Aaron Copland, Part 1
Take a trip into the archive for the first part of a 1961 program hosted by composer Aaron Copland. Speaking from his upstate New York studio, Copland discusses how he composes music for film, with an example from the film The Red Pony. The program concludes with a spirited performance of the first movement from the composer’s Piano Sonata.
Welcome to the ALL ARTS Vault.
I'm Maddie Orton.
The Vault is the place to go for special access
to all things arts,
so we're going into the archives
to uncover some of our greatest gems
from over 50 years of archival content
and share these programs with you
as they would have been seen decades ago
when they first aired.
Today we turn to music.
"Appalachian Spring," "Lincoln Portrait,"
"Fanfare for the Common Man" --
These iconic American compositions
are the work of Brooklyn native Aaron Copland.
Today we're going to show you the first part
of a two-part program from 1961
called "Contemporary American Composers."
In this show, Copland speaks directly to the camera
from his studio in Upstate New York.
He gives his thoughts on the role of artists in society,
the importance of creating great American art,
and the then-novel concept of composing film scores.
Keep your eyes and ears peeled for a fantastic example
from the 1949 film "The Red Pony."
And, of course, a program about Copland
wouldn't be complete without a performance.
So, you'll a wonderful solo piano recital
from the first movement of the composer's "Piano Sonata,"
supposedly a favorite of conductor Leonard Bernstein.
We hope you enjoy
"Contemporary American Composers: Aaron Copland."
Narrator: The profile of a city, man's monument to himself.
Here, there is majesty
in the thrust of towers toward the sun...
...nobleness in the sweep of bridges
across glistening water...
...splendor in the glitter of lights against the night sky.
But beneath its formal grandeur, the city has its other moods --
the quiet loneliness of empty streets.
To the poetry of the city, its varied moods,
one American composer has been particularly sensitive.
That composer is Aaron Copland.
Aaron Copland's musical speech
is distinctly American in character.
It is the sophisticated speech of the city dweller,
even when the composer finds inspiration
in the American countryside, as he so often does.
He may be moved, for instance,
by the simple directness of a Shaker hymn.
♪ 'Tis the gift to be simple
♪ 'Tis the gift to be free
♪ 'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be ♪
♪ And when we find ourselves in the place just right ♪
♪ 'Twill be in the valley of love and delight ♪
Narrator: The gift to be simple became a theme
for variations in Copland's ballet "Appalachian Spring."
Copland has been attracted by the rhythmic vigor
of a country fiddler.
[ Fiddle playing ]
The "Hoe-Down" from Copland's "Rodeo"
shows the result of his attraction to such music.
[ "Hoe-Down" plays ]
Copland was fascinated by the strident brassiness
of Southern jazz.
[ "When the Saints Go Marching In" plays ]
His piano concerto exhibits a similar rhythmic excitement.
With all his interest in things rural,
Aaron Copland remains the urban observer,
and central to his development as a composer has been the city.
The streets of Brooklyn, where he was born in 1900,
seemed hardly conducive to producing a sensitive composer.
They were drab and ordinary.
There seemed little of poetry about them,
but for the young man, they provided a background,
such as it was, for his interest in music.
His first piano teacher was Leopold Wolfsohn.
His first composition teacher was Rubin Goldmark.
But equally important to his growth as a creative artist
were those friendships made in his student days
at Brooklyn Boys High School,
and gradually, Aaron Copland arrived at two decisions --
first, not to attend college
and, second, to look for the continued training
he knew he needed.
[ Piano playing choppily ]
In the summer of 1921, 20-year-old Aaron Copland
enrolled at the newly established School for Americans
at the magnificent Palace at Fontainebleau.
It was here that he met one of the prime influences
on his musical personality --
the French composition teacher Mademoiselle Nadia Boulanger.
Sympathetic as he was to the French temperament,
Copland found inspiration
in Boulanger's devotion to precision,
to logic, and to clarity and art.
Copland's first orchestral performance
was a work dedicated to Nadia Boulanger.
On January 11, 1925, the New York Symphony,
with Walter Damrosch conducting,
performed "The Symphony for Organ and Orchestra."
