Who Was That Masked Composer?

In political life as in his music, Aaron Copland decorously hid his emotions

COPLAND'S politics were typical of his generation and background. He was born into a middle-class Jewish family that lived above the store they owned in an ethnically mixed Brooklyn neighborhood. The family store gave him a sharp business acumen—acquired, he would say, by manning the cash register—that few of his rivals possessed.

Compared with George Gershwin's parents, who could have stepped right out of the radio show The Goldbergs, Copland's family seems to have been unusually sophisticated. His parents recognized and supported his gifts early on, and permitted him to study in Paris instead of demanding that he receive a college education—the lack of which Copland later disguised by peppering his writings with quotations from Andrè Gide and Paul Valèry.

Copland was already quite advanced as a composer before he left Brooklyn, but in Paris he made direct contact with the new music of Stravinsky, Ravel, and Milhaud, and also of the young German sensations Paul Hindemith and Kurt Weill. His teacher, Nadia Boulanger, gave Copland the most rigorous compositional criticism he ever received, demanding an economy of means and an attention to the long line of a piece.

Copland's reputation as a musical radical was sealed in 1925, when Walter Damrosch conducted the New York premiere of the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, which featured Boulanger as soloist. After that performance Damrosch turned to the audience and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, it seems evident that when the gifted young American who wrote this symphony can compose at the age of twenty-three a work like this one ... [significant pause], it seems evident that in five years more he will be ready to commit murder."

Damrosch's remark immediately gave Copland a succès d'estime and notoriety. What young composer could ask for anything more? More would mean a success like George Gershwin's. The adverse critical reaction to Copland's jazz-inspired pieces Music for the Theatre and the Piano Concerto contrasted sharply with the adulation that greeted Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F at the same time. Gershwin's music arose from the popular culture of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway; it spoke to a wide public. Copland's Cubist idiom created a portrait of the artist as a distant, ironic observer of the urban scene. Instead of the upbeat energy of Gershwin's music, Copland's music presented a grotesque cityscape of dark streets and lurid theaters.

The Depression transformed Copland from an alienated aesthete into a politically engaged populist. Most of his friends turned to communism for solutions to the economic crisis. Howard Pollack reveals that on two occasions in 1934 Copland actually got on the stump to support Communist Party candidates—in rural Minnesota, where he was vacationing with his lover Victor Kraft. By 1935 Copland's interest in agit-prop had evidently cooled. The left was of two minds about the political role of music. Some composers, among them Marc Blitzstein, followed the model of Hanns Eisler, who wrote simple but acridly harmonized songs to support the cause. Others, such as Charles Seeger (the musicologist father of the folk singer Pete Seeger) and Earl Robinson, came to feel that art music only alienated the masses; they championed a politically informed folk or folkish music, like the songs of Woody Guthrie and Robinson's "Ballad for Americans," which Paul Robeson made famous.

Political developments favored the folk style. In 1935 the Communist International proclaimed the creation of the Popular Front, an alliance of all parties of the left against fascism. Soon afterward President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, fearing the impact of the radicalism of Huey Long and Father Coughlin on his chances for re-election, broadened his political base by creating Social Security and recognizing the right of unions to strike. Almost overnight the entire spectrum of left-leaning thinkers, from Moscow to Pennsylvania Avenue, formed an unbroken force.

By the late 1930s Copland had found an American voice that was folklorist and Modernist combined—in Billy the Kid and two ballets that followed it, Rodeo and Appalachian Spring. An instant hit, Billy the Kid gave the politics of the Popular Front a musical popular front of borrowed cowboy tunes fitted out with modern harmonies and edgy, irregular rhythms. Copland's new folk-modern style was the musical equivalent of the new Communist slogan: "Communism Is Twentieth-Century Americanism." Yet the politics and psychology of Copland and his collaborators were so well hidden that few listeners today would even guess what they were.

BECAUSE Copland's three popular ballets are more often presented in the concert hall, listeners might be surprised by the stories they tell in the theater. Copland and the choreographer Eugene Loring made Billy the Kid a Freudian Robin Hood, motivated by the (fictional) murder of his mother. The ballet presents Billy as a social revolutionary, but adds a psychological subtext. Although Billy dances a waltz with his nameless Mexican sweetheart, he seems preoccupied by homosexual feelings for the sheriff, Pat Garrett, who eventually kills him. Few listeners will notice this undercurrent when they hear the suite from the ballet at an orchestral concert. Copland omitted the romantic waltz episode from the suite, thereby emphasizing the macho side of the music—a side that would resound in cowboy movies and Marlboro cigarette commercials to come.

In Rodeo and Appalachian Spring, Copland collaborated with two great choreographers, Agnes de Mille and Martha Graham, who each told a personal story that nevertheless resonated with Copland's music. De Mille presented Copland with a precise scenario of a cowgirl who dresses and acts like a man but wins the love of the head wrangler by donning a dress and putting a bow in her hair. If we view the sexually ambiguous figure of the tomboy as a woman, her capitulation seems politically incorrect, as feminist critics have noted. But think of the cowgirl as a closeted homosexual male, as Copland may have, and the story takes on a very different feeling. Indeed, with its stageful of faux cowboys, Rodeo has always had a camp undertone that actually fits well with the Chaplinesque quality De Mille gave to her own performances as the cowgirl. Once again subtext vanishes in the concert hall, where Rodeo seems as American as mock-apple pie.

