Kai Wright: I'm Kai Wright, and this is the United States of Anxiety, Culture Wars. In this episode, we're going to do something a little different. We're going to focus on a piece of music by a really important composer because this composition, it is crucial to a hugely important era in American history, and particularly, the history of our culture wars. Before we get into our story, as we produced this, we were wondering how many people know about this music. We figured there's probably a lot of people like me, maybe you recognize it, it rings a bell but you can't quite put your finger on what it is or why it matters.
Our producer, Jessica Miller went with me to Queens College to run a little experiment. My name is Kai, this is Jess, we're from-
Jessica Miller: Hi, I'm Jessica.
Kai Wright: -WNYC Radio. We're making a story about a piece of music. We just stopped students walking around campus and played the composition for them. What I want you to tell me is when you recognize it, if you can identify it, and then what's it make you think?
Student 1: I've heard it. It sounds like either Star Wars or the beginning of a movie.
Kai Wright: We got that one a lot.
Student 2: The last time I heard it was from a movie, He Got Game with Denzel Washington.
Student 3: It just sounds very intense and like something big is about to happen.
Kai Wright: That's another common response, the grandeur of it.
Student 4: It sounds very regal. The drums just came in.
Student 4: The drums make it exciting.
Kai Wright: We finally caught up with two members of the campus orchestra.
Aaron Stokes: My name is Aaron Stokes. I am a sophomore at [unintelligible 00:01:38] music, and I play the cello.
Martin Christ: Hi, I'm Martin Christ.
Kai Wright: Martin plays the viola. We started with Aaron. Have you ever heard this before? Does it sound familiar at all?
Aaron Stokes: Definitely sounds like film music. I'm not sure what film. I'm not sure if Jurassic Park or Star Wars. [chuckles] One of the two, I don't know.
Kai Wright: So much for the cellist, but the violist-- Here we go.
Martin Christ: This is from Aaron Copland.
Aaron Stokes: [laughs] Are you kidding me?
Martin Christ: Isn't that [humming]?
Kai Wright: The violist for the win.
Martin Christ: [humming]
Aaron Stokes: I did not remember.
Martin Christ: [humming].
Kai Wright: The sound Aaron Copland created in his Fanfare for the Common Man decades and decades ago is now deeply ingrained in American culture as the sound of heroism-
Kai Wright: -of triumph-
Kai Wright: -and of patriotism.
Speaker: [unintelligible 00:02:45] upset victory, Donald J. Trump will become the 45th president of the United States defeating Hillary Clinton at a campaign.
Kai Wright: All of these scores riffed on Aaron Copland's sound. Back when Copland, a gay Jewish man from Brooklyn, when he wrote his iconic Fanfare, being a patriot meant something very different than it does today. WNYC culture producer, Sara Fishko is our expert guide this week. She's exploring what is the American sound. She takes us back in time to tell the story of the rise and fall of Copland's version of the Common Man.
Sara Fishko: The Aaron Copland story is filled with ironies. For one thing, Copland reached the height of his artistry and fame during the most desperate times in 20th century America, the era of the Great Depression and the years of World War II. For another, he first thought about creating music that sounded uniquely American only after he had left America, Brooklyn to be exact, for Europe in 1921. He recalled later he had read about an American music school being formed that very year, post-World War I, outside Paris.
Aaron Copland: The instant I read about it, I thought, "Oh, gee, I don't know a soul in France, this would be a way of going, and at least having some friends around and getting a start."
Sara Fishko: So off, he went. Once there, Copland began to search for a compositional style. "In his own way," says Judith Tick, who co-wrote Aaron Copland's America.
Judith Tick: He graduated high school and did not go to college, instead, he became an apprentice.
Sara Fishko: His mentor in Paris was the fame Nadia Boulanger, who would go on to train everyone from Quincy Jones to Phillip Glass.
Judith Tick: He absolutely adored the melior that Nadia Boulanger created around her, which was premised on the notion that a composer had to find his own voice.
