Aaron Copland


20th Century

Aaron Copland was born in the last year of the 19th century and lived to near the end of the 20th. He lived through a revolution in classical music and responded to it in two quite different ways. On the one hand, he wrote tough, demanding, ‘modern’ works such as his Piano Variations and Piano Fantasy, which have impressed professional musicians but not been particularly popular. On the other hand, Copland, an admirable and lovable man, felt the need to connect with an audience. So he also wrote what has turned out to be the most popular classical music produced in America in the past 100 years, tuneful, patriotic, breathing the spirit of open spaces and the American dream: Appalachian Spring, the Suite from Billy the Kid, and Rodeo as well as film music.

As a young man, he studied in Paris with the famous French musician Nadia Boulanger, a brilliant teacher, and got to know famous writers and artists like Proust and Picasso. Whether writing ‘serious’ or popular works, he always had a very French clarity of thought and elegance of expression. His very early works were difficult for the audience, because they didn’t have singable tunes. The 1930s and 1940s saw him change direction and produce his most popular works. In later life, he learnt a lot from Schoenberg and tried to apply Schoenberg’s ‘serial’ or ‘twelve-tone’ technique to his own music. As he got older, he found ideas came to him less and less often; he spent more and more time conducting, and was very good at it.

Copland’s music breathes the spirit of America, from its inventiveness to its wide open spaces, from its love of jazz to its idealism and belief in democracy. All his music possesses a humane nobility. After composers die, people sometimes forget their music. This did not happen with Copland. He died much admired as a generous composer, and his music is still listened to. It’s as American as pecan pie!

Aaron Copland, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Copland’s Common Man and more!

Fanfare for the Common Man

This is probably Copland’s most popular and famous piece of all. Sit up and listen!

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Stephen Gunzenhauser

Taken from Naxos 8.550282

Quiet City

Quiet City, written in 1940, describes a city at night-time. Listen to the lonely trumpet that first plays at 0:35, and imagine a city at night: many people asleep, a few people awake and alone with their thoughts, street-lights and shop signs in the dark…

Performers: Paula Engerer, cor anglais; Scott Moore, trumpet; Nashville Chamber Orchestra; Paul Gambill

Taken from Naxos 8.559069

Piano Sonata: II. Vivace

Copland’s solo piano music isn’t as well known as his music for orchestra, but it was very important to him. Here’s the wild and jazzy middle movement of his Piano Sonata – there are a lot of ‘syncopated’ rhythms – hard to nod your head to!

Performers: Benjamin Pasternack, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.559184

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Where did Copland study as a young man?

a. London
b. Paris
c. Barcelona

 He wrote a famous work about which American president?

a. Thomas Jefferson
b. Ronald Reagan
c. Abraham Lincoln

 Which famous American cowboy inspired one of his most popular works?

a. Billy the Kid
b. Sam Bass
c. Jessie James

 As a young man, with which political movement was he associated?

a. Republicanism
b. Anarchism
c. Communism

 His parents’ name was not originally Copland; what was it?

a. Kaplan
b. Cornforth
c. Copeland

Key Facts…

Key Facts…
  1. Copland was Jewish; his parents’ name was originally ‘Kaplan’ but they never told Aaron, who discovered it only late in life.
  2. Copland gradually lost his creativity, perhaps through the effect of Alzheimer’s, from which he eventually died.
  3. As a young man, Copland sympathized with communists. But he changed his mind when he saw how the communists in The Soviet Union persecuted the great Russian composer, Shostakovich.
  4. Copland was influenced by jazz music.
  5. Copland became so popular that he made lots of money and was so generous that he left a great deal to help young composers.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Classic Copland

Appalachian Spring: Suite

Copland’s ravishingly beautiful and very popular Suite from Appalachian Spring (a ballet) begins with a beautiful evocation of the dawn. But be careful you don’t doze off when you’re listening: if you do, you’ll wake up with a bump at 3:07 when the violins introduce a new spikey theme!

Performers: Nashville Chamber Orchestra; Paul Gambill

Taken from Naxos 8.559069

Billy the Kid: Suite

Billy the Kid is a ballet about the famous outlaw who, they said, had killed a man for every year of his life and was shot aged 20 by sheriff Pat Garrett, his one-time friend. You can hear in the music a series of pictures: the open prairie, a gun-battle, a dance, and Billy’s death, after which the open prairie returns.

Performers: Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz

Taken from Naxos 8.571202

El Salón México

Copland wrote this colourful score after spending some time in Mexico in 1932. It was inspired by visits to a Mexico City dance hall called Salón México, and it’s based on popular Mexican musical themes. After the slow introduction, the dance begins to get going… and c. 4.00 the excitement builds. El Salón México (1936) and Billy the Kid (1939) were Copland’s first big hits.

Performers: Detroit Symphony Orchestra; Leonard Slatkin

Taken from Naxos 8.559758

Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes

The ballet Rodeo was a huge success. It celebrates the American West. It is similar to Billy the Kid, but lighter and even more entertaining. It uses several American folk songs.

Performers: Detroit Symphony Orchestra; Leonard Slatkin

Taken from Naxos 8.559758


Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra

One of the most brilliant and unusual concertos for clarinet. The first half is slow and serene, with long lines and wide intervals (spaces between notes) for the clarinet – which means big breaths for the player! Then all on its own, and a bit shy at first, the clarinet gets more playful at c. 7.08. For over two minutes it has cadenza – a showy solo passage – before the orchestra join in the mood at 9.21, the high violins and piano like a ticking clock. Lots of jazz sounds here!

Performers: Laura Ardan, clarinet; Nashville Chamber Orchestra; Paul Gambill

Taken from Naxos 8.559069

Piano Concerto

Copland’s Piano Concerto is a 1920s ‘New York’ piece – brassy, exuberant and swaggering. Its two sections match what Copland thought were the two basic moods of jazz – ‘the slow blues and the snappy number’. When it was first performed, in Boston, Copland played the solo piano part himself. His parents came from Brooklyn to watch him, and Copland wrote later: ‘I was delighted when Ma said it was her proudest moment and that my playing in the Concerto made all those music lessons worthwhile!’

Performers: Benjamin Pasternack, piano; Elgin Symphony Orchestra; Robert Hanson

Taken from Naxos 8.559297


Symphony No. 3

Premiered in 1946, a year after the end of World War II, Copland’s Third Symphony was described by the composer as ‘a wartime piece – or, more accurately, an end-of-war piece – intended to reflect the euphoric spirit of the country at the time.’ So it is full of positivity. The last movement begins by quoting one of his most famous pieces, Fanfare for the Common Man, featured at the top of this page. Can you recognize it?

Performers: Detroit Symphony Orchestra; Leonard Slatkin

Taken from Naxos 8.559844

Film Music

The Red Pony: Suite

Copland wrote the music for eight films. He arranged some of this music into suites. The Red Pony is a film based on a short story by one of Copland’s favourite authors, John Steinbeck.

Performers: Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta

Taken from Naxos 8.559240