Who Was That Masked Composer?

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

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.

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?