Sara Fishko: For a while, looking for his own voice, he lived the Paris life. That lost generation life we know a little bit about from Hemingway, and Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, artists, and thinkers, looking for new forms, new ideas. Copland used to wander over to Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Company bookshop on the Rue de l'Odéon.
Aaron Copland: One would see Joyce there every evening and Andre Gide, go across the street for French books, I really lived through this whole sense of getting rid of the past and developing something new of our own time.
Sara Fishko: As it turned out, Copland's teacher pushed him toward the new American jazz. For the first time, it excited him.
Aaron Copland: The great charm of jazz hit me from 3,000 miles away, you might say. In Paris, it seemed much more American.
Sara Fishko: He wrote this piece Jazzy around that time. For him, jazz was the catalyst. It forced him to ask what would be a way to write concert music that sounded American. "After all, pretty much every other country had its own distinctive classical music," said Copland later to a group of college students.
Aaron Copland: The '20s was a period of [unintelligible 00:06:03] writing specifically Hungarian music. Stravinsky was very Russian, he couldn't possibly have been anything else. Debussy was terribly French, and so it seemed-- [crosstalk]
Sara Fishko: It seemed only right for America's music to have a recognizable character too.
Judith Tick: He came back to New York determined to write American music.
Sara Fishko: Back in the US, he hadn't solved it yet. Author Paula Musegades says he was still writing as a post-World War I modernist in a very individualistic style.
Paula Musegades: The music is more atonal, it's a stark difference from the more Americana sound that you tend to associate with Copland.
Sara Fishko: It wasn't very popular. He and the world kissed modernism goodbye in the next decade.
Judith Tick: When the 1930s hit, modernism crashed as sharply as the stock market did in 1929.
Speaker: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.
President Roosevelt: My friends, I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking.
Sara Fishko: Copland along with millions of Americans heard President Franklin Roosevelt broadcast his first fireside chat during the Great Depression.
President Roosevelt: We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system, and it is up to you to support and make it work.
Sara Fishko: It was in these years that FDR created the new deal and said to the American people, "We are all in this."
President Roosevelt: Together we cannot fail.
Sara Fishko: A spirit of liberalism rose in the country. Americans trying to recover from the crash united around progressive ideas.
Sam Tanenhaus: Roosevelt's victories in 1932, and especially in 1936, were gigantic.
Sara Fishko: Writer and historian, Sam Tanenhaus.
Sam Tanenhaus: Democrats had majorities of a kind that are almost inconceivable today. This was not an era like our own of divided government, this was the democratic party forming coalitions with liberal Republicans.
Sara Fishko: There was not only room for artists in the society, it actually presented them with a new civic identity and responsibility.
Judith Tick: The federal government was funding programs for artists, including writers, poets, performers, and composers.
Sara Fishko: Copland jumped right in. He was active in various composers organizations, the Young Composer's Group, the Composers Collective. In 1937, he co-founded the American Composers Alliance.
Judith Tick: If you think of these words, league, group, collective, alliance, what are they? They're synonyms for union. It doesn't mean you have to write or compose or think in one way, it's somehow finding a language that you can share.
Sara Fishko: This was growing into the broadest left-wing culture America has ever known. It even had its own name.
Jon Wiener: They called it the popular front. The idea was that all working people, all ordinary Americans should join together to fight the big evil forces in the world.
Sara Fishko: Jon Wiener teaches history at UC Irvine. He says it was a movement, anti-fascist, pro-union, civil libertarian.
Jon Wiener: I think it's an ideal that was held by millions of immigrants who had come to the United States before World War I, and now were growing up and wanted very much to be Americans, and in a lot of ways, this was their idea of the America they wanted to be a part of.
Sara Fishko: Believe it or not, for a time, the slogan of the popular front was "Communism is 20th Century Americanism."
Jon Wiener: It resonated deeply with the American left. They wanted to be good Americans, they believed in American ideals. For them, there was no conflict between being a leftist and being a good American, believing in equality and freedom of speech.
Sara Fishko: Artists like Copland were captivated by the sense that things could change for the better and that they could build nothing short of a new kind of United States. Social Security was created, unions gained the right to strike, and the idea emerged that the common man, a key phrase of the moment, could take hold of government, gain power, and achieve just about anything.