A later performance in Boston
was conducted by Serge Koussevitzky.
With his unwavering faith in Copland's music,
this famed champion of the contemporary composer
represents, along with Nadia Boulanger,
the second of the major influences on Aaron Copland.
During his stay in Paris,
Copland became convinced of the necessity
for developing an idiom of musical speech
that was distinctly American.
It was soon after that the possibility
of using the elements of jazz as a springboard
for such a speech suggested itself.
At the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire,
Copland spent the summer of 1925
writing "Music for the Theatre for Small Orchestra,"
a piece in which jazz elements
are consciously employed by the composer.
In 1926, his "Concerto for Piano and Orchestra"
plunged even deeper into the invigorating influence of jazz.
In the year of the jazz concerto,
Copland wrote another piece.
It was a song to the poem
by the American poet E.E. Cummings,
and it represents one aspect of an apparent dichotomy
in the music of Aaron Copland.
♪ In spite of everything
♪ Which breathes and moves
♪ Since Doom
♪ With white longest hands
♪ Neatening each crease
♪ Will smooth entirely
♪ Will smooth entirely
♪ Our minds
Narrator: Copland's output from this song
through his "Piano Fantasy" of 1957
contains music that is abstract and decidedly esoteric
in contrast to the more popular content
of works like "Billy the Kid," "El Salón México,"
and "Appalachian Spring."
In the years that followed, the Copland stature increased --
a Koussevitzky Music Foundation commission,
radio and film commissions, elections to membership
in three national academies of the arts.
Then came an Academy Award for his score for "The Heiress"
and a Pulitzer Prize for "Appalachian Spring."
His early efforts to stimulate interest
in contemporary American music
had led to the establishment, with Roger Sessions,
of the Copland-Sessions Concerts in 1928,
primarily for the encouragement of young American composers.
Frequent critical articles then began to appear,
in which Copland called attention
to the efforts of young composers.
And finally, beyond the strong influence
that his compositions had exerted on young composers,
his personal contact with them through his teaching
at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood
and at Harvard University
has been a source of genuine inspiration.
Since that first trip to Paris in 1921,
Copland has often spent time outside the United States.
Mexico in particular has seemed to produce an atmosphere
which Copland finds conducive to the composing of music.
The present scene for much of his writing
is in the hills that overlook the majestic Hudson River,
not far north of New York City.
Here, in a converted barn
which serves as living quarters and studio,
one may find, in a simple, spacious atmosphere,
Aaron Copland at work.
I've always found a great curiosity
on the part of the layman
in relation to the work of the creative artist
and especially, of course, in my field,
the composing creative artist.
A friend of mine amused me not long ago
by complaining that artists
don't want to look like artists anymore.
"They all want to look like businessmen," he said.
Now, in the 19th century,
you knew an artist as soon as you saw him.
He wore a flowing tie, of course, and had long hair,
and just the look of him told you
that that man was different from the rest of people
because he was a creative artist.
"Nowadays," my friend said,
"everyone wants to be like everybody else.
They all want to look like businessmen
and not like artists."
Well, I thought that one over for a while,
and suddenly it seemed to me more remarkable
to look like a businessman and be an artist
than just to be an artist and look like one.
So, don't be fooled.
We're artists, all right.
We may look like businessmen,
but we're artists exactly as artists always were in the past.
That is to say we are concerned
with the expression of the deepest feelings we have,
and we try to put them down in some permanent form.
I think that's particularly important nowadays,
especially in an industrial civilization,
such as we have here in the United States.
I mean, it's extremely important
that we prove that we also can produce art
in exactly the same way that art was produced
by the great civilizations of the past.
If we can't do that, it seems to me quite clear
that something is seriously wrong with our civilization.
And so it's very important, I think,
that our people as a whole have some sense
of the true role of the creative artist in the world of today.
Of course, we artists of today have a problem
that the older artists didn't have
and which I suppose you might call
the crucial problem of our times,
and that is the big, enormous, new potential audience
that we've been given.
After all, the older composers
wrote for a comparatively small number of people.
