Brooke Gladstone: There are many Americas. Nowadays, they barely speak to each other, but during the most perilous years of the last century, one young composer went in search of a sound that melded many of its strains into something singular and new. He was a man of the left, though of no political party: gay, but neither closeted nor out; Jewish, but agnostic, unless you count music as a religion. This independence day, or near enough, we revisit Sara Fishko's 2017 piece on the story of Aaron Copland.
Sara Fishko: The Aaron Copland story is filled with irony. 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 famed Nadia Boulanger, who would go on to train everyone, from Quincy Jones to Philip Glass.
Judith Tick: He absolutely adored the milieu 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, 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 André 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 the period of Bartók writing, specifically Hungarian music. Stravinsky was very Russian. He couldn't possibly have been anything else. Debussy was terribly French.
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.
Paula Musegades: When the 1930s hit, modernism crashed as sharply as the stock market did in 1929.
Announcer: 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: The 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.
Paula Musegades: The federal government was funding programs for artists, including writers, poets, performers, and composers.
Sara Fishko: Copland jumped right in. He was active in the Young Composers' Group, the Composers' Collective. In 1937, he co-founded the American Composers Alliance. This was growing into the broadest left-wing culture America has ever known.
Jon Wiener: They called it the Popular Front.
Sara Fishko: Jon Wiener teaches history at UC Irvine. He says it was a movement, antifascist, pro-union, civil libertarian. Believe it or not, for a time, the slogan of the Popular Front was "Communism is 20th-Century Americanism".
Jon Wiener: 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 they could build nothing short of a new kind of United States. Social Security was created. Unions gained the right to strike. The idea emerged that "the common man", a key phrase of the moment, could achieve just about anything.
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 Ben 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. 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 the 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.
Jimmy Stewart: What do you think? Daniel Boone's lost.
Thomas Doherty: That montage of Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith-
Jimmy Stewart: Lost in the wilds 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.
Paula Musegades: I think you can look at the 1930s as the beginning of a renaissance of awareness about American folk music.
Alan Lomax is a key figure in any understanding of what Copland was 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.
Copland knew Lomax. He used to go over to his house and listen to music.
Sara Fishko: Copland soaked up the tunes.
Paula Musegades: Lomax lived his life in the field. He lived his life in a truck, weighted down with tape recorders and tape machines, and he went to prison 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 placed him at the top of that.
Sara Fishko: I'm sitting opposite composer John Corigliano, who is 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. 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 have been used for 200 years. He wanted to make fresh chords that still could be in a key. To just--
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--
You can get a beautiful sound if you play that.
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. 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. It was patriotic in keeping with a moment that celebrated the so-called common man. Next stop, Hollywood to write the score for the film Of Mice and Men.
Aaron Copland was now a celebrity. 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. 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 J. Kaye, author of The Fight For The Four Freedoms, "It was hard, if not impossible to think of anything else." That had been true for the last few years.
Harvey J. Kaye: The debate at the time, it's not just should the United States enter the war or not, but what does America stand for? What's the meaning of America?
Announcer: Columbia presents another of its programs in which prominent speakers talk about current topics of vital national interest.
Sara Fishko: 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: It is easy for a demagogue to arise and prostitute the mind that 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 stirring words.
Sam Tanenhaus: No Nazi counter-revolution will stop. The common man will smoke the Hitler stooges out into the open in the United States. He will destroy their influence.
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.
Henry Luce: America would be the powerhouse that would lead the western Democratic Alliance and kind of 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.
Harvey J. Kaye: Am I 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.
Harvey J. Kaye: The second vote is what I call the Fanfare for the Four Freedoms because that's the keyword 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. Jump, jump, the next note.
Sara Fishko: John Corigliano says, in this case, this 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. We get a very bare sound instead of the full rich chord.
Sara Fishko: Copland also knew how to orchestrate to great effect. It sounded simple, but it also sounded rich.
John Corigliano: 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. I think a lot of his ideology comes into his music-making.
Sara Fishko: Later, the fanfare was added by Copeland to his third symphony. 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, Danzón Cubano, Music for Movies, Rodeo. Culminating in a masterpiece, which is Appalachian Spring. There, he uses shaker tools, which of course, are the essence of simplicity. 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.
William Wyler: The envelope, please.
Sara Fishko: That earned him Hollywood's highest honor.
Announcer: The winner is Aaron 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, the price goes up." He'd climbed to a great height, but the world was changing.
Announcer: Calling the House Un-American Activities Committee to order, Chairman Jay Parnell Thomas of New Jersey opens an inquiry into possible communist penetration of a Hollywood film--
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.
Announcer: 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. [crosstalk] American politics was taking a radical right turn. Senator Joseph McCarthy had been voted in during the 1946 elections. Soon, he broadened in the targeted attacks.
Joseph McCarthy: One communist on the faculty of one university is one communist too many.
Harvey J. Kaye: When we talk about McCarthyism, we are always associated with a particular kind of boorishness of the man.
Joseph McCarthy: One communist among the American advisors that Yalta was one communist.
Harvey J. Kaye: 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. He's the common man with the doubled-up fists who's going to chase the effete, sissy, sell-out Harvard types away from government. Don't think that's gone away or ever will because it won't. It's a division right inside the American character.
Joseph McCarthy: We have got to dig and root out the communists and the crooks and those that 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.
Harvey J. Kaye: 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 kind of 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 of this. He found himself in the publication red channels along with 150 other cultural figures and journalists who were now officially 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 a two-hour grilling, Copland was courteously evasive, not refusing to answer, but rather canily 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. Senator McCarthy, of all people, knew the power of cultural communicators, so 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.
What changed most dramatically was 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.
Sara Fishko: -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. He was no longer quite the shining star of music he once was.
Paula Musegades: 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 this work, he said on The Today Show in 1970.
Tom Brokaw: I've heard you ask it one time, "How does a man go on writing when nobody listens to what he writes?"
Aaron Copland: I've never understood that. It seems, to me, an impossible situation to find yourself in. 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.
Brooke Gladstone: Sara Fishko reported this piece for the WNYC podcast series: The United States of Anxiety. Thanks for listening. Please, check out The Big Show on Friday. It usually gets posted around dinnertime.
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