Aaron Copland was born in Brooklyn of Russian Jewish immigrant parents. He was the last of five children and the only child who was not given music lessons. However, he picked up the rudiments of the piano from an older sister and then, on his own initiative, began formal piano lessons and later studies in harmony and counterpoint. He also attended concerts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. At 20 Copland followed the path that had become traditional for young American artists: He set off for several years of study and travel in Europe. He returned to the United States in 1924, thoroughly trained in techniques of French modernism and strongly under the spell of Stravinsky, as evident in works composed at this time. But Copland had also become interested his own national heritage and shared with other American composers a desire to cultivate a style both modern and uniquely American. In his own words:
We wanted to find a music that would speak of universal things in a vernacular of American speech rhythms. We wanted to write music on a level that left popular music far behind — music with a largeness of utterance wholly representative of the country that Whitman had envisaged.
He saw his goal as creating “a musical vernacular, which, as language, would cause no difficulties to my listeners” while at the same time “composing in an idiom that might be accessible only to cultivated listeners.” The attempt to reconcile “low brow” and “high brow” has challenged many American composers of the last century and led to new syntheses such as rock opera and symphonic jazz.
Copland’s American orientation is reflected in the subjects of many of his compositions, for example, the ballets Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944); his scores for films based on stories by John Steinbeck, Thornton Wilder, and Henry James; and orchestral works with such titles as John Henry, Lincoln Portrait, and Fanfare for the Common Man. His quotation of folk tunes and use of jazz rhythms, his sturdy, wide-ranging melodies and energetic rhythms, and the openness and clarity of his orchestration are among the “American” features of his style.
At his death, Copland had become one of the most influential figures in American music. In addition to his composing activities, he was a leader in promoting new music through his books and articles, the concerts he organized and musician’s groups he founded, his lectures at Harvard and The New School, and his teaching of young composers. His own creative work received crucial support through private patronage, prizes, and commissions. His many awards include a Pulitzer Prize, an Oscar, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.