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Aaron Copland, Dean of American Composers

by Legacy Staff

Aaron Copland, known as the Dean of American Composers, died 20 years ago on this day. In his honor, we present 20 facts about his life and work.

Aaron Copland, known as the Dean of American Composers, died 20 years ago on this day. In his honor, we present 20 facts about his life and work.

1. Born Nov. 14, 1900, in Brooklyn as the youngest of five children, Copland grew up in a musical family. Though his father had little interest in music, his mother studied piano and arranged for her children to do the same. Aaron’s brother Ralph played the violin, while his sister Sarah attended the Metropolitan opera school.


2. At 7 Copland wrote his first melody, seven bars of music to be included in an opera called Zenatello. By 15 he had decided he wanted to be a composer.

3. While he studied classical composers and submitted to formal lessons about harmony, theory and composition, he also played in local dance bands after graduating from high school.

4. Eschewing college, he instead went to Paris and eventually studied under the esteemed Nadia Boulanger, whose adepts later included Quincy Jones and Phillip Glass.

5. Returning to the U.S. in 1925, he moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where he would remain for the next 30 years, and was able to make ends meet largely by being awarded two Guggenheim grants. He also lectured and taught.

6. Alfred Stieglitz, photographer and husband of painter Georgia O’Keefe, was instrumental in shaping a young Copland’s ambitions as Stieglitz called for the creation of uniquely, unmistakably American art. Copland’s compositions would be increasingly informed by jazz and American popular music.

7. This also coincided with his interest in the German Gebrauchmusik movement, which was interested not in music for music’s sake, but in compositions with an identifiable purpose, be it music composed for theatre, dance or the instruction of amateur musicians.

8. During the 1930s, Copland became friendly with many of the leading figures in the New York theatre scene. Early on, he worked with Stella Adler’s and Lee Strasberg’s hugely influential Group Theatre as a musical advisor. He’d later make the acquaintance of figures like Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets, Thornton Wilder, Edward Albee and Arthur Miller.

9. In 1939 Copland scored his first music for film, writing the music for Of Mice and Men and Our Town. He was nominated for an Academy Award for the former, and would soon command as much as $15,000 a film.

10. He’d again be nominated for his film work on The North Star and would win the award for his score to 1949’s The Heiress.

11. The year 1939 also saw his first successful ballet score for a production of Billy the Kid. When asked how someone who’d lived almost all his life in Manhattan so well managed to capture the spirit of the American west, he replied, “It was just a feat of imagination.”

12. His 1942 composition for brass and percussion, Fanfare for the Common Man, remains today his most often played piece of music. Written at the request of Cincinnati conductor Eugene Goosens and intended as a national morale booster, it continues to be used to this day.

13. Fanfare for the Common Man has been used to open a number of Democratic Conventions. It played before the inauguration celebration concerts of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The piece has also opened concerts for the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan and has been incorporated into musical works by Styx, Asia, and Emerson Lake & Palmer.

14. Fanfare for the Common Man also played during the opening of Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally.

15. Another patriotic piece, A Lincoln Portrait, features a full orchestra playing while a narrator reads excerpts from Abraham Lincoln’s most beloved speeches. Narrators who’ve performed the piece to orchestra backing include Alec Baldwin, Tom Hanks, Walter Cronkite, Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston, Vincent Price, Paul Newman, Carl Sandburg, Al Gore, Gregory Peck and James Taylor.

16. A Lincoln Portrait was to be played at the inauguration concert for President Eisenhower, but was withdrawn because Copland was suspected of being a Communist, largely because of his association with left-leaning theatre figures in the 1930s and his penchant for international travel – though he was also against militarism and believed the Cold War was instigated by the United States. He was blacklisted and eventually called before Congress, where he testified that he was not and had never been a member of the Communist Party.

17. Appalachian Spring, another of Copland’s most quintessentially American scores, was composed for ballet at the behest of Martha Graham. The title was based on a Hart Crane poem, and a traditional Shaker song, “Simple Gifts,” forms the core of its melody. It would win the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

18. Copland spent much of the 1950s and ’60s travelling in Europe and exposing himself to avant-garde composers. Though he himself had more conservative musical tendencies, he also appreciated the work of John Cage, declaring, “I’ve spent most of my life trying to get the right note in the right place. Just throwing it open to chance seems to go against my natural instincts.”

19. Throughout the 1960s, he increasingly turned to conducting, with somewhat mixed results. Orchestra members liked his friendly, no-nonsense approach, but some critics felt he took too few chances and was better off leaving the interpretation of his own work to others.

20. During the 1980s, his health deteriorated and he effectively quit working. On Dec. 2, 1990, he died of complications related to Alzheimer’s disease.

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