Sara Fishko: There was an explosion of creativity around these ideas.
Jon Wiener: Culturally, a new idea of America was being formed in two places, in particular, through jazz, which was multiracial, it was dominated by African American musicians with some great white musicians, and even some integrated bands like [unintelligible 00:10:55] Goodman's, and Hollywood. Hollywood was the creation of immigrant Jews, for the most part, who came up with this idea of an ideal America. So the notion of what the utopian American culture could be was coming from a much wider stream of sources than it ever had before. That's the beginning of mass culture in America, movies, music, comic strips, the radio.
Sara Fishko: To see the merging of traditional American patriotism with the spirit of a new deal and with a little of the common man thrown in, you had only to go to a Frank Capra film. Thomas Doherty, author of Projections of War prefers Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Thomas Doherty: Which really comes at a time in which America is looking at what will probably be a Second World War.
Speaker: What do you think? Daniel Boone is lost.
Thomas Doherty: That montage of Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith.
Speaker: Lost in the wild of Washington.
Thomas Doherty: Taking the tour of Washington when he first comes to town can still bring tears to even a cynical American eye when he goes through all the great secular cathedrals of American life ending at the Lincoln Memorial.
Sara Fishko: Which brings us back to Aaron Copland, who was as swept up as anyone in the urgent collective spirit of the moment in the 1930s. It was thrilling, and the culture demanded exactly the kind of distinctly national music he'd been trying to write for the concert hall. He continued to work with the sound and spirit he wanted.
Judith Tick: He wanted to connect art and life. I think he actually used that phrase. He wanted his music to be part of how Americans saw themselves. He wanted to feel there was an audience for what he heard.
Sara Fishko: He traveled to Mexico and heard Mexican folk tunes and used them in El Salón México in 1936. Emboldened by the success of that piece, he looked toward a similar approach to the music of his own country, just as the culture of America was being rediscovered and reinvented in 100 different ways.
Judith Tick: I think you can look at the 1930s as the beginning of a renaissance of awareness about American folk music.
Judith Tick: Alan Lomax is a key figure in any understanding of what Copland is about. He was such a radical collector of Anglo-American and African American folk music at a time when people really didn't understand what this was.
Judith Tick: Copland knew Lomax. He used to go over to his house and listen to music.
Sara Fishko: Copland soaked up the tunes.
Judith Tick: Lomax lived his life in the field. He lived his life in a truck weighed down with tape recorders and tape machines, and he went to prisons, and flood islands and remote places, and recorded people. Copland took what he needed wherever he could get. It found its way to his musical consciousness because it was so much in the environment.
Sara Fishko: By the late '30s, Copland's piece Billy the Kid was filled with spare, open chords, and folk-inspired melodies. The composer had arrived at what turned out to be a signature sound. Where do you place him in the use of this sound with these relatively unusual intervals for that time?
John Corigliano: I place him at the top of that.
Sara Fishko: I'm sitting opposite composer John Corigliano who's at the piano.
John Corigliano: He may not have been the very first but he was certainly the one that is most recognized when that sound comes, and it's called Americana, by the way.
Sara Fishko: What was he using to create that sound?
John Corigliano: Well, Aaron Copland wanted to preserve the sense of tonality, the sense of being in a key. The chords that came out of those scales were chords that had been used for 200 years. He wanted to make fresh chords that still could be in a key.
Sara Fishko: Tonal composers had, for the most part, made chords built around conventional thirds. That is built around every other note in the basic scale.
John Corigliano: We have a chord. Chords harmonize. What Copland did was he decided that you didn't have to build chords on every other note. You could do other ways of combining notes to make a sound like a chord. For example, you can use just one note above the [piano key], and you can get a beautiful sound if you play that [piano keys]. Copland used very often two-note chords. When he had more than two notes, they were very far apart or very close together but they didn't have this chain of thirds, so they sounded very sparse and yet sounded very beautiful.
