Who Was That Masked Composer?

In political life as in his music, Aaron Copland decorously hid his emotions
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ON May 26, 1953, Aaron Copland testified before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy. The committee seemed to have only a vague sense of Copland's value as a witness (or as a musician), and probably called him simply because he had become a well-known public figure — an unprecedented accomplishment for an American composer of concert music. Copland's works — particularly the ballet scores Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring — had come to define the American spirit in music. That didn't stop anyone from accusing him of un-American activities, though. After a congressman from Illinois charged that Copland had a long list of Communist affiliations and supported "an alien ideology," a performance of his Lincoln Portrait was canceled just two weeks before its scheduled inclusion in a concert for the inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

At the hearings Copland concealed his fear and anger. Aided by good legal advice, he avoided playing the role of either martyr or traitor; instead he calmly parried insulting questions with vacuous answers.

In a written response to the committee Copland gave the impression that he had routinely signed many petitions and letters out of a concern for personal liberties but without any broader political involvement. Few watching the hearings would have suspected the depth of his political sympathies, which he shared with his good friends Harold Clurman, the theater director, and Clifford Odets, the playwright. Nor would many have detected Copland's anxiety as a gay man in the face of a menacing sexual subtext from the closeted prosecutor Roy Cohn, whose manner of repeating the word "Cooooommunist" Copland imitated in private for friends.

Copland's calm demeanor before the committee conveyed an impression of simple civic decency, which is a large part of the "American" quality that listeners find in his music. But in his music, as at the hearings, Copland concealed his beliefs more than he revealed them. Howard Pollack, in his superb new biography, Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man, quotes Leonard Bernstein, who knew Copland as well as anyone: "He masks his feelings, and there's a great deal going on inside him that doesn't come out, even with his best friends." Pollack suggests new ways to hear Copland's music that make him less "American" but perhaps more human.

At the time of the hearings Copland was working on an opera, The Tender Land. The libretto, written by Copland's onetime lover, the dancer and painter Erik Johns under the pseudonym Horace Everett, concerns a midwestern farm family: Ma Moss, her two daughters, and their grandfather. On the eve of the high school graduation of the elder daughter, Laurie, who longs to escape the farm, two drifters, Martin and Top, appear looking for work. They are accused — unjustly, it turns out — of responsibility for the molestation of two girls in the area. The two men plot to seduce Laurie, but the plotting is unnecessary — she quickly falls in love with Martin. The drifters leave town without her the next morning. Laurie tells her mother that she will leave to seek her own life. With a mixture of acceptance and helplessness the mother turns her attention to her daughter Beth, who is only about ten.

The plot of The Tender Land is virtually identical to that of William Inge's play Picnic, which had opened to much acclaim the previous year. Yet Copland's serene music seems better suited to a Sunday-school pageant of life on the farm than to a seamy slice of life in the sticks. Copland and Johns had contemplated including a rape or a murder, but had decided that either would destroy the "modest pastoral quality" they sought.

In the name of modesty Copland masked his intentions, and inadvertently gave the opera a feeling of blandness that made it the biggest flop of his career. This impression may be altered by a fine new recording on the Koch label (7480), conducted by Murry Sidlin. None of the critics at the time observed that the opera mirrored Copland's evasive strategies as a Senate witness. Underneath the Americana, apparently far better hidden and coded than any of Dmitry Shostakovich's anti-Stalin cryptograms, The Tender Land is a convoluted parable of sexual liberation and an allegory of the rise and fall of Popular Front politics.

Like several of Copland's other works, including Rodeo and Appalachian Spring, The Tender Land sprang from an explicit political premise that faded into the background as the work developed. Copland's inspiration was the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), with text by James Agee and photographs by Walker Evans. Agee and Evans, two sophisticated northern intellectuals exposing rural poverty in the South, were Copland's models for the drifters. Ma and Laurie were born in Evans's haunting portraits of an emaciated mother and her half-hopeful, half-dazed daughter, who stare blankly at the camera out of some unnameable depths of despair. Erik Johns turned the class relationships upside-down. He upgraded Ma and Laurie economically; the score describes them as lower-middle-class. As a sign of their economic security, Laurie is the first in her family to graduate from high school — a rite of passage that loomed large in American theater and literature (Our Town, Carousel, Peyton Place) at a time when college was for the few. Having moved the Moss family up the social scale, Johns downgraded the drifters from educated outside agitators to hoboes, who at their first appearance remind the audience inappropriately of Lennie and George in Of Mice and Men. These drifters pose a sexual rather than a political threat.

