graham, who named it Appalachian Spring after a line by Hart Crane. “What a nice name, Martha,” Copland told her. “Does it have anything to do with the ballet?” “No,” she said, “I just liked it.”
Where did he write Appalachian Spring? “At a piano,” Copland says straight out. It was always considered shameful to compose that way—rather than at a desk with the artist “hearing” the music in his head—until Stravinsky admitted that he did. “Then it became okay,” Copland says. “The trouble now is that laymen think I go to a piano, touch a key and ask myself, ‘Do I like that?’ Then I touch three more and ask again. It doesn’t really work that way. Something directs my hands. I don’t know why or where. But something makes me do that rather than this. And having played the piano for years, for me it’s like using a typewriter.”
He has produced close to 100 works at his piano bench, including ballet scores for Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins, a clarinet concerto for Benny Goodman, the film score for Our Town and Connotations for Orchestra—the first work commissioned from an American for performance in New York’s Lincoln Center. The composer has also put in quite a bit of typewriter time—three books of essays on music and the Norton lectures on “Music and Imagination” that he delivered at Harvard in 1951-52.
Harvard produced Copland’s most illustrious advocate, Leonard Bernstein, who regards Copland as music’s high priest in America. “Aaron is Moses,” says Bernstein, who has made Copland’s music so well known through recordings that Copland is doing more conducting this year than Bernstein. Copland conducts mostly Copland, of course, but other Americans too, including Bernstein occasionally.
The septuagenarian composer was born in Brooklyn on Nov. 14, 1900, went to public schools there and decided before he left high school to write music. He bypassed college and headed directly for Paris, eventually to study with Nadia Boulanger. That intensely cerebral French teacher thought him such a talent that in 1923 she recommended him to her friend Serge Koussevitzky, then on his way to the U.S. to take over the Boston Symphony. It was an introduction that eventually paid off hugely for Copland. But when he first got back to the U.S., the best he could manage was playing piano at night in a hotel bar trio in Milford, Pa. During the day he wrote a symphony for pipe organ and orchestra that another Boulanger friend, Walter Damrosch, premiered in New York. It sounds tame now but was revolutionary then, and Damrosch turned to his clearly ungrateful audience and said, “If a young man at the age of 23 can write a symphony like that, in five years he will be ready to commit murder.”
Copland has never harmed a soul and, remaining unmarried, has been altogether pleased with the life he has led. Koussevitzky provided him with the Boston Symphony as a kind of tryout orchestra for almost anything he wrote. “Koussevitzky told me I must compose and write, not waste my time conducting,” Copland recalls.
But has conducting actually kept him from composing? Copland cannot, in all honesty, say it is so. “I was never a very productive composer. Two works a year seems like a lot to me, but it isn’t much,” Copland says. “No, I never felt that conducting was a way of getting away from my work. I try to feel guilty about it but I don’t succeed. After 50 years of expressing myself, fresh, beautiful ideas don’t occur as easily.”