Sara Fishko: There it was, a non-European, somewhat radical, very accessible American style. Tender and yet, triumphant, simplified to go along with the progressive, populist politics that had led Copland in this direction in the first place, and it was patriotic in keeping with a moment that celebrated the so-called common man.
Kai Wright: After the break, Aaron Copland's music becomes the soundtrack of that common man moment until he finds himself on a list of people branded as un-American.
Sara Fishko: Composer Aaron Copland had found an accessible identifiably American sound for his music. In that spirit, he had a strong desire to join in that most popular art, movies. Unlike some other ambitious composers of concert music, he didn't think of it as beneath him at all.
Judith Tick: He saw it as really this great opportunity to be able to share his music with many people and to perfect his accessible yet sophisticated sound.
Speaker: Smoke makes prosperity, they tell you here. Smoke makes prosperity, no matter if you choke on it.
Sara Fishko: His first film score was for the documentary, The City, a social film about city planning shown at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. That was the score that grabbed the attention of director Lewis Milestone, who asked him to come to Hollywood in 1939 to score the film Of Mice and Men.
Sara Fishko: Aaron Copland was now a celebrity, and he was a gay Jewish celebrity at that. He was greatly admired by other American composers and had public acceptance as well. By the time of World War II, he was one of a group of leading American composers asked to contribute an orchestral fanfare to the war effort. It was the conductor Eugene Goossens of the Cincinnati Symphony who put out the call, and Copland set to work on a short piece, something that might rally support and spirit. As the fanfare began to take shape, the war was on the minds of the country's leaders and citizens, says Harvey JK, author of The Fight for the Four Freedoms.
It was hard, if not impossible, to think of anything else, and that had been true for the last few years.
Harvey JK: The debate at the time was so extensive in that whole period of say '38 to our own entry into the war. It's really a question of not just should the United States enter the war or not, but in many ways, the question is posed, what does America stand for? What's the meaning of America?
Sara Fishko: At some point during that period, it's likely Aaron Copland had his radio on.
Radio Presenter: Columbia presents another of its programs in which prominent speakers talk about current topics of vital national interest.
Sara Fishko: As the debate about America played out on the air. A Henry Wallace speech of 1942 had a clear common man message.
Henry Wallace: Everywhere, the common people are on the March, by the millions they are learning to read and write, learning to think together, learning to use tools.
Sara Fishko: Wallace was vice-president under FDR. His widely heard speech called for what he termed the century of the common man. He warned citizens that they must learn to self-govern and to fear the demagogue.
Henry Wallace: It is easy for demagogues to arise and prostitute the mind of the common man to their own base end. Such a demagogue may get financial help from some person of wealth who is unaware of what the end result will be.
Sara Fishko: The common man idea was picked up instantly by NBC. Not much more than a month later, the network ran a star studded radio spectacular called Toward the Century of the Common Man. Next, it appeared in theaters as a US propaganda film with patriotic music and images added to Wallace's stern words.
Henry Wallace: No Nazi counter revolution will stop us. The common man will smoke the Hitler stooges out into the open in the United States.
Sara Fishko: It was real popular cultural moment.
Henry Wallace: He will destroy [unintelligible 00:21:39].
Sara Fishko: The common man speech Sam Tanenhaus reminds us was a direct response to the views of Time-Life magnate, Henry Luce, whose famous essay in Life magazine, heralded what Luce had called the American century.
Sam Tanenhaus: The idea was America would be his [unintelligible 00:21:55], his [unintelligible 00:21:56], the powerhouse that would lead the Western democratic Alliance and bring its industrial and democratic might to the world.
Sara Fishko: A more imperialist idea of where America would wind up after the war. When the Luce essay appeared in Life, Orson Welles wrote, "If Mr. Luce's prediction of the American century will come true, God help us all."
Sara Fishko: Aaron Copland writing his fanfare in 1942, commented with his music. The common man moment was dominating the discourse.
Sam Tanenhaus: "Am I going to call this the fanfare for democracy?" That was his first thought.
Sara Fishko: Just as the composer was searching for a title for his piece.
