Aaron Copland, the elder statesman of American music, turns 90 today

November 14, 1990|By John von Rhein | John von Rhein,Chicago Tribune

The music world has always prized its elder statesmen, though seldom when they were alive and functioning and able to appreciate the attention.

Our need for such father-figures has perhaps never been greater than at present, when there are so few around. Among the senior American composers, Leonard Bernstein and Virgil Thomson are both gone. Elliott Carter, still active at 81, and William Schuman, 80, are respected figures, although neither precisely qualifies as a household eminence.

That leaves Aaron Copland. He is the one composer nearly every reasonably cultured person thinks of when the subject of serious American music comes up. No matter that he has composed nothing for more than a decade; even in creative absentia he remains, as Thomson once called him, the "President of American music," serving that high office with quiet authority over a career lasting roughly a half-century.

Copland, who is 90 today, is in fragile health and has chosen to grant no interviews or leave his rustic retreat in Peekskill, N.Y., to witness any of the many birthday fanfares that will honor this uncommon man of music.

As composer, conductor, pianist, author, advocate, mediator, promoter, teacher and mentor to two generations of composers, Copland helped to define a kind of creative synergy between American music and American life that does not -- cannot -- exist in today's splintered musical marketplace.

There were other figures working in this aesthetic arena, including his great champion, conductor Serge Koussevitzky, and his composing protege, Bernstein. But Copland was unique among American composers of his generation in possessing the clout, respect and worldwide prestige to make his ideas stick.

It is through his jazz-influenced works -- notably the Piano Concerto and Music for the Theater -- that Copland first found his creative voice. But the jazz idiom proved too limiting for a composer of Copland's questing mind, and he moved on.

Much has been made of his subsequent shifts in musical style. There was the austere, uncompromising Copland of the Piano Variations, Short Symphony and "Statements for Orchestra." There was the populist, accessible Copland of the ballets "Billy the Kid," "Rodeo" and "Appalachian Spring." And there was the born-again modernist who flirted with 12-tone techniques in such works as the Piano Fantasy and "Connotations."

Copland has enriched the repertory with as fine and durable a body of works in all forms as any composer of this century. As his longtime friend and fervent champion, Leonard Bernstein, said of his music, "It's the best we've got, you know."

Happy birthday, Aaron.

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