What Henry Fonda, James Stewart and John Wayne were to movies, Aaron Copland was to music. Copland, who died on Sunday at age 90, wrote the music that defined what it meant to be an American.
Audiences who listened to "Billy the Kid" swore they could see the high plains and the vaulting mountains; those who heard "Appalachian Spring" could visualize the tender vulnerability of an unspoiled Pennsylvania morning. The irony was that Copland was a Brooklyn Jew who learned about the Wild West from the movies. But he lived at a time when America truly seemed a land of infinite possibilities, when the wild, open frontier of Billy the Kid still existed as a state of mind.
Copland may not have been the greatest American composer of this century, but he was -- at least in his own country -- the most popular. That Copland became as popular as he did was a conscious decision the composer made in the middle 1930s -- not for commercial reasons but for idealistic ones, he said.
"In all the arts, the Depression had aroused a wave of sympathy for and identification with the plight of the common man," Copland recalled. "During the mid-1930s I began to feel an increasing dissatisfaction with the relations of the music-loving public and the living composer. It seemed to me that we composers were in danger of working in a vacuum. I felt it was worth the effort to see if I couldn't say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms."
Most of the pieces on which Copland's popular reputation is based were actually written in the 10-year span that began with "El Salon Mexico" (1936) and ended with the Symphony No. 3 (1946). These pieces -- wonderful as they are -- may not represent achievements of the greatest originality. The most affecting melody in "Appalachian Spring" is the old Shaker hymn, "Tis a Gift to Be Simple," and the most memorable moments in "El Salon Mexico" come from the composer's appropriation of the Mexican folk song, "The Blue Dove." In his most accessible music, Copland showed a genius for selecting good folk tunes and dressing them up.
Before this period Copland wrote music that was as dissonant and austere as the Piano Variations (1930), and after it he wrote music as gnomic as "Inscape" (1967). Perhaps the differences between these periods gave birth to the myth of the "two Coplands" -- the one who wrote Americana such as "Fanfare for the Common Man" (1942) and the one who wrote the thorny "Piano Fantasy" (1957).
In hindsight, however, the pieces from these periods are not that different. Copland had evolved a personal style, with a certain kind of harmony, rhythm and texture that were his alone. In shifting to a more popular kind of writing in the 1930s, most of what he did was to superimpose a type of nationalistic melody over the essential Copland textures.
"Those commentators who would like to split me down the middle into two opposing personalities will get no encouragement from me," Copland once wrote. "I prefer to think that I write music from a single vision; when the results differ it is because I take into account with each piece the purpose for which it is intended."
Unlike many composers -- Sibelius is the best-known example -- Copland did not retreat into silence when his creative powers waned. Neither did he go on writing music for the sake of vanity or willingly allow himself to become a mere celebrity. As early as the 1950s, noting that some musicians were making more from conducting his music than he had ever made from composing it, he set out to become a conductor. (He conducted the Baltimore Symphony on several occasions, most recently in 1978.)
With refreshing candor, Copland admitted that he would neve be a great conductor, but added that "every composer secretly thinks he knows best how his own music should sound."
That kind of honesty can be found in almost every note he ever wrote.