Aaron Copland was a New Yorker, born and bred in Brooklyn. He was the youngest of five children born to Russian-Jewish immigrants. His father worked for several years in Scotland in order to pay for the trip to America, and either during that time or while going through US customs the family surname changed from Kaplan to Copeland.
His older sister taught him to play the piano, and by age 15 his heart was set on composing. But he didn’t have the resources to learn what he wanted where he lived. Throughout his early twenties, he studied composition abroad in Paris under Nadia Boulanger.
In his early career Copland wrote music with strong jazz influence, which was all the rage in America at the time. As he got older, though, he made a shift in his compositional style as he felt the need to be more authentic. He began writing folk music, and it was wildly popular. As he aged further, Copland had another moment of self discovery. He realized that he didn’t need to write music with the intention of being American. Being American was a part of him, so whatever he wrote as a composer would reflect that.
Aaron Copland was not particularly religious and didn’t celebrate Judaism. But his spiritual nature led him to write with the force of the human spirit, that grit and determination one might imagine finding on the frontier, on the Oregon Trail, in the Yukon with dreams of gold, risking cholera and typhoid and being gunned down by outlaws. He celebrated the common man and was relatively unpretentious.
Copland’s famous works:
Vivian Kerviss who helped him write his autobiography, wrote:
“Copland’s method of composing was to write down fragments of musical ideas as they came to him. When he needed a piece, he would turn to these ideas (his “gold nuggets”). Copland himself said, “I don’t compose. I assemble materials.” He was embarrassed that he cobbled together music from nuggets he’d come up with at the piano until he learned that Stravinsky also composed sitting at the piano.
Aaron Copeland never married, but he did have several close male companions. He even took on the financial burden of one man’s child when he passed away.
Check out this video clip of Aaron Copland conducting El Solon Mexico with the NY Philharmonic! What a treat!