Home > Treasures A-Z > Aaron Copland > Aaron Copland - More Resources

Aaron Copland - More Resources

Back to List | Back to Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

By George Dorris

With three ballet scores written between 1938 and 1944, Aaron Copland established himself as the quintessential twentieth-century American composer in the minds of the wider public as well as those of his fellow musicians. He was already called the Dean of American Composers, both for what he wrote and for who he was and what he stood for. But with these scores — Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring — he created an American sound through his handling of vernacular rhythms, open harmonies, and themes that reflect familiar songs reimagined into a new idiom, a new vision of America singing and dancing.

Born in Brooklyn in 1900, Copland essentially spanned the twentieth century—what is often called the American Century—and over his 90 years he was in the forefront of creating an American music that built on European roots, even as his Jewish immigrant parents had built American lives for themselves and their children. His music incorporated the rhythms of ragtime and jazz, which with his themes and harmonies suggest to listeners the vastness of the American landscape as well as the vitality and loneliness of American cities. 

Before 1914, most classical American composers looked to Germany for their models and often their training. But in 1921, Copland, soon followed by many others, began studying in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, a realignment that made Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky their models rather than Wagner, Brahms, and Richard Strauss. In the age of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Copland noted, “We were all interested in ballet.” (Copland Since 1943, p. 211), so it is not surprising that his major project under Boulanger was a ballet called Grogh: a symbolic work involving a necromancer trying to bring the dead to life, based on a scenario invented with his close friend and cousin Harold Clurman, later a distinguished director and critic. The ballet was never produced (and was published only after his death), but in 1931 he reused much of it for the Dance Symphony, which won him $5,000 in a competition—money that kept him for a year. In either form, its idiom was trenchantly modern and its treatment of rhythm used the essential vitality of jazz to create a music that was distinctly American.

Then, in 1934, his first real ballet, Hear Ye! Hear Ye!, was commissioned for Ruth Page’s Chicago Ballet Company. A satiric treatment of the murder trial of a night club dancer for shooting her partner, shown from three different viewpoints leading to three different verdicts, its ingenuity was underlined by the jazz rhythms and dissonant passages of Copland’s inventive score. It was this sophisticated use of changing rhythmic pulses that marked the American sound of his music, even as he would soon make his harmonies simpler and sparer in the populist 1930s.

Following a trip to Mexico in 1932, Copland wrote El Salón México, an orchestral piece using folk rhythms and tunes (complete, fragmented, or varied) to create a dynamic portrait of a Mexico City dance hall. This intoxicating work was part of his movement toward a more accessible idiom than that in early concert works like the Symphonic Ode or the Piano Variations. In 1978 Eliot Feld used both El Salon Mexico and Danzón Cubana (1942), Copland’s equally dynamic vision of a Cuban dance, for his ballet La Vida.

The qualities of the “Copland sound” are especially evident in the 1938 ballet Billy the Kid, produced by Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan. Here Copland blends original thematic material with cowboy songs to give a characteristic American feel to the music, along with those open fourths and fifths, qualities admirably caught in Eugene Loring’s choreography to suggest both the open spaces of the West and the relentless move of “civilization.” These were aided by a surprising use of silence, ending with a crash as Billy is shot and the procession of settlers continues.

Rodeo,Copland’s second ballet set in the American West, is very different, with its heroine longing for both freedom and acceptance. He had already used a simpler vernacular approach in The Second Hurricane, an opera for high school students written in 1937 with the poet and dance critic Edwin Denby. The music for Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo again suggests the loneliness of vast open spaces, but climaxes in the irresistible hoedown at which the gawky heroine (originally danced by de Mille) at last finds love with the right man. As in Billy, Copland uses and alters familiar Western songs, along with his own tunes, to support the actions and emotions, and introduces a square dance unaccompanied except for a caller.

