Aaron Copland, who sought a recognizable American sound in serious music and was considered the nation’s finest living composer, died Sunday.
He died in Phelps Memorial Hospital in Westchester, N. Y. only two weeks after his 90th birthday, an occasion noted with celebrations and tributes from throughout the land.
He had suffered two strokes and died of the complications from them, said his attorney, Ellis Freedman.
Copland’s true achievement, concert pianist Samuel Lipman once observed, was not the composer’s use of rhythm, harmony, counterpoint or inventive structure, but his ability to evoke through melody the “mood of America” from the Civil War to World War II.
Copland, wrote the esteemed pianist, “catches the emptiness of the city and the quiet of the land. He has succeeded in fixing in the mind of a large public an aural image of what America, and therefore American music, sounds like.”
Unlike other serious composers, the Brooklyn-born Copland did not spurn writing for the masses, although many of his works were abstract and some could be attempted by only the most skilled musicians. Compositions such as “Piano Variations” were not meant for everybody.
(In 1928, during his first trip to the West, Copland heard another of his keyboard pieces, “Piano Concerto” with its frequently changing rhythms, hissed during rehearsal and again in concert at the Hollywood Bowl.)
But the sweep of his honors attests to his wide appeal. They included a Pulitzer Prize, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Guggenheim Foundation’s first music fellowship and an Oscar.
“He was the composer who would lead American music out of the wilderness,” Leonard Bernstein wrote in High Fidelity magazine for the occasion of Copland’s 70th birthday. “He was The Leader, the one to whom the young always came with their compositions.”
Early in his career, when he searched jazz and folk songs as well as Latin rhythms to find new musical forms, he was considered by many too avant-garde for the concert hall.
He reached a wide audience with his ballet compositions: “Billy the Kid,” “Rodeo” and “Appalachian Spring,” the last written for dancer Martha Graham.
His “Fanfare for the Common Man” became an anthem played around the world and was heard in such disparate places as the opening ceremony of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and the 1981 inauguration of Ronald Reagan in Washington.
He did not consider himself above writing background music for films--"Of Mice and Men,” “Our Town,” “North Star” and “The Red Pony"--and for several years that work provided his main source of income.
His Academy Award came for the score for William Wyler’s 1949 “The Heiress.”
Copland, the youngest of five children of Russian Jewish immigrants, did not begin taking formal piano lessons until he was 12 or 13 and it was not until he was 15 that, he said, “the idea of becoming a composer seems gradually to have dawned upon me.”
That was an advanced age for a future professional composer to begin training, it was noted by Copland biographer Arthur Berger, “but his determination was such that things went rapidly.”
After studying piano with various teachers and learning composition under Rubin Goldmark, who believed some of his pupil’s efforts mere “modern experiments,” 20-year-old Copland went to France to enroll in a new music school for Americans at Fontainebleau.
He could afford to go there, Berger pointed out, because his immigrant father had a department store in New York and young Copland drew a “nice allowance” to supplement what he had earned working in the store and as a runner on Wall Street.
At Fontainebleau, Copland met harmony teacher Nadia Boulanger and was overwhelmed by what he said was her enthusiasm and “clarity in teaching.” He became the first of several noted American composers who studied under her.
In post-World War I Paris, where Copland went to study with Boulanger, he found himself caught up in the excitement over the experimenting European composers--Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, Bela Bartok and Arnold Schoenberg.
He wrote a one-act ballet, “Grohg,” from which he later extracted three movements to form his “Dance Symphony,” subsequently winning with it a $5,000 prize in a 1930 contest sponsored by RCA Victor Co.
It was during his three years in France, Copland said later, that he became aware that French music sounded distinctly French.
“I couldn’t understand why we in America couldn’t create serious music which people would recognize as typically American,” he told an interviewer before his 80th birthday, “particularly since the jazz boys and the ragtime fellows had succeeded in doing it.”
He made up his mind to write serious music that would reflect America’s diversity and somehow capture the national character.
When he returned to the United States at 23, Copland earned his living for a time playing in a Milford, Pa., hotel trio--while writing for Boulanger a “Symphony for Organ and Orchestra” she was to perform with conductor Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony Orchestra.
