Quiet life but a big sound

Aaron Copland
October 13, 2000

Most of us have heard Fanfare for the Common Man , either in its original incarnation or in the gloriously disrespectful prog-rock version by Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Some of us will be aware that the Fanfare was written in 1942 by Aaron Copland, the composer of such other staples of the concert hall and ballet theatre as Billy the Kid, Appalachian Spring and Rodeo . Yet I suspect that very few will have any substantive knowledge of either Fanfare's composer or the rest of his copious output. This is particularly surprising given the ubiquity of cloned Copland background music on the large and small screens, whether in Death of a Gunfighter (1969), Silverado (1985) or The Little House on the Prairie , and the wide public awareness of the lives and works of George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein, the composers to whom Copland can most easily be compared in terms of ethnic background and musical style. Copland's relative anonymity in the face of such facts says a great deal about the degree to which he placed privacy above publicity, and integrity above intentionality.

Before the publication of Howard Pollack's biography, the principal source of information on "the best (composer) we've got" (as Bernstein memorably put it) was the two-volume semi-autobiography Copland co-wrote with Vivian Perlis. The books lacked a sense of objective distance, and they were criticised for their reticence about the composer's family, friends and romantic relationships. Such complaints could hardly be directed at Pollack, who met the composer only once and to whom Copland for a long time "remained a shadowy figure at some distance from the central concerns of myself, my classmates and my teachers". Having investigated - in his earlier books on Walter Piston, Piston's Harvard students and John Alden Carpenter - much of the musical milieu in which Copland moved, Pollack came to see the need for "a more candid discussion of Copland the man as well as for some new critical thinking about the music". The challenges Pollack faced were twofold: first, to investigate thoroughly the voluminous sources available, and second, to write about Copland in such a way as to balance the potentially conflicting needs of scholars and the general public.

That Pollack has succeeded in meeting the first of these challenges is manifest: his book bristles with fascinating details gleaned from Copland's letters, writings, sketches and drafts, and from interviews conducted with almost all of his surviving friends and associates. We learn of the composer's cautious openness regarding his homosexuality, the crucial formative influence of Alfred Stieglitz and his circle, Copland's perseverance in building a Hollywood career in the 1930s and 1940s, his diplomatic but firm handling of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the meticulousness with which he approached each new composition. Pollack writes with sensitivity rather than sentimentality when confronting delicate issues yet is unafraid of being dispassionate when disassembling myths.

Whether Pollack completely meets the second challenge, however, is moot. Music is, of course, notoriously difficult to write about for all except a specialist audience. In his 1952 Norton lectures, Copland stated: "The artist should feel himself affirmed and buoyed up by his community. In other words, art and the life of art must mean something, in the deepest sense, to the everyday citizen." Accordingly, Pollack deliberately and bravely chooses to discuss Copland's work "without recourse to music examples and with minimal technical jargon".

He also tends to separate Copland's work from his life, by alternating blocks of biographical and analytical chapters: thus "Return and discovery" and "The usable past" (which discuss Copland's return to New York in 1924 after his Parisian studies with Nadia Boulanger) are followed by "From the Organ Symphony to 'Vocalise' (1924-28)" and "From Vitebsk to the Piano Variations (1928-30)". The positive aspects of this approach, if they draw readers closer to Copland's music, are to be applauded; but the dangers of readers skipping over what they might consider the screed should be clear.

Ultimately, though, what distinguishes this volume from the detritus of much musico-biographical writing is its vividness, humanity and scholarly thoroughness. If we open this book with little prior impression of the composer who "stood just over six feet tall, a lanky figure weighing only about one hundred and fifty poundsI (with) his mother's oblong face and craggy features (and) sensitive pale blue-gray eyes that looked out from under heavy lids with a kind of bemused curiosity", then by its end we are fully cognisant of "the startling dichotomy embodied by both the man and his workI (which) encompasses nervous violence and utter calm, austere severity and childlike whimsy, knowing sarcasm and naive tenderness, wistful loneliness and civic solidarity". Pollack's book is, in short, distinctly uncommon and, as a consequence, most welcome.

David Nicholls is professor of music, University of Southampton.

Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man

Author - Howard Pollack
ISBN - 0 571 20084 2
Publisher - Faber
Price - £30.00
Pages - 687

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