Driving Mr. Copland

Jan 20, 2013

I had a few encounters with Aaron Copland back in the 1970’s when I was a budding radical composer. In my early teens I saw him conduct “Appalachian Spring” with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood sometime around 1960. He was by then a regular guest in that Berkshire retreat, and he may well have composed some of the same piece eighteen years earlier in one of the old farmhouses he liked to stay in on his annual summer visits. He was not a fluid or graceful figure on the podium, but he had adequate chops to do his own music, and he obviously enjoyed the chance to work with the BSO musicians, most of whom admired and even adored him.

I was about 13 years old, and I already knew “Appalachian Spring” and “El Salón México.” I’d ordered the Boosey & Hawkes pocket score for “Appalachian Spring” from my local music store in Concord, N.H. and had paid a staggering $4.50 for it, a price that represented a lot of days doing my paper route. But the score was an education, and I followed it over and over to an old Koussevitzky recording on RCA Victor. It was the first time I’d ever encountered a 5/8 meter sign.

In 1970, as part of the celebrations of his seventieth year, Copland attended a concert of his music at Brandeis University. As part of the show I played his rhythmically tricky Sextet with a group of local musicians, some of them Boston Symphony members. The next morning David del Tredici, my counterpoint teacher at Harvard and a Copland protégé, invited Copland to come and meet with us composition students. As I was housesitting a vast old Cantabridgian manse off Brattle Street at the time, it was decided to have the meeting there. So Copland arrived at my back door at 10 AM on a cold December morning, wearing a long black wool overcoat and a beret. His prominent nose was red from the bitter winter wind and his boney hands were stuffed into big oversized mittens.

There was convivial chat around the table, coffee and buns, and then he cleared his throat and said, “OK, let’s get down to business.” It was the usual scene: each young composer presenting his or her piece, in those days either by bashing through it at the piano or by threading a reel of Scotch Magnetic Tape into a machine and playing it through booming KHL loudspeakers. Copland would make a few pointed remarks, generous but not fatuous, and then move on. My turn was last, and I played first a recording of a hectic piano quintet that was much indebted to Berg and Bartók. “That’s a tough listen,” Copland commented, “not my cup of tea, but not at all bad.” I was surprised because by 1970 Copland had long since ceased writing the populist favorites that had made him so beloved and was committed to finding a way to make the twelve-tone method fit his expressive needs. And when Copland had been my age—in 1922—he too was writing exceptionally dissonant stuff that would culminate in the Piano Variations of 1930.

Then I put on my pièce de provocation, “Heavy Metal,” a tape piece, an essay in musique concrète with a text by William Burroughs. It was a space-age collage that reflected my current absorption with similar pieces by Stockhausen and Pierre Schaffer. Copland shuddered slightly, shook his shoulders and said, “This sorta stuff intimidates me.” That struck me as an unusually candid admission from a composer of such fame as he. But that was the way he was—-honest, simple, direct. I was too young and unaware to wonder how he felt about himself and his place in history at that point. There was no question that he was considered hands down the most famous American composer of classical music ever, and his sixtieth birthday had been celebrated on national television. Presidents and movie stars knew his name, and Leonard Bernstein featured his music regularly.

But the 1970’s were harsh times for composers, and brutal ideology was in the air, fueled in part by the rising star of Boulez, who was largely intolerant of anything that did not fit his art-historical tunnel vision.

Entering a room full of composition grad students, each one of us with his or her own identity crisis throbbing and suppurating like an open wound, must have been an unsettling act for Copland, well aware as he had to have been that he was the composer of Billy the Kid, Rodeo and Fanfare for the Common Man, while what we wanted was his thoughts on “Gruppen” or “Le Marteau san Maitre.”

He did indeed remind me of the lanky, homespun figure of honesty and integrity that I associated with “Lincoln Portrait.” The night before, at a post-concert party, the drunken hostess had besieged him, refusing to let go of his arm and whining “we won’t sit down, Mr. Copland, until you play something for us on the piano. You simply MUST!” But he had politely refused.

Several years later he came to the San Francisco Conservatory for a master class. He needed a ride after the class down the peninsula to San Jose, where he was to conduct a concert of his music, and much to my astonishment I was named designated driver. Soon after I found myself driving down Route 280 in my dilapidated turquoise blue VW bug with its clattering engine and moldy upholstery with the idolized composer of my youth sitting, slightly nervously, in the passenger seat. I don’t recall the conversation. The car was so noisy it may have been difficult to talk much.

A side window that wouldn’t close properly kept emitting a high-pitched sound, and Copland, in his rich Brooklyn accent looked over and said “Sound like you gotta boid in there.” I didn’t know what he meant and gave him a puzzled look, to which he made fluttering motions with his fingers. “Oh, you mean a BIRD!” I said. I was probably 25 at the time, a young wiseass with sideburns and a surfeit of brown hair and grubby bachelor clothing. I suspect he was enjoying himself, although he looked a bit tired.

