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Aaron Copland

he worked to make classical music accessible to and enjoyable for young Americans

Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 14, 1900, the son of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. He learned to play piano from an older sister, and by the age of fifteen had decided he wanted to be a composer. To get himself started he took piano lessons from Leopold Wolfsohn, and studied harmony and counterpoint with Rubin Goldmark. He also studied with Victor Wittgenstein and Clarence Adler. After high school he spent about three years playing piano, first at the Finnish Socialist Hall and then, during the summers, in the Catskill Mountains. In 1921 he decided to continue his studies at the American Conservatory at Fontainbleau, near Paris, where he became the first American student of Nadia Boulanger. He sold his first composition, Scherzo Humoristique (The Cat and the Mouse), that same year, to Durand and Sons, the most respected publisher in France. He studied at the conservatory until 1924.

Copland returned to New York with an organ concerto written especially for the American appearances of Madame Boulanger; Symphony for Organ and Orchestra premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1925.

Throughout most of the 1920's, Copland's compositions relied heavily on the jazz idioms of the time. As the first genuinely American major musical movement, he believed it could help him create symphonic music easily distinguishable from that of Europe. In the late 1920's he turned to popular music of other countries for inspiration. By the mid-1930's he was composing for the movies and ballet. In the 1950's he slowed his work as a composer to try his hand at conducting. He stopped composing entirely in 1970, but continued to lecture and conduct through the mid-1980's.

In addition to his work as a composer and conductor, Copland also worked to make classical music accessible to and enjoyable by young Americans. With Roger Sessions, he began the Copland-Sessions concerts (1928-1932), dedicated to presenting the works of young composers In 1932 his dream of bringing classical music to a young American audience came true with the Yaddo Festival of American Music; another festival was held the following year as well. And, from 1965 to 1966, he wrote, conducted, and hosted a series of twelve television programs, Music in the 20s, for National Educational Television.

As if all of the above were not enough, Copland also taught music to young people, at the New School for Social Research (1927-?), Harvard University (1935), the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood (1940-1965), and as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetics at Harvard University (1951-1952).

Aaron Copland died on December 2, 1990, at Tarrytown, New York.

Major Works

Scherzo Humoristique (1921)
Symphony for Organ and Orchestra
Dance Symphony (1925)
Music for the Theater (1925, for the League of Composers)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1926)
Symphonic Ode (1927-1929, for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1930)
Piano Variations (1930)
El Salón México (1935)
Billy the Kid (1938, ballet commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein for the Ballet Caravan)
Of Mice and Men (1938, movie score)
Our Town (1940, movie score)
Rodeo (1942, ballet for Agnes DeMille)
A Lincoln Portrait (1942, for the Cincinnati Symphony)
Fanfare for the Common Man (1942, for the Cincinnati Symphony)
Appalachian Spring (1944, ballet commissioned by Martha Graham)
Third Symphony (1944-1946)
Clarinet Concerto (1947-1948, for Benny Goodman)
The Heiress (1949, movie score)
Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson (1950)
The Tender Land (1954, opera)
Connotations (1962, for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra)
Inscape (1967, for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra)
He Got Game (movie score for Spike Lee)


What to Listen for in Music (1939)
Our New Music (1941)
Music and Imagination (1952)
Copland on Music (1960)
The New Music: 1900-1960 (1968)
Copland: 1900 Through 1942 (1984)
Copland: Since 1943 (1989)

he also wrote 60+ articles and essays on music


1925-1926 and 1926-1927 -- Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship
1929 -- RCA Victor Competition -- Dance Symphony)
1945 -- New York Music Critic's Circle Award -- Appalachian Spring)
1945 -- Pulitzer Prize -- Appalachian Song)
1947 -- New York Music Critic's Circle Award -- Third Symphony)
1950 -- Academy Award for Best Score, 1950 -- Of Mice and Men)
1956 -- Gold Medal in Music from the National Institute and American Academy of Arts and Letters
1956 -- honorary Doctor of Music from Princeton University
1961 -- MacDowell Colony Medal for distinguished service in the field of music
1964 -- Presidential Medal of Freedom
1970 -- Howland Memorial Medal from Yale University
1979 -- Kennedy Center Honors from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
1986 -- National Medal of Arts
1986 -- Congressional Gold Medal


American Academy of Arts and Letters (elected member, 1954)
American Composers Alliance (co-founder, 1937; president 1939-1945)
American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) (elected member, 1946)
Arrow Music Press (co-founder, 1938; treasurer until 1972)
Department of Music of the National Institute of Arts and Letters (elected member, 1942)
Edward MacDowell Association (president, 1961-1968)
League of Composers (1928-1954; on board of directors, 1932-)


The Aaron Copland Collection
American Masters

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This page was last updated on 09/26/2018.