Aaron Copland

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Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein--two of the greatest figures in American music--first met on November 14, 1937. Adding significance to this chance event, it also happened to be Copland's birthday. The intense, synergetic friendship that developed had a powerful impact on musical culture in the United States for almost half a century.

At the time that they met, Copland (37) was already an established composer, and one of the shining lights of American music. He was the first composer to receive a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, and had played his Piano Concerto with Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra a decade back in 1926. Bernstein (19), was in his junior year at Harvard and had recently learned Copland's starkly modern Piano Variations. As Bernstein recalled many years later in an article for High Fidelity, he "was crazy about" the Variations, and when he was introduced to Copland at a dance recital in New York City he "almost fell out of the balcony."

One year after their initial meeting, Copland came to Boston for the premiere of his short orchestral piece, El Salón Mexico. Bernstein went crazy over this piece, too, and their friendship began to gel. Several times during the first years of their friendship Bernstein asked Copland if he could study composition with him. Although Copland never said no outright, and he often offered constructive criticism for Bernstein's own music, no formal lessons ever took place.

Copland was extremely helpful in getting Bernstein started in his conducting studies, writing letters of recommendation and guiding him to Fritz Reiner's class at the Curtis Institute. Copland also recommended Bernstein to Serge Koussevitzky, the conductor of the Boston Symphony who was to become a mentor to the young conductor. Bernstein and Copland spent many summers together during the early years of Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony.

As the relationship between these two men grew, it became increasingly complex. Copland was an enthusiastic supporter of Bernstein the conductor, but he was rarely effusive about Bernstein the composer. And Bernstein could be sharply critical when he found fault with Copland's music (as in a letter he wrote to Copland regarding the European premiere of the Third Symphony).

Despite its inevitable complications, their long association was overwhelmingly positive and fruitful. Bernstein's musical style, while very much his own, was clearly influenced by the rhythmic freshness and recognizably American style of Copland's music. Bernstein, for his part, championed Copland's music throughout his entire career, and his performances of Copland's music--live and on record--remain unsurpassed.

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