Aaron Copland: Brooklyn’s Greatest Musician

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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.