Copland's most famous work, Appalachian Spring, also presents an odd contrast between its musical mood and the theatrical scenarios for which the music was composed. The title came from a line in a Hart Crane poem that Martha Graham chose without consulting the composer—his first indication that she had completely changed the story of the ballet they had been working on. The early working version was set around the time of the Civil War, and included a fugitive slave and an Indian girl. In the background, almost as an aspect of stage design, was Shaker furniture. It was a strong enough suggestion that Copland turned to the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts" when Graham needed a musical interlude portraying a routine day. That request turned into Copland's cash cow.

The ultimate scenario, on which Copland was not consulted, removed all traces of the Civil War and instead pitted a newly married couple against a revivalist and his four women followers—the hopes of a new life against the ascetic nobility of an unspecified puritanical sect. But what was the sect? Shakers? Quakers? Fundamentalists? Utopian socialists? It makes a difference. And why the tension with the young couple? Pollack suggests that the sect will drag the husband off to war—but we never see this onstage. Copland's inspired choice of hymn sugarcoated the sect's fanaticism, and whatever Copland's and Graham's intentions may have been, the score has waved the flag for American innocence ever since. But what innocence there was came to an abrupt end when the Second World War was over and the Cold War began. The two halves of The Tender Land take place on either side of this divide.

LOOKED at as a political allegory rather than a Grant Wood painting, Act I of The Tender Land celebrates the inclusiveness of the Popular Front. The drifters are viewed with suspicion by the rural community. They win the town over by stressing common goals.

A stranger may seem strange
  that's true,
but did it ever occur to you that you ... seem strange to
  a stranger too....
We've two strong backs and
  four strong hands
and that's what you need to
  work these lands.

The drifters and Grandpa develop this idea to a climactic cry of "Hire a stranger today!" This seems musically disproportionate if we think of the opera as a love story, but not if we see its political subtext.

Copland sealed the unity of "party" and "folk" with "The Promise of Living," the pseudo-hymn that gives Act I a strong ending: "The promise of living with hope and thanksgiving is born of our loving our friends and our labor." For this hymn Copland borrowed a revivalist tune, "Zion's Walls." In the opera it is an oddly non-Christian anthem, devoid of religious content. (In a previous adaptation of the song Copland had changed the words "praises of Jesus" to "praises of Zion.") The family farm has become the dreamland of utopian socialism, an American-style kibbutz where the lion lies down with the lamb and Communists mingle harmlessly with Democrats. Like many of Copland's left-leaning friends, the characters seem slow to give up their warm feelings of fraternity in the face of unpleasant facts. Just before Martin begins the hymn, Top has announced his intention of getting Grandpa drunk so that he can seduce Laurie. The opera may be less politically naive than it appears to be. The drifters, both the grossly exploitative Top and the idealistic Martin, are setting Laurie up—and they abandon her without so much as a minute of regret. In the second half of the opera treachery undermines unity, paranoid fears seem to be justified, and Laurie is left isolated from family and community.

IN Copland Since 1943, the second volume of the autobiography he wrote with Vivian Perlis, Copland took a typically objective view of the opera's failure: "Obviously, this was not the opera the critics were waiting for me to write—if they had been waiting.... I considered we had a flop on our hands and told Erik so." The conservative musical style of the opera should have helped it to find an audience. Nostalgic American works like Douglas Moore's Ballad of Baby Doe and Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 were great successes at the time. Critics sensed, though, that Copland's music was at odds with the disturbing story the composer was trying to tell.

Whatever the reasons for the opera's failure, The Tender Land marked the end of Copland's populism. In the major works that followed—the Piano Fantasy and the orchestral works Connotations and Inscape—he used twelve-tone technique to return to the craggy style of his Piano Variations. The beloved composer of Fanfare for the Common Man was once again a forbidding Modernist. At the televised premiere of Connotations, in 1962, the entire country witnessed Jacqueline Kennedy's bafflement as she fumbled for words of praise for the composer. (One of Copland's friends told him, "Oh, Aaron, it's obvious. She hated it!")

The critical fate of both The Tender Land and Connotations shows that music is a much more political and public art form in America than we usually assume, and it also shows that political censorship in this country has operated in an insidious manner that can bruise artists and warp their work. Copland was not a political operative but a sentimental socialist; his politics differed little from those of typical Labor Zionists and trade-union activists, and they did not shape his musical oeuvre in the way that the much more explicit politics of Marc Blitzstein shaped his. The three ballets on which Copland's fame rests have no overt political message and serve no ideology, "alien" or otherwise. Sexually, too, Copland was a model citizen: a discreet homosexual who objected to the publicly wicked ways of friends such as Leonard Bernstein and David Diamond.

In 1954 Copland was already the dean of American music, respected and honored. Surely he was in a position to tell it like it was, but Copland and Johns felt compelled, with good reason, to resort to hidden devices to express their emotional and intellectual preoccupations. Self-imposed censorship can be as destructive as the crass machinations of apparatchiks and Red-baiters. The strategies they developed for disguising their true concerns robbed The Tender Land of its potential vitality—the kind of dark intensity that could be found at that time in film noir, jazz, rhythm and blues, and even comic books, but not in the decorously public realm of opera. Have things changed all that much?

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