Today in history: Remembering composer Aaron Copland

On December 2, 1990, 25 years ago, the “dean of American composers” Aaron Copland died at the age of 90. His symphonies, ballet and film scores, songs and choral works became the apotheosis of the American classical style in his lifetime, combining his profound formal studies of music with popular American genres such as folk and jazz.

Although initially drawn to the beaux arts tradition of “art for art’s sake,” he found with the Great Depression that audiences were dwindling and financial support for concert music was in short supply. In the mid-1930s he shifted toward music that could be used, serving a utilitarian as well as artistic purpose. This approach encompassed two trends: first, music that students could easily learn, and second, music which would have wider appeal, such as incidental music for plays, movies, radio, dance, and political expression. Such works included piano pieces (“The Young Pioneers) and a teaching opera along somewhat Brechtian lines, The Second Hurricane.

Copland never enrolled as a member of any political party, but he espoused a general progressive view and had strong ties with numerous Communist colleagues and friends in the Popular Front period. Copland supported the Communist Party ticket during the 1936 presidential election, at the height of his involvement with the left-wing Group Theater, and remained a committed opponent of militarism and the Cold War, which he regarded as having been instigated by the United States. He helped start the post-war American-Soviet Music Society to encourage performances of American works in the USSR and Soviet works in the U.S. He was a strong supporter of the 1948 presidential candidacy of Henry A. Wallace on the Progressive Party ticket. He appeared on a panel of the 1949 Scientific and Cultural Conference for World Peace at the Waldorf Hotel in New York City, in an attempt by leading intellectuals to stave off the Cold War.

Copland was investigated by the FBI during the Red Scare of the 1950s and found himself blacklisted. On June 22, 1950, he was labeled as a Communist sympathizer along with other such renowned musicians and performers such as Leonard Bernstein, Lena Horne, Pete Seeger and Artie Shaw, in the infamous publication “Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television.” In the McCarthy witch-hunt era, being labeled a Communist or Communist sympathizer was a career-killer.

Because of the political climate of that era, his famous composition “A Lincoln Portrait” was withdrawn from the 1953 inaugural concert for President Eisenhower, and his works were banned from performance at U.S. embassies and cultural sponsorship abroad. That same year, Copland was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), where he was asked to explain his seemingly large involvement in explicitly communist and communist-leaning organizations. Copland denied any serious involvement with a list of political/cultural organizations identified as subversive by HUAC.

Outraged by the accusations, many members of the musical community held up Copland’s music, much of it based on American themes, as a banner of his patriotism. The investigations ceased in 1955 and were closed in 1975. Though taxing of his time, energy, and emotional state, the McCarthy probes did not seriously affect Copland’s career and international artistic reputation. Copeland also decried a lack of artistic freedom in the Soviet Union, especially for his friend and colleague, Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich, asserting that the USSR deprived artists of “the immemorial right of the artist to be wrong.”

With his setting of the Alfred Hayes poem “Into the Streets May First,” Aaron Copland won the 1934 contest for best song from the Workers’ Music League, which published it in its 1935 Workers Songbook. Never recorded, this stirring call to action has been performed in recent years only before limited audiences especially interested in proletarian music of the 1930s. Here are the lyrics:

Into the streets May First!
Into the roaring Square!
Shake the midtown towers!
Crash the downtown air!
Come with a storm of banners,
Come with an earthquake tread,
Bells, ring out of your belfries,
Red flag, leap out your red!
Out of the shops and factories,
Up with the sickle and hammer,
Comrades, these are our tools,
A song and a banner!

In 1964, Aaron Copeland was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson, (selected by President John F. Kennedy before his assassination and formally awarded by his successor in office) “for especially meritorious contribution to cultural endeavors.”

Adapted from Wikipedia and the Workers Songbook 2.

Information on the Library of Congress Aaron Copeland Collection, here. 

Information on Copeland House, here

Photo: “Aaron Copland 1962” by CBS Television. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.



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Special to People’s World

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.