His composing days were effectively behind him, and he was living out his career taking conducting gigs and making visits like the one to the Conservatory. He was a gentle and very serious person who took his role as a citizen and artist to heart, writing books aimed at the “common reader” and proselytizing for “contemporary” music. He would never have reached the level of fame he did—being honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for instance—-had he not written “Billy the Kid” and “Appalachian Spring.” But his creative life was always balanced on the cusp between his a sincere populism on the one hand and, on the other, an astringent Old Testament ascetic utterance like you hear in the Piano Variations or the later “Connotations.”

In the intervening years I’ve done a lot of his music—everything from Quiet City and Billy the Kid to the Piano Concerto and Music for the Theater. Later this week I’ll do Appalachian Spring with the London Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra he had a happy relationship with and with which I now enjoy a similar privilege as a visiting American composer/conductor.

Comments (21)

January 20, 2013

What a beautiful remembrance.

January 20, 2013

It's amazing! Such a great post- made my (early) morning.

Sheri Schultz
January 20, 2013

I LOVE this! You are an "author" too.

January 20, 2013

This article makes me think very fondly of a surprise dinner I had with my wife and a great friend in D.C. a couple of years ago, where I got to spend an evening with the person I consider the greatest living American composer. We laughed about Pachelbelly Canyon, and delighted in his wonderful wine selections! Thank you, Mr. Adams!

Jon Adams
January 20, 2013

I love to listen to Appalachian Spring while driving along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Rick Barber
January 20, 2013

Great to read this; it's a kernel of education for me. I look forward to playing again with you this May in Washington.

Matthew Saunders
January 20, 2013

Wonderful! Never turn down a chance to drive someone interesting somewhere.

Jeffery Buchman
January 20, 2013

Thank you for a very evocative article.

Can you share with us your initial feelings hearing Copland pieces for the first time? For me it was viscerally exhilirating as I was only 8 years old. I felt the music literally came from the ground.

Juan Hitters
January 20, 2013

The perfect read for a Sunday morning! Beautiful. To me, sometimes the music gives some clues about the composer's personality. For example Dvorak was probably a fantastic guy. Boulez, on the contrary, is someone I would have never invited to dinner at home. I have always imagined Copland as a good fellow. Your writing seems to confirm my impressions. Thanks a lot for sharing the memories!

January 20, 2013

Some wonderful reflections and memories...thanks for sharing!

January 20, 2013

Wonderful, I'm really glad to have found and become a reader of this site!

Paul Muller
January 20, 2013

Legend has it that Copland died with something like $2.75 in his bank account.

Sobering that the composer most often thought of as a credibly serious American success in classical music would profit so little from it in a hyper free market capitalistic society.

But then Copland probably would have understood why.

His example - and his music - can inspire us all.

January 20, 2013

Paul: at the expense of a nice legend, Copland died quite wealthy. He created the Copland Fund for grants and permissions, so he's still very active in music 20+ years after his death.

Allan J, Cronin
January 20, 2013

I met Mr. Copland, also one of my idols, when my dad took me to the old band shell at12th street in Chicago's Grant Park. There he conducted a performance of Walton's Portsmouth point overture, Ives Unanswered Question, Brahms Hadyn Variations as well as his own Music for a Great City, Fanfare for the Common Man and, most memorably Lincoln Portrait with none other than Coretta Scott King as narrator.
I hung around with the crowd for a bit where he came out and briefly greeted the appreciative crowd. He exuded the calm genial dignity to which you refer. It remains one of my favorite concert experiences.

January 22, 2013

This proves why we need another book from you. I don't want to diss Alex Ross, whom I believe you respect, and maybe I'm comparing incomparables, but surely Hallelujah Junction is THE essential book about the 20th century musical 'crises'. Thank you anyway, and for an electrifying concert last week. Wasn't Dawn Upshaw on terrific form?

Bob Harland
January 24, 2013

Yes, a superb concert last week. The Debussy settings are really dreamy and Dawn Upshaw her usual and equally superb self. I'm sure you must have pleased with both the performance and reception of Harmonielehre? It was a stunning performance and the effect on me was similar to the first time I heard it at the Huddersfield Music Festival back in 1988. Your Copland reminiscence is quite poignant. I first saw and met the great man in 1964 when he came over to conduct the LSO in what were then yearly events. The music he programmed was pretty adventurous for the time and I remember going to his concerts where, over time, we heard the likes of Walton, Carter, Del Tredici, Xenakis and many others. And of course lots of delicious stuff by Copland as well. In 1968, he came over to London and held a pre-concert talk at which he spoke of 'The Depression' which, he said "was kind of depressing". He also said that John Cage "was a really nice guy - in spite of his music". I also remember that he had heard a piece for soprano and tape by Milton Babbitt and commented to the soprano solist that "it was good of Babbitt to include you". The great man was obviously quite hilarious at times - and always so very warm. At the rehearsal for his 80th birthday concert with the LSO he kindly signed my score of Appalachian Spring. He seemed surprised that someone would ask him for such a thing. It was a classic example of the man and his humility. I'm looking forward very much to the concert this coming Sunday. I hope you have a great evening.

