David Raksin Remembers his Colleagues
The distinguished composer Aaron Copland was born on November 4,1900 in New York City. While still a child he began to study piano; subsequently he had lessons in harmony and counterpoint with composer Rubin Goldmark and began to compose. In 1920 his first published piece, The Cat and the Mouse, for piano, was printed, and that same year he entered the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau, near Paris. There he studied composition and orchestration with the renowned pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. He returned home in 1924 and soon became active as a pianist, lecturer and activist in musical societies. One of his compositions, Music for the Theater, attracted the attention of Serge Koussevitzky, who conducted its first performance with his Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1925; Copland later appeared as soloist in his Piano Concerto with the same forces. In New York City, Walter Damrosch conducted the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, with Nadia Boulanger, for whom it had been written, as soloist. After the performance, Damrosch turned and said to the audience, "If a young man in his twenties can compose a piece like that, by the time he is thirty he should be ready to commit murder." (Many years later, when I was interviewing Aaron for one of my radio programs, I asked him whether he had fulfilled Damrosch's prophecy. His answer, complete with his characteristic grin, was, "I don't believe so.")
Now Copland's composing career was launched; his new works were widely performed and praised. Four ballets: El Salon Mexico, Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and his beautiful piece for the choreographer Martha Graham, Appalachian Spring. From speeches and letters of Abraham Lincoln he derived the text for his fine Lincoln Portrait for Narrator and Orchestra, the featured role of which has been essayed by Eleanor Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson and various entertainment celebrities. His Fanfare for the Common Man became enormously popular, and he later incorporated it into his Third Symphony. While the proliferation of musical works from his pen continued unabated, he also produced a series of books and lectures on music, and his devotion to the cause of his art and to the welfare of his composer colleagues never flagged. With one of them, Roger Sessions, he organized the Copland-Sessions concerts; he became a member of the board of directors of the League of Composers and helped to found numerous musical organizations, such as the American Composers Alliance and the Yaddo Festivals; he was also active in the Composers Forum, the Cos Cob Press and the Koussevitzky Foundation. He was head of the composition department at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, and in 1957 he became chairman of the faculty. He lectured widely, and in 1951-52 he gave the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard.
Aaron Copland is the most honored of American composers. A list of his prizes and awards would be too voluminous to compile here, but some of them ought to be cited: a Guggenheim Fellowship, several N.Y. Music Critics Circle Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, a Gold Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, honorary membership in the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome. Honorary doctorates from Princeton, Brandeis, Harvard, Temple, Rutgers, Ohio State, New York University, Columbia; in 1982 the Aaron Copland School of Music was inaugurated at Queens College, N.Y., and in 1986 he received the National Medal of Arts.
In the 1950s Aaron suddenly revealed an unanticipated talent for conducting; he appeared as guest conductor in the U.S., in Europe, South America and Mexico, traveled to Russia under the auspices of the State Department, and made many successful recordings of his principal works.
More pertinent to this occasion, Copland composed nine film scores, among them: THE CITY, OF MICE AND MEN; OUR TOWN, NORTH STAR, THE RED PONY, SOMETHING WILD and THE HEIRESS, for which he received an Academy Oscar. He was thus in a position to understand what it takes to compose music for films, which is more than can be said for the academics and composers of concert works who, motivated by something less than objectivity, have relentlessly badmouthed film music. During Aaron's visits to Hollywood to score movies, he befriended several of his colleagues, and his charming company was cherished. One day the fine musician Arthur Morton and I took him to a pair of concerts, mostly contemporary music, at the First Congregational Church. During the interval between programs we went to one of our favorite places, the Pacific Dining Car, where we rewarded ourselves for the endurance we thought we had displayed at the church. Our conversation dwelt largely upon the pieces we had heard, but suddenly Aaron, who appeared to have been in a reverie, interrupted. "You know," he said, "I go to concerts of new music all the time in New York, and I often say to myself, 'What's all the fuss about? The fellows in Hollywood do this better every day, and think nothing of it!'"
That was a peek at another side of this wonderful man. And one day, when I was interviewing him for a program in my radio series, I said, "Aaron, here you are, one of the most gentle and beloved figures in the world of music, and yet I sometimes hear in your pieces passages of violence. What about that?" He gave me one of those beatific smiles, and replied, "If it's in the music, it's in the man."
Copyright 1995 by David Raksin. Published on the ACO website with the kind permission of the author