Aaron Copland (November 14, 1900 – December 2, 1990) was an American composer of concert and film music. Instrumental in forging a uniquely American style of composition, he was widely known as "the dean of American composers." Copland's music achieved a difficult balance between modern music and American folk styles, and the open, slowly changing harmonies of many of his works are said to evoke the vast American landscape. He incorporated percussive orchestration, changing meter, polyrhythms, polychords and tone rows. Outside of composing, Copland often served as a teacher and lecturer. During his career he also wrote books and articles, and served as a conductor, most frequently for his own works.
Copland was born in Brooklyn, New York, of Lithuanian Jewish descent. His father's surname was "Kaplan" before he anglicized it to "Copland" while in England, before immigrating to the United States. He spent his childhood living above his parents' Brooklyn shop. Although his parents never encouraged or directly exposed him to music, at age 15 he had already taken an interest in the subject and aspired to be a composer. His music education included time with Leopold Wolfsohn, Rubin Goldmark (also one of George Gershwin's teachers), and Nadia Boulanger at the Fontainebleau School of Music in Paris from 1921 to 1924. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1925 and again in 1926.
Upon his return from his studies in Paris, he decided that he wanted to write works that were "American in character" and thus he chose jazz as the American idiom. His first significant work was the necromantic ballet Grohg which contributed thematic material to his later Dance Symphony. Other major works of his first (austere) period include the Short Symphony (1933), Music for Theater (1925) and Piano Variations (1930). However, this jazz-inspired period was brief, as his style evolved toward the goal of writing more accessible works.
Many composers rejected the notion of writing music for the elite during the Depression, thus the common American folklore served as the basis for his work along with revival hymns, and cowboy and folk songs. Copland's second (vernacular) period began around 1936 with Billy the Kid and El Salón México. Fanfare for the Common Man, perhaps Copland's most famous work, scored for brass and percussion, was written in 1942 at the request of the conductor Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. The fanfare was also used as the main theme of the fourth movement of Copland's Third Symphony. The same year Copland wrote Lincoln Portrait which became popular with the wider public, leading to a strengthening of his association with American music. He was commissioned to write a ballet, Appalachian Spring, which later he arranged as a popular orchestral suite. The ballet Rodeo, a tale of a ranch wedding, written around the same time as Lincoln Portrait (1942) is another enduring composition for Copland, and the "Hoe-Down" from the ballet is one of the most well-known compositions by any American composer, having been used numerous times in movies and on television. In the early to mid 1990s, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association used Hoe-Down as the background music to their "Beef, it's what's for dinner" marketing campaign, and it was also used during the 78th Academy Awards as background music.
Copland was an important contributor to the genre of film music; his score for William Wyler's The Heiress (1949) won an Academy Award. Several of the themes he created are encapsulated in the suite, Music for Movies, and his score for the film of Steinbeck's novel The Red Pony was given a suite of its own. This suite was one of Copland's own favorite scores. Posthumously, his music was used to score Spike Lee's 1998 film, He Got Game, which included a basketball game in a neighborhood court being set to Hoe-Down.
Having defended the Communist Party USA during the 1936 presidential election, Copland was investigated by the FBI during the red scare of the 1950s. He was blacklisted, and in 1953 his music was pulled from President Eisenhower's inaugural concert due to the political climate. That same year Copland testified before Congress that he was never a Communist. The accusation outraged many members of the musical community, who claimed Copland's patriotism was clearly displayed through his music. The investigation ceased to be active in 1955 and was closed in 1975. Copland's membership in the party was never proven.
A friend of the late Leonard Bernstein, Copland exerted a major influence on Bernstein's composing style. Bernstein was considered the finest conductor of Copland's works. British progressive rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer recorded two songs based on Copland works: "Fanfare for the Common Man" and "Hoe-Down." Several of their live recordings of "Fanfare for the Common Man" incorporated the closing of the second movement of Copland's Third Symphony as well.
Copland died in North Tarrytown, New York (now Sleepy Hollow), on December 2, 1990.