Aaron Copland

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In honor of Copland's 70th birthday on November 14, 1970, Bernstein wrote this article, entitled "Copland at 70: An Intimate Sketch." The two musicians had been close friends since their first meeting in 1937. By 1970, Copland had virtually stopped composing. Bernstein reminisces about the development of their friendship, and attempts to explain Copland's creative lapse.

On November 14, Aaron Copland will be seventy years old. November 14--it's a date seared into my mind. Two of the most important events of my life occurred on that day, the first in 1937, the second in 1943--and so I never forget Aaron's birthday.

In the fall of 1937 I had just begun my junior year at Harvard. Although I had never seen Copland, I had long adored him through his music. He was the composer who would lead American music out of the wilderness, and I pictured him as a cross between Walt Whitman and an Old Testament prophet, bearded and patriarchal. I had dug up and learned as much of his music as I could find; the Piano Variations had virtually become my trademark. I was crazy about them then--and I still find them marvelous today--but in those days, I especially enjoyed disrupting parties with the work. It was the furthest you could go in avant-garde 'noise,' and I could be relied upon to empty any room in Boston within three minutes by sitting down at the piano and starting it.

. . . On magical November 14 [a friend and I] came to New York . . . to the Guild Theater on Broadway for [a dance] recital [by Anna Sokolow]. Our seats happened to be in the first row of the balcony; I made my way through. . . . Already in his seat on my right was an odd-looking man in his thirties, a pair of glasses resting on his great hooked nose and a mouth filled with teeth flashing a wide grin. . . . [Our friend] leaned across to greet him, then introduced us: 'Aaron Copland . . . Leonard Bernstein.' I almost fell out of the balcony.

At the end of the recital, Copland announced that it was his birthday, that he was having a few people up to his 'loft' (Aaron Copland's famous loft! Where he worked!) and would we care to join them.

As was my shameless wont, I gravitated to the piano. Naturally, I began with the Variations. . . . From that time on, Aaron and I were fast friends. He seemed to be terribly taken by the conviction with which I played his music and even made such extravagant remarks as, 'I wish I could play it like that.' And thereafter, whenever I came to New York I went to Aaron's. . . . And all during those years I would bring him my own music for his criticism. . . . I would show Aaron the bits and pieces and he would say, "All that has to go. . . . This is just pure Scriabin. You've got to get that out of your head and start fresh. . . ." And in these sessions he taught me a tremendous amount about taste, style and consistency in music. . . . Aaron became the closest thing to a composition teacher I ever had.

. . . I was not, certainly, the only young musician for whom Aaron was a beacon. In America he was The Leader, the one to whom the young always came with their compositions. Every premiere of a new Copland work found the concert hall filled with young composers and musicians.

. . . But then, after the war, the Schoenberg syndrome took hold and was heartily embraced by the young, who gradually stopped flocking to Aaron; the effect on him--and therefore on American music--was heartbreaking. . . . When [Aaron] started writing twelve-tone I figured that it was inevitable. . . . But still I asked him, 'Of all people, why you--you who are so instinctive, so spontaneous? Why are you bothering with tone rows and with the rules of retrograde and inversion, all that?' And he answered me, 'Because I need more chords. I've run out of chords.' And that lasted for four more pieces and then he didn't write any more. How sad for him. How awful for us.

Of course, as Aaron himself pointed out, . . . how many composers have lived into their late sixties still writing? We know the obvious example of Verdi, who at sixty thought he was through as an operatic composer . . . only to emerge after a fifteen-year hiatus, in his mid-seventies, with his two masterpieces Otello and Falstaff. Perhaps, we can hope, this will happen to Aaron. All it will take, it seems to me, is another musical turn, this time to a rediscovery of the basic simplicities of art, in which Copland will once more be looked to as a leader, will once again feel wanted as a composer.

Happy Birthday, Aaron. We miss your music.




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