At the end of the initial performance, which was not very successful by all accounts, Damrosch told the audience: “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.”
It was not clear what Damrosch meant, but at a time when modern composers were regarded as doing little more than trying to shock the public, he may have felt that Copland’s talent could bring him intense frustration.
A month later, the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed Copland’s symphony. Its conductor, Russian-born Serge Koussevitsky, was so enthusiastic about the young composer that he asked him to write a chamber orchestra piece to be performed at a League of Composers concert.
Copland decided he had drawn upon European influences too much for his symphony, so he drew upon the jazz idiom for “Music for the Theatre.” Biographer Berger observed that Copland, with his superb training, could utilize advanced harmonies that were beyond George Gershwin.
Although the league concert audience took “Music for the Theatre” in stride, the general symphony public did not.
Berger wrote that “a veritable cabal was formed against the work . . . among staid Boston listeners, some of whom claimed that such music had no place in Symphony Hall and that Koussevitsky had given it with disguised malice, namely as a foreigner who wanted to show how bad American music is.”
In a 1975 New York Times interview, Copland recalled the difficulties of trying to write serious music that would appeal to a larger public without alienating those willing to accept only traditional forms.
He told of fellow composer Roy Harris, who “was interested in writing big, serious symphonies in the Sibelius vein,” being aghast at the jazz-flavored work Copland was writing for the Boston Symphony. Copland told the interviewer:
“I remember him jumping up and holding his head between his hands and shouting, ‘My God, it’s whorehouse music! It’s whorehouse music!’ ”
Nevertheless, it was at the time of this brouhaha that Copland became the first composer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship.
By 1927, he decided he had done as much as he could with jazz and he went on to a new phase, producing “Piano Variations,” “Short Symphony” and “Statements.”
They were difficult to perform or to understand. Critics noted that Copland was using dissonance, irregular rhythms and unmelodic themes. He had become a leading figure in modern music.
Copland, however, was increasingly uncomfortable with the failure of composers to reach the music-loving public.
So Copland went to a new style, composing and orchestrating by 1936 “El Salon Mexico,” based on Mexican melodies. It was an immediate success.
As he sought a broader audience and the true American musical idiom, Copland drew upon such folk sources as cowboy songs, New England hymns and Shaker melodies.
He wrote a play-opera for high school performance, “The Second Hurricane,” as well as incidental music for two plays and even a puppet show that was presented at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
His three major ballets were responsible for most of his fame. “Appalachian Spring” won him the 1944 Pulitzer Prize for music as well as the New York Music Critics’ Award as the outstanding theatrical composition for 1944-45.
He wrote music especially commissioned for radio performance and composed for films without, the critics said, sinking to the level of many Hollywood scores.
In fact, Arthur Berger wrote, Copland “exerted an influence on some of the resident, routine composers there and helped raise the general standards.”
In writing about Copland, pianist Lipman observed that “notwithstanding this opening to the masses,” the composer already had resumed his interest in more abstract music with “Piano Sonata,” “Sonata for Violin and Piano” and his “Third Symphony.”
The last was called by Koussevitsky “the greatest American symphony” and was the New York Music Critics’ choice for the best orchestral piece of the 1946-47 season.
Copland’s career also included his work as a performer of his own music and as a conductor--both in concert and on recordings.
He wrote three books: “Our New Music,” “What to Listen for in Music” and “Music and Imagination.” He also wrote articles for various magazines while others wrote several books and hundreds of articles about him.
Copland was celebrated at length and interviewed often at the time of his 80th birthday in 1980, three years after his last composition “Midsummer Nocturne.” He was living, as he had for years, in a rambling hilltop house overlooking the Hudson River at Peekskill, N. Y.
His 90th birthday was marked by concerts and tributes stretching across the country. But this time his health was too frail for interviews or even comment.
He never married and lived alone with his grand piano, stacks of music manuscript, dog and cat. A housekeeper, a cook and a secretary attended to his needs.
“This is my hideaway, my solitude,” he told one reporter many years ago. “You know what the composer’s life is like in Manhattan. The telephone is always ringing, people are always dropping in. You are expected to go places and take part.
“It’s a matter of keeping yourself free from interruptions.”