FBI file 100-HQ-370562 begins simply enough.
On July 21, 1950, the subject, thought “to be self-employed as a composer of music,” is reported linked to communist front groups. Within six months, he is classified outright as a communist.
So begins the government’s surveillance of Aaron Copland, one of the country’s most important composers, creator of such stirring music as “Appalachian Spring,” “Fanfare for the Common Man,” “Billy the Kid” and the patriotic “Lincoln Portrait.”
The government, using informants, spends the next two decades and more monitoring Copland’s whereabouts, analyzing his comments and taking note of his friends and associates.
The result is an inch-thick FBI file, replete with blacked-out passages, released to the Associated Press in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from late 1997.
The papers make clear that the government’s interest in Copland did not end with his 1953 testimony at Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist hearings -- transcripts of which were released this month.
Copland died in 1990 at age 90. He never married.
In dry bureaucratic language, the file discloses that the FBI wanted to prosecute Copland for perjury and fraud for denying he was a communist, and that Director J. Edgar Hoover got involved by enlisting the CIA’s help in tracking the composer’s travels.
“Copland has been abroad for some time and on June 25, 1951, he arrived in New York from Bombay, India, on TWA flight 6022-C,” Hoover wrote to the CIA chief. “It would be appreciated if you would furnish the bureau any information you have received concerning Copland’s activities while abroad.”
Copland’s music was pulled from President Eisenhower’s inaugural concert in 1953 because of the suspicions about his politics. He denied being a communist when called to testify to Congress.
After the perjury-fraud investigation was dropped, Copland sought State Department guidance in 1956 on an invitation to attend an expenses-paid convention of Soviet composers. He asked whether the department encouraged U.S. citizens to accept such trips.
“Although I am free to go,” Copland wrote, “I would not wish to attend the convention without the advice of the Department.” The file suggests he did not make the trip.
Copland was deleted from the FBI’s “security index” in 1955. In 1958, its “security-type investigation” of the composer was put on “closed status” but remained “subject to being reopened.”
But the scrutiny of his activities continued. For nearly two decades after that, memos and newspaper clippings trickled in with details of Copland’s doings.
The investigation ended in 1975. A three-page FBI memo concluded there was “no additional pertinent information concerning the captioned individual.”
Left unanswered, however, is the question of whether Copland was a communist.
Terry Teachout, a New York-based music critic and commentator, said there is no question in his mind that the man sometimes called the “dean of American music” was a communist sympathizer.
“He was involved with the Communist Party up to his ears,” Teachout said. “Whether or not he was an actual card-carrying member of the party, nobody knows.”
Teachout noted, among other things, a 1934 speech by Copland to Minnesota farmers suspected of being communists.
Copland also supported the 1936 Communist Party presidential ticket, the FBI file says.
“The espousal of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates of the Communist Party surely means some degree of Communist sympathy.”
But Vivian Perlis, an American music historian at Yale University who spent hours interviewing Copland for a two-volume autobiography, said he was not a communist -- and was not political at all.
Quincy Hilliard, a composer and University of Louisiana music professor who has studied Copland’s life and music, laughed at the notion of him as a closet communist.
Unlike other beginning musicians who studied abroad in the 1920s, Hilliard said Copland returned from his first study trip to Paris bent on composing music that did not sound European.
Copland “was very interested in writing music that sounded American and that most people would recognize as American,” he said. Indeed, Copland blended jazz rhythms of the South, Appalachian folk songs and cowboy tunes from the prairie to create a distinctly American brand of classical music.
That did not seem to matter much to the government.
Guilt by association
Confidential government sources and newspaper reports helped document Copland’s alleged communist involvement in the 1930s and 1940s, suggesting guilt by association.
One newspaper report says he was as “one of 450 persons who signed a statement urging the president and Congress to defend the rights of the Communist Party.” The FBI file also includes a list of more than 40 “communist projects” to which the composer was linked.
Scrutiny of Copland peaked on May 26, 1953, with a two-hour, closed-door hearing before McCarthy’s investigations subcommittee, which was examining communism in the United States.
Copland repeatedly denied affiliating knowingly with communists and said he withdrew from some organizations when they were branded as communist-controlled. Copland said he signed many petitions in support of liberal causes, but told McCarthy that his involvement was superficial.
“I spend my days writing symphonies, concertos, ballads, and I am not a political thinker,” he said.
Copland was called to testify because he had been hired by the State Department to lecture overseas, and he complained at the hearing about having to appear just days after receiving a subpoena.
A victim of politics
Copland seemed to take that period of his life in stride.
“I became a victim of a political situation,” he said in his memoirs. “I tried to carry on as usual. But I lost a great deal of time and energy (not to mention lawyers’ fees) preparing myself against fictitious charges.”
“It was not a happy time. What can one do but go through it and carry on.”
Copland declined to discuss McCarthy in the interviews with Perlis.
“He was just very proud of his honesty and his integrity, and I think he was very hurt by the whole thing,” Perlis said.
Three months after the hearing, Copland again denied being a communist in an affidavit submitted with a passport application. The statement went against information provided by the government informants, and formed the basis of the FBI’s perjury and fraud investigation.
Copland had said he began cutting his ties to leftist groups after learning some of them might be “communist or communist front.” This may explain why the FBI ultimately dropped the perjury investigation.
In December 1955, Assistant Atty. Gen. William Tompkins concluded in a memo that there was “insufficient evidence to warrant prosecution.”