Sam Tanenhaus: Second thought is, "Will I call it the fanfare for the four freedoms," because that's the keywords of the day.
Sara Fishko: By then it seemed right to call it Fanfare for the Common Man. The title and the piece captured the public imagination. Copland had searched for an imposed simplicity in his music. This was one of the most celebrated examples.
John Corigliano: If you take Fanfare for the Common Man, he starts off that piece by having a melody that jumps without scales. [piano keys] Jump, jump, the next note.
Sara Fishko: John Corigliano says, in this case, the simplicity comes from the distance between the notes.
John Corigliano: When he first harmonizes this, he harmonizes it only with notes five notes apart and four notes apart so we get a very bare sound instead of the full rich chord.
Sara Fishko: Copland also knew how to orchestrate to great effect.
Sara Fishko: It sounded simple but it also sounded rich.
Jon Wiener: I think Copland was searching for a language that was simple enough to be recognized, but it wasn't simple-minded. It was the opposite of simple-minded and I think a lot of his ideology comes into his music-making.
Sara Fishko: Later the fanfare was added by Copland to his Third Symphony and it took off to become the epitome of musical patriotism. This was early in Copland's spectacular run in the 1940s, one Americana style hit after another, the Lincoln Portrait, Danzon cubano, Music for Movies, Rodeo.
Judith Tick: Culminating in a masterpiece, which is Appalachian Spring. There he uses shaker tunes, which, of course, are the essence of simplicity.
Sara Fishko: Appalachian Spring won the Pulitzer Prize for Copland in 1945. By the end of the '40s, he was back in Hollywood to do more music for films, including William Wyler's, The Heiress, and that earned him Hollywood's highest honor.
Speaker: The winner is Alan Copland for The Heiress.
Sara Fishko: He fired off a note to his friend and fellow composer Leonard Bernstein, "Did you hear, I won an Oscar for The Heiress, price goes up." He'd climbed to a great height but the world was changing.
Speaker: Calling the House Un-American Activities Committee to order, Chairman J. Parnell Thomas of New Jersey opens an inquiry into possible communist penetration of the Hollywood film industry.
Sara Fishko: The house committee on un-American activities had already begun its work in 1947. The same year as the start of the Cold War.
Speaker: Are you a member of the communist party or have you ever been a member of the communist party?
Sara Fishko: They went right for Hollywood and the headlines. American politics was taking a radical right turn after decades of liberal victories and progressive programs.
Jon Wiener: That whole world suddenly, once the Cold War started, once the Soviet Union emerged as our leading enemy, everybody associated with the left was in trouble, lost their jobs or ran into problems elsewhere.
Sara Fishko: Senator Joseph McCarthy had been voted in during the 1946 elections and soon he broadened the targeted attacks.
Joseph McCarthy: One communist on a faculty of one university is one communist too many.
Jon Wiener: When we talk about McCarthyism, we always associate it with a particular boarishness of a man.
Joseph McCarthy: One communist among [unintelligible 00:26:49].
Jon Wiener: Frankly, there is a class prejudice in this, and McCarthy's accusations against these Ivy Leaguers is one of the cultural undertones of this entire era, where you have people like McCarthy, a working class, Irish-German, and Roy Cohn, a pushy New York Jewish guy up against the aristocrats of the state department. Yale, Harvard-educated fellows who were always configured in the McCarthy vision as a feat pinkos alien people, both ideologically, and not too far under the surface, sexually as well.
Sara Fishko: Something familiar but turned upside down.
Speaker: He's the common man with the double-dip fists, who's going to chase the [unintelligible 00:27:38], sissy, sellout, Harvard-types away from government, and don't think that's gone away or ever will because it won't. It hits a division right inside the American character.
Joseph McCarthy: We've got to dig and root out the communists and the cooks, and those who are bad for America.
Sara Fishko: As FDR used radio, so McCarthy used media in a different era.
Joseph McCarthy: If we have a Republican president, we'll be able to get those records I'm sure.