Appalachian Spring (1944) calls for a very different music as Martha Graham’s young bride faces a new life in the wilderness. Yet again, Copland sets the tone with his open harmonies, with gentler rhythms to express the character of the Bride, the Husbandman’s love of the land, and the strength of the Pioneer Woman, set off by the excitement of an evangelist preacher and his adoring flock. But here the melodic material, while often in a folk style, is largely Copland’s own, making the inclusion of the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” even more effective, and helping to make Appalachian Spring perhaps his most beloved work. (As with Billy and Rodeo, the suite for full orchestra is played more often than the full ballet, which was originally written for only thirteen instruments.)

Dance Panels, Copland’s last ballet score, is closer to his later, more complex style. Written in 1959 for Jerome Robbins, who in 1954 had directed his opera The Tender Land, its seven sections are largely based on waltz rhythms. But, while he waited for the complete score to arrive, Robbins became fascinated by choreographing to the counts and instead created Moves, a ballet danced to silence, and Dance Panels was finally staged in 1962 in Munich by Heinz Rosen, and again in 1964 by John Taras for New York City Ballet as Shadowed Ground — in neither case successfully.

The only time I met Copland, I asked him why he hadn’t written more for dance. “No one asked me,” he replied. That wasn’t literally true, as de Mille, among others, had indeed asked him, but clearly he was unwilling to repeat himself, whether in concert works, film scores, or ballets. The challenge always lay in something new. Therefore, choreographers used works he had not intended for dance: in 1931, Helen Tamiris used a piano piece, Sentimental Melody, for Sentimental Dance and the Passacaglia for Opus Americanus–A 20th Century Ballet; Martha Graham surprised Copland by choosing the powerful Piano Variations for Dithyrambic; and in 1942, Antony Tudor used Music for the Theatre for Time Table (as did Peter Darrell in 1966 for Lessons in Love and Eliot Feld in 1979 for Scenes for the Theatre).

By the time he reached his early seventies, the creative impulse was drying up and Copland increasingly turned to conducting, leading orchestras all over the world, mainly in his own works, and he also produced two volumes of memoirs with the musicologist Vivian Perlis. But throughout his long life, one thing that made Copland stand out among the talented composers of his generation and those who followed was his zeal in encouraging serious American music in all forms, including composers and music from Latin America. Whether organizing concerts, writing, lecturing, or teaching (primarily summers at the Tanglewood Festival, where he founded the composers program), he was tireless in encouraging other composers, including those younger than he was, from Leonard Bernstein to David del Tredici. American music, and certainly American dance, would have been very different and much poorer without him.        

George Dorris founded Dance Chronicle with Jack Anderson, which they edited from 1977 to 2007, edited The Royal Swedish Ballet 1773-1998 (1999), and contributes regularly to Ballet Review. He was also an Associate Editor of The International Encyclopedia of Dance and a senior researcher on the Popular Balanchine Project of The Balanchine Foundation. For many years Dr. Dorris taught English at York College of the City University of New York and is the author of Paolo Rolli and the Italian Circle in London, 1715-1744 (1967).


Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Copland, Aaron, and Vivian Perlis. Copland: 1900 Through 1942. New York: St Martins / Marek, 1984.

Copland, Aaron, and Vivian Perlis. Copland Since 1943. New York: St. Martins Press, 1989.

Pollack, Howard. Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man. Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 2000.


The Aaron Copland Collection at the Library of Congress.

Finding aid

From the LoC Catalog: The Aaron Copland Collection consists of published and unpublished music by Copland and other composers, correspondence, writings, biographical material, datebooks, journals, professional papers including legal and financial material, photographs, awards, art work, and books. Of particular interest is the correspondence with Nadia Boulanger, which extent over 50 years, and with his long-time friend, Harold Clurman. Other significant correspondents are Leonard Bernstein, Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, Carlos Chávez, David Diamond, Roy Harris, Charles Ives, Claire Reis, Arnold Schoenberg, Roger Sessions, and Virgil Thomsom. The photographic collection of Copland's friend and confidant Victor Kraft, a professional photographer, forms part of the collection.