February 5, 2013

My respect for Copland grew immensely after I saw a quote of his comparing Mahler to Beethoven, much to Mahler's disadvantage. He basically called Mahler a pretentious fake compared to Beethoven, the real thing.

Mark H
November 21, 2013

Wow - what wonderful memories you have! Such a treasure... Thank you for sharing your stories with us!

Bevan Manson
December 8, 2013

Copland could have easily written a companion book to his famous tome on listening to music, and called it "What to Listen For in People". He could draw out the real-ness of anyone. I suspect he had a superb built-in b.s. detector. When he listened to others, it was with his full and Zen-like attention and patience. Not only courteous, but indicating an uncomplicated respect and concern for everyone's basic humanity. His curiosity about music and lack of agenda also always came through.
In 1973, he gave a lecture and master class at Eastman, where the budding composers, other students, and faculty hung on his every word. It was the high noon of total serialism, sound pieces, and the tyranny of the tape, but some of us wanted to be Copland anyway. During the lecture, he generously expounded on the merits of many American concert composers. At one point, an impetuous senior undergraduate (who later had a great career as a jazz pianist) aggressively blurted out, "that's great, but jazz is the real classical music of America!". A dead silence ensued for a moment. As a budding jazzer and Copland fan as well, I was nonplussed to say the least. But the man at the podium was not at a loss. Copland gave one of his focused, quizzical looks at the kid, and replied, "Well, that may be. The jazz boys have their own thing." A few academics bristled, but there was general relief at how his inclusive response won the day.

January 24, 2014

Am I the only person to be bothered by the white font/black background?

Tim Paradise
May 30, 2014

Hi John!
Long time, no see, no hear, to my sorrow.
I loved working with you at the SPCO, loved doing Gnarly Buttons with you, love your music. I hope you are well+.
I want to share with you and your readers some of my experiences with Mr. Copland.
I was introduced to him in 1978 in Minneapolis by Phillip Brunelle, a friend of mine, and fine conductor and entrepreneur. I asked Mr. Copland if he would write a clarinet sonata, and as you say John, he had at that time stopped composing. He said no, but asked if I knew his concerto.
I set about trying to arrange the Violin Sonata for the clarinet, essentially taking the key in which it was written and omitting some of the notes that were only gettable on the fiddle. I sent him a letter and asked if I could play the version for him, and he invited me for a day at his home in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. in October of 1978. That time is still fresh in my memory, even the meal I had in N.Y. City the night before my train ride up to Poughkeepsie (eel!).
A chauffeur in a black Mercedes picked me up at the train station and took me to Mr. Copland's house set in the woods. His studio looked out onto a hillside of changing leaves, and we spent a morning reading through my version of his fiddle sonata. We took a lunch break of vegetable soup, chicken breasts and a California Chardonnay served by his cook, then worked another couple hours. He was remarkably able to transpose into any key, even though often he couldn't remember what we had discussed a couple of minutes before. He loved Ives, and continually praised his originality. We settled on a version for Bflat clarinet, not A clarinet, because it was more readily available to more people, and we settled on the original key, even though it was later brought down a step. The published version of Boosey and Hawkes is not that which he and I decided upon.
Someone else got in there and simplified it. All through our day, we had a great time, his sense of humor and engagement were so great.
Later that season, I was the west coast soloist of the orchestra (SPCO) and we took Mr. Copland with us. We did El Salon Mexico, plus App Spring and the Clarinet Concerto. Bill McGlaughlin conducted the Concerto, and Mr. Copland listened in the wings every night, giving me suggestions afterward. I learned the style he wanted.
His approach to App Spring was straightforward and direct, with no schmalz, no sentimentalism, and he demanded very quiet pianissimi. Quite the opposite of the second section of the Concerto, which needs to swing, not be played straight. Vibrato and jazz style.
He was not a stickler for tempi, telling me he thought they could be a trap, and he loved listening to various choices of articulation I would give him.
I was fortunate to have had such a relationship with him, and John, I am fortunate to have worked so much with you. God bless and continued good fortune to you.
I am retired now, and painting those watercolors. Shout out if you want any.

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