Jon Wiener: McCarthy realizes that you could get power simply by being a media superstar in the age of radio and then especially TV, which starts coming into many American homes by 1953, 1954. McCarthy can use his live television news conferences, his telecast, Senate investigations to promulgate his vision of America and not incidentally to gain a political power that would have taken decades to get if he had done it the old-fashioned way of slogging in the US Senate.
Sara Fishko: Our hero, Mr. Copland was caught in all this. He found himself in the publication Red Channels, along with 150 other cultural figures and journalists who were now on a list of the unemployable due to their political beliefs and affiliations, a blacklist. There were a lot of lists then, which created an atmosphere of finger-pointing, innuendo, and fear. The attorney general had a list of groups considered subversive. That is all of the leagues and collectives and alliances artists and activists had joined during the common man era. If you'd ever belonged to one, you were a suspicious character, not only artists but also teachers, civil service workers. Everyone was suspect.
People in unions and other organizations were being asked to sign loyalty oaths. Later Copland was questioned by Senator McCarthy and counselor Roy Cohn in a special executive session of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on government operations. During the two-hour grilling, Copland was [unintelligible 00:29:48] evasive, not refusing to answer, but rather cannily dodging every verbal bullet that came his way. What changed for America's most distinctively American composer? Well, for a while, Hollywood was not an option. He was on the blacklist, and Senator McCarthy of all people knew the power of cultural communicators.
He influenced the state department to create obstacles for their work. Copland's scores and recordings were banned in hundreds of US overseas libraries, access officially denied, but what changed most dramatically is his music. The creator of this widely loved and accepted American sound adopted a more atonal internationalist approach, much more popular after the war. Some of his supporters were mystified by the change. His best-known piece in the 1960s was Connotations for Orchestra, a much darker work for a darker, more individualistic era. He said in 1968.
Aaron Copland: The idea of writing specifically American-sounding music is definitely out at the present time. Nobody knows when it might come back again.
Sara Fishko: Copland's Americana style of writing music was out because the ideas and collective spirit Copland helped to create were out. He'd been an idealist, an optimist, a patriot, and his music had captured that. Perhaps he remained all those things, but he more or less abandoned his signature sound and he was no longer quite the shining star of music he once was. It's just very difficult to be a creative person who lives for many decades and establishes an identity.
Judith Tick: It's hard to ride the waves of indifference when you've been used to so much prominence. I think for Copland, it was very painful.
Sara Fishko: He still hoped to reach people with his work he said on the Today Show in 1970.
Speaker: I heard you ask at one time, "How does a man go on writing when nobody listens to what you're writing?"
Aaron Copland: I've never understood that, it seems to me an impossible situation to find yourself in but I don't know. The urge to write is the main thing that moves you.
Sara Fishko: A story of the search by a composer and a country for a national identity with profoundly divided results.
Kai Wright: The composer who created the sound of Americana, a sounds so deeply ingrained in our culture that generations later, I don't even think about it when I hear it. The composer who created that sound was deemed un-American, as was his music. It's a reminder that our culture wars are ultimately a struggle for power. It's also a reminder that America is an idea, a theory of not just government, but of how people can live together. That idea, it has been up for debate from jump. That leaves us wondering, what is the American idea now and more to the point, what do you think the American idea ought to be? Call us up and tell us 844-745-talk. That's 844-745-8255.
Don't forget to leave your name and where you're calling from, and hey, if you can put the idea into sound, why not give it a shot?
The United States of 'Anxiety Culture Wars' is a production of the narrative unit of WNYC news WNYC studios. Sara Fishko produced this story assisted by Olivia Brightly. The narrative unit team includes Reniqua Allen, Rebecca Carroll, Paige Cowett, and Patricia Willens. Casey Means is our technical director with help from Wayne Schulmeister. Bill Moss was the mix engineer of this episode. Candice Brown is our composer and our theme was performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. Andy Lanset is our archivist. Our digital team is Lee Hill, Diane Jeanty, and Jennifer Shue. Jim Schachter is vice president of news for WNYC.
Jessica Miller is the narrative unit's producer. Karen Frillmann is our editor and executive producer. I'm Kai Wright, talk to you next time.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.