Aaron Copland: Brooklyn’s Greatest Musician

Monday, July 26, 2010

That should do it. That should start the argument. Any statement that begins with “Brooklyn’s Greatest…” is guaranteed to be contested by one Brooklynite or another. But I’ll assert that Copland is the greatest musician to have come from the County of Kings.

Copland has all the necessary immigrant cred you’d expect from a boy born in the borough in 1900--his parents, Lithuanian and Polish Jews, came to Brooklyn after stops in England and Texas. Copland took his first piano lessons from his older sister, attended concerts by Walter Damrosch’s New York Symphony (predecessor of the New York Philharmonic) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and was graduated from Boys’ High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Sure, Copland had lessons from a Manhattan pedagogue, but in 1920 he made the big jump to France to join the growing salon of Nadia Boulanger.  He stayed in Europe, meeting other composers and soaking up all kinds of music, until 1924. A year later, back in New York, Nadia Boulanger was the soloist in his Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, conducted by Walter Damrosch, who preceded the performance by telling the audience that, “if a gifted young man can write a symphony like this at 23, within five years he will be ready to commit murder.” That sounds like a kid from Brooklyn, doesn’t it?

Copland took inspiration for his compositions from American folk tunes, and from the sounds of Latin America as well. He added jazz elements to symphonic works in ways that were shocking at the time, though they don’t ruffle an ear today. He flirted with serialism, but found a distinct sound in simple musical elements and pure, open intervals that lend a kind of American majesty (an ironic idea, really) to his compositions.

He deliberately worked in American themes--think of his ballets Billy the Kid and Appalachian Spring; his Fanfare for the Common Man, one of a series of fanfares commissioned in World War II by Eugene Goosens for the Cincinnati Symphony, and the only one of the set that has become established in the repertoire; and his Lincoln Portrait, a setting of Lincoln’s words to music that creates a sense of grandeur and awe akin to that of seeing the Daniel Chester French statue at the Memorial in Washington. He studied in Europe, but he wrote American music. (The best endorsement of that idea might be the choice by the American Beef Council of ”Hoedown” from Rodeo as the music for their ad campaign a few years ago. Even now, some vegetarians who hear that music can feel a frightening desire for a prairie-grown Angus steak cooked rare.)  And he always encouraged other composers, though he didn’t necessarily influence their sound--with the notable exception of Leonard Bernstein.

Championed early in his career by Serge Koussevitzky at the Boston Symphony, Copland repaid that endorsement when Koussevitzky asked him to help start a summer school at the Berkshire Music Festival.  Soon, Copland was chairman of the faculty at Tanglewood, a position he held for nearly 25 years. Copland wrote articles and books on music, he lectured at the New School, he taught at Harvard, he toured Latin America on behalf of the State Department, he won the Pulitzer and the Oscar and the Presidential Medal of Freedom and honorary degrees from universities in the United States and abroad. 

Aaron Copland, child of European immigrants, found an American sound in classical music that no one had found before him. He pushed American music forward. He lectured at great universities, but his music stirs the emotional core in us all. Born and bred in Brooklyn, Aaron Copland was embraced and beloved by the world. And that’s why Aaron Copland is Brooklyn’s greatest musician.

Now, there are lots of famous musicians from Brooklyn, so you may disagree with my choice. In fact, if you’re from Brooklyn yourself, there’s a pretty good chance you will disagree. So make a case for your own Brooklyn-born nominee. We’ll calmly and reasonably discuss the issue, and reach agreement, right? Right? Fuhgeddaboudit.


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Comments [9]

Harry from Brooklyn

Sorry, but Gershwin was from Manhattan. There's actually a plaque on the building where he played his first piano on the Lower East Side.

Copland grew up on Washington Avenue, opposite the Botanic Garden; his family owned a dry-goods store on Baltic Street. He took piano lessons in a mansion on Clinton Avenue that has since been demolished.

The history of "Appalachian Spring" is well documented, since Graham was in New York and Copland was in LA. She asked him to adjust passages in the music to fit her choreographic needs, and he responded elegantly. The famous theme he borrowed was by Mother Elizabeth Lee, leader of Hancock Shaker Village in the Berkshires. (Today a tourist attraction, especially worth visiting in August, when volunteers will show you the power of Lee's music.)

The title on Copland's MS is "A Ballet for Martha." Graham picked "Appalachian Spring" as a title the day before the premier. The set design, by sculptor Isamu Noguchi, is as remarkable as the music and dance, making this piece a very rare collaboration among three geniuses.

Jul. 29 2010 01:01 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from

AARON COPLAND left his birthplace Brooklyn to study composition with Nadia Boulanger and the Fontainebleau School near Paris. He also studied music theory with Rubin Goldmark, the opera composer of the "Queen of Sheba", there in Paris. Goldmark later taught at Juiliard at its original Claremont Avenue building. His instinctive connection with the rhythms and the flair of jazz and the outgoing personality distinctive of Americans in his era projects through in his compositions, notably "Billy the Kid", his Piano Concerto, the "Dance Symphony", and "Music for the Radio". Kudos to other memorable Brooklynites as well, Beverly Sills, George Gershwin and Edna Ferber who wrote "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" and memories of the "those bums" when the Dodgers were REALLY what defined Brooklyn!
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Wagnerian heldentenor and director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute. Website:

Jul. 28 2010 08:51 PM
david from Marlboro, New Jersey

My vote as best Brooklyn musician has to be George Gershwin. What a talent and gone at the age of 38!

Jul. 28 2010 03:41 PM
Patrick from Newark, NJ

Although uniquely American Copeland's music is over-rated and played far, far too much; it becomes banal.

Jul. 27 2010 05:07 PM
Peter Weis from NY

Copland easily has to be one of my favorite composers. I can respect Gershwin but never really could get into his music as much as I could Copland's

Jul. 26 2010 03:31 PM
Gregg from Astoria Queens

I agree!
Copland was born and raised in Brooklyn. But he lived in Westchester County. And donated books on music to the local library.

Please also consider the Marx Brothers of all people who're also from Brooklyn and sometimes did end up playing music in their films, Harpo played one but also did play the piano, as did another brother.

Coincidences sometimes form a pattern, and this is one of them.

Jul. 26 2010 01:04 PM
Jane Roth from Propest Heights BK

I believe Copland attended Public School 9 on the corner of Sterling and Vanderbilt in Prospect Heights. This is a beautiful landmarked Gothick red sandstone building which has been converted to condos. But I like to imagine him learning the history that inspired his compostion themes in that big red schoolhouse.

Jul. 26 2010 12:45 PM
Robert Elden from New York City

Does "Brooklyn's Greatest Musician" necessarily have to be a composer?

May I suggest that Beverly Sills should also qualify as being a great musician, albeit a vocalist.

"Bubbles" was born (1929) and raised in Brooklyn. Surely she must be counted as a musician, her voice being her instrument of choice

Jul. 26 2010 11:24 AM
Peter Frank from Los Angeles

Hard to gainsay the point, but perhaps Copland should share the declared top spot with George Gershwin, on whom most of Spurgeon's accolades could also be showered. Gershwin didn't receive Copland's academic honors (perhaps because he didn't live long enough), but his triumphs in popular realms, from popular song to musical stage, were equally profound -- not because they were popular, but because they manifested superb artistry.

Jul. 26 2010 02:21 AM

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