10 Interesting Facts About Aaron Copland

by Jacy Burroughs

Aaron Copland in 1970

Aaron Copland in 1970

1. Aaron Copland (November 14, 1900 – December 2, 1990) was born in Brooklyn, New York to a Jewish family. He was the youngest of five children. While his father had no musical inclination, his mother sang and played the piano and sent her children to music lessons. Copland’s sister Laurine gave him his first piano lessons. She attended the Metropolitan Opera School and would bring home libretti for Aaron to study.

2. When Copland was eleven, he wrote his first notated melody, seven bars of an opera he called Zenatello.

3. Copland decided to become a composer at the age of 15, after attending a concert by composer-pianist Paderewski. He began studying harmony, theory and composition with Rubin Goldmark, a noted teacher and composer of American music who had given Gershwin a few lessons. Copland was provided with a solid foundation in the Germanic tradition, but Goldmark did not approve of modern music so Copland kept his more original pieces to himself.

4. Copland spent three years in Paris studying with imminent composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. He was originally skeptical of studying with a woman, but found he liked her very much, calling her an “intellectual Amazon.”

5. In the mid-1920s, Copland returned to the U.S. He and his younger contemporaries formed a group called the “commando unit.” Its members consisted of Roger Sessions, Roy Harris, Virgil Thomson, and Walter Piston. They supported each other by performing their works in joint concerts.

6. During the 1930s, Copland spent some time providing musical advice to The Group Theater, a method acting school run by actors Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg. As World War II took shape in Europe and Hitler and Mussolini attacked Spain in 1936, many Group Theater members united in a Popular Front against Fascism, some even joining the Communist Party. In 1953, Copland would have to testify in front of Congress that he was never a Communist.

7. The 1940s was Copland’s most productive decade. It is during this time that he produced his most famous pieces, including two ballet scores Rodeo (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1944), A Lincoln Portrait (1942) and Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), which are still considered patriotic standards, and his Third Symphony (1944-46).

8. Copland influenced a whole generation of American composers. He taught the likes of Samuel Adler, Leonard Bernstein, Alberto Ginastera, Alvin Lucier, and Michael Tilson Thomas. His student Leonard Bernstein would become the foremost conductor of Copland’s works.

9. From the 1960s until his death, Copland turned from composing to conducting. He felt that “someone had simply turned off the faucet” because he was coming up with no new ideas for compositions. He made frequent appearances as a guest conductor in the U.S. and U.K. and recorded his own works for Columbia Records. Sadly, he suffered from Alzheimer’s in his last years and died on December 2, 1990.

10. Copland received numerous awards throughout his long career. He earned the Pulitzer Prize in composition for Appalachian Spring. As a film composer, his scores for Of Mice and Men (1939), Our Town (1940), and The North Star (1943) received Academy Award nominations and The Heiress won the Oscar for Best Music in 1950. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. In 1986, he earned the National Medal of Arts and in 1987 the United States Congress presented him with a special Congressional Gold Medal.

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Jacy Burroughs is the Assistant E-Commerce Marketing Manager for Sheet Music Plus. She has degrees in horn performance from the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  She is a freelance horn player in the Bay Area.

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