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.
Copyright © 2010 by John Adams
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