Copland began work in earnest after receiving a commission underwritten by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, with the thought that the protected opera would first appear on television. The generic locale bears more than a passing resemblance to the never-never land of the musical Oklahoma!, which in effect funded the opera. There's a bright golden haze on the meadow; the land is green, the harvest is rich, and the dust bowl is far away. The arrival of the two drifters seems to set the stage for violent action and more-dramatic music, which never arrive. The opera only hints at its deeper political and sexual themes.

Today it is not hard to "out" the story of Laurie's first sexual encounter. When Laurie protests, "No one can stop the way I feel! No one can ever tell me I can't love," she seems to be speaking for the opera's authors. In two works written shortly before The Tender Land — the fine score for The Heiress, a film adaptation of Henry James's Washington Square, and Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson — Copland had responded warmly to the theme of a young woman's sexual frustration. Perhaps these women were enacting cross-dressed versions of Copland's personal struggles — even though, as Howard Pollack shows, Copland's sexual life was one of early acceptance, not repression and loneliness.

The problem with interpretive gender-bending is that it loses sight of the poignancy of Laurie's position as a young woman trying to escape the domestic drudgery that seems her mother's fate. Sometimes a woman is just a woman, even in an opera written by two gay men. Homosexuality and its threat to the social order are in any case already implicit in the pairing of Martin and Top, who seem happily complementary in character, Martin "sensitive" and Top, by his very name, butch. (When Martin apologizes for Top's gross manners, he sounds like a battered wife in denial.) Top puts an end to Martin's romance with Laurie by suggesting that when the three of them hit the road, the girl will be de trop, and Martin agrees with little resistance.

Laurie's escape from her family into a wider world of romantic fulfillment seems to be the most coherent thread of the opera. "The tender land" of the title, from the lyrics of a duet the lovers sing, is not Iowa or Kansas but the land of tenderness, and Copland matches the intimacy of the words with uncharacteristic music of near-Wagnerian passion. Yet soon enough the opera makes us hear the word "tender" in a different sense: its characters have all been bruised, in the course of the action or before it; they are tender because they are wounded, and they will be wounded again.

Even though Laurie leaves the farm at the end, the opera feels like a drama more of disappointment than of liberation. It begins and ends with Ma singing of the eternal cycle of nature — but why? American drama of the 1950s dealt with messy issues by turning them into dirty secrets; as the plot unfolds, we can surmise that Ma is not a widow but a single mother — no father is present or mentioned, even though there are plenty of opportunities for Ma to tell Laurie, "If your father were alive ... " Laurie and Beth are, we can guess, daughters of different men who have drifted through. Laurie in her apparent liberation may be simply beginning to repeat the cycle of her mother's life, just as Beth seems poised to repeat Laurie's. The opera may contain a coded subtext of homosexual liberation, but it begins and ends with a biblical vision of endless (and joyless) procreation.

Wistful sadness instead of communal joy, guilt instead of innocence — The Tender Land seems, almost in spite of itself, to convey a portrait of despair that Copland never directly revealed. The closest he may have come to revelation was the very occasion that, ironically, left him open to charges of anti-Americanism. In March of 1949 the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace met in New York City, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, to defend the Soviet Union against the Cold War policies of the Truman Administration. Guests included Odets, Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, and Dmitry Shostakovich, Copland's Soviet counterpart. Copland, who later told the Senate that he went because "it gave me first-hand knowledge in what ways the Communists were able to use such movements for their own ends," nevertheless delivered an uncharacteristic cri de coeur: "An artist fighting in a war for a cause he holds just has something affirmative he can believe in. That artist, if he can stay alive, can create art. But throw him into a mood of suspicion, ill will, and dread that typifies the Cold War attitude and he'll create nothing. "Sincere these words may have been — but to attack the Cold War was to attack the United States. Soon enough Copland paid the price for leaving his mask at home.

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