Aaron Copland may have been 20th century's best composer

December 03, 1990|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,Evening Sun Staff

WHEN AARON COPLAND was a young man, he studied music under the composer Rubin Goldmark. Because Goldmark's heroes were Beethoven, Wagner and Fuchs, wrote one biographer, the independent Copland became enamored of composers like Mussorgsky, Debussy, Ravel and Scriabin.

There was something always fresh and individual about Aaron Copland, who died yesterday of pneumonia at a hospital in Tarrytown, N.Y., not far from his Peekskill home. He had recently suffered two strokes. He was a man many 20th century musicians contend was America's finest composer, classical or otherwise. It was a sentiment that many non-musicians simply knew in their gut.

Copland's protege, Leonard Bernstein, knew it and felt it, being the musician and populist he was. Bernstein, who died just weeks before Copland's 90th birthday Nov. 14, said of Copland's music that it was simply "the best we got."

Copland was his own man, the Brooklyn boy, the life-long bachelor, the 20-year-old who ran off to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, the experimenter in jazz and the 12-tone scale, the composer for a half a century and, on the side, teacher, conductor, pianist, inspiration to so many.

When the Peabody Symphony Orchestra played in the Soviet Union recently, Copland's decidedly American anthem "Fanfare for the Common Man" was played and deeply admired by the Soviets, as it has been by so many.

How fitting for the fifth and youngest child of Jewish parents who came Eastern Europe.

How fitting for a young man who learned in Paris to draw inspiration from American stories after seeing how Igor Stravinsky had tapped Russian folklore for his "Rite of Spring."

And how how fitting that while Copland followed up and borrowed from the cowboy Billy the Kid, rodeos, Abraham Lincoln, the Shakers, Yankee Doodle, Springfield Mountain and other melodies, American jazz, the poems of Emily Dickinson and a host of Americana, he wrote original music that was only Aaron Copland's and ultimately America's and the world's.

Copland seemed to try everything musical and he seemed to miss on some, such as modernist scores or his opera, "The Tender Land." Some works first elicited boos or hisses but that in itself is nothing bad for any self-respecting composer.

By unofficial count, he wrote music for eight movies so he could eat ("The Heiress" score won a Pulitzer Prize), more than 30 orchestral works, more than 20 chamber music pieces, some 25 piano pieces, some 12 individual or sets of choral music and a number of songs.

Twenty months ago, the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed a wonderful "Appalachian Spring," the orchestral suite Copland compiled from the ballet he composed for Martha Graham. A listener heard the 1945 piece anew -- far from the Hart Crane poem that inspired its name, far from the Appalachians, far from the Shaker melody and its famous clarinet variations. And the listener felt again that Copland music would be at home anywhere.

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