You might call them a musical elite.
And nowadays, suddenly, music has become democraticized.
Almost anybody can hear a great symphony by Beethoven
or a great oratorio by Bach.
And we want, in some way, to make contact, I think,
with that large potential audience.
Nowadays, one of the crucial problems of our own time
is how we can write music which can appeal to a large audience
and at the same time fulfill the highest musical standards.
My own feeling is that that's a very difficult thing to do
and that it merely cheapens the idea to imagine
that by writing down to the public --
or to the level of the public --
we're going to achieve our purpose.
The difficult thing is to keep the musical values high
and to have them expressed in a language
which great masses of people can understand.
Composers nowadays like very much
to write a kind of music
which we refer to as functional music.
That is to say music for which there is
some extra-musical purpose,
like accompanying a film or music for a show,
an incidental score for a stage production,
or music for a radio production or TV production.
Anything of that sort where the music has practical use
is much sought after nowadays by composers.
I myself have written numbers of works for those various media,
and I've been especially interested
in writing music for films.
I've done five or six films,
some of which were really quite problematical.
The reason for that is that film music is rather a new medium,
and each new film that one is given to set
is kind of like a new toy that we play with.
I was especially interested in trying to answer a question
that people are always asking me
as to whether or not they should listen to the music
when they go to see a movie
or whether they should just take it for granted.
And my answer to that always is, it largely depends
on how music-aware you are in the first place.
Just like your wife might be more conscious
of the gown worn by the female star of a picture,
so a person who tends to listen to music anyhow
is likely to get more enjoyment from a film score
than a person who doesn't think about music much
and does just take it for granted.
In Hollywood, I wrote the score
for a film called "The Red Pony,"
based on a story by John Steinbeck.
I think the most effective way
that one can have demonstrated the value of film music
is to first watch the screen without music added
and then to see the same scene as the composer has treated it.
And I'd like you now to watch a scene of that film
without the music, as I first saw it,
in order to later on see how it is when the music is added.
And now watch the same scene with my music added.
I think you'll see demonstrated in that way
what music does to help the dramatic action
of a particular scene.
[ Up-tempo music plays ]
As you can see from that little demonstration,
the problem the composer is given
is to make the dramatic action seem more lively.
A screen -- A cold screen by itself
doesn't seem to be humanly warm
or as alive as it does when you add music to that same scene.
And so every composer who works in Hollywood
or in any place for the writing of film music
always tries to cooperate with the director of the picture
so that the director's idea of the dramatic action
is furthered through the use of the music.
Every once in a while,
a composer feels that he's working on a piece
which is a major effort.
I'd like you to hear a movement from such a major effort --
my "Piano Sonata."
I worked on it for about two years,
and I feel that at least one essential part of me
is contained in that work.
Here's the first movement from "A Sonata for Piano."
People sometimes wonder, I imagine,
why we spend our lives
putting little black marks on lines on white paper.
As a matter of fact,
that does seem like a strange occupation for a grown man.
But in actuality, we are thinking about something
quite different from those little black marks.
We are thinking about the thing that produces them,
the feelings, the emotions,
the convictions that produces them.
Every artist, I think,
wants his work to be, in some way,
an individual expression of his own personality.
He also wants it, in some way,
to express something of our own time and place
so that nobody could mistake when it was written.
And I also think that he wants to create his art
because, in a sense,
he's always discovering things about himself.
It's as if each new work that he wrote
in some way tells him about some facet of his own life
and his own convictions that he otherwise wouldn't know.
And I think it's because of the deep-seated need,
which it is, to express these feelings
and these convictions that the artist, in the end,
spends his entire life at the job.
This is NET -- National Educational Television.
How fantastic is it to hear Aaron Copland on music
in the early '60s?
This program is a fascinating time capsule,
even down to the description
of how artists and businessmen dress.
that one of his creative convictions in composing
is to express something of our own time and place.
I think hearing the composer talk us through his work
makes you appreciate that notion even more.
I hope you've enjoyed this look inside the ALL ARTS Vault.
I'm Maddie Orton. See you next time.