Aaron Copland: the man, his music, and McCarthyism

By Greg Weinstein

On Tuesday, May 26, 1953, Aaron Copland appeared as a witness before the Senate committee headed by Joseph McCarthy. Summoned because of his past relationship with the American government—he served as an international lecturer and Fulbright professor—he was assaulted with a series of questions designed to ascertain his past and present political affiliations. While his answers were understandably evasive and disingenuous (McCarthy enumerated 27 so-called communist fronts to which Copland belonged!), the whole affair gives rise to a number of questions. Most importantly, how does a composer revered for his creation of characteristically American music come to be implicitly labeled “un-American?”

From a modern perspective, it seems ludicrous to suggest that Copland was a communist revolutionary. Yet one cannot overlook the numerous affiliations Copland held with the Popular Front during the 1930s and ’40s. Much of the music presently heard as quintessentially “American” emerged from this period. It hardly seems a coincidence that his aesthetic concern with writing’ music accessible to a broad public coincides precisely with the later Depression years and his involvement with left-wing politics. Of the many pieces composed during these decades—including ballets and many film scores—perhaps the most recognizable part of the accessible American idiom is the Third Symphony (1944-6).

The Third Symphony (which, with works by Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein, will be performed on Saturday, March 6 by the University Symphony Orchestra) was composed at the end of World War II in response to a commission from Russian conductor Serge Koussivitzky. It is, by far, the biggest American work in a genre that acquired a special patriotic significance during the war, and it’s written in a style somewhat unique in Copland’s oeuvre. Its musical idiom bears an explicit connection with the broadly accessible works that preceded it. The themes are frequently long, but they are tonally grounded, lyrical, and unchanging. Unlike many of Copland’s earlier works, no folk melodies are incorporated; however, there are moments of homophonic chorale writing (such as the end of the finale) that recall the contents of the Workers Song Book, to which Copland contributed the mass song “Into the Streets May First” in 1935. Themes recur across movements, usually without alteration, and the movements mostly bear only loose resemblance to traditional symphonic forms. (As Elizabeth Crist has noted, only the finale is in sonata form, and even then the important moments are articulated by the return of the introductory fanfare material).

The symphony reflects Copland’s own description of his compositional process between 1932 and 1946: “I felt that it was worth the effort to see if I couldn’t say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms.” He had grown frustrated that the American musical landscape was dominated by composers “in danger of working in a vacuum” by refusing to acknowledge the critical importance of the audience in their compositions. In contrast, Copland consciously crafted a musical style that—for all its progressive Popular Front influence—has come to uniquely signify an idealized portrait of America: for example, the American West of Billy the Kid and rodeo. Recognizing the importance of the audience and the artist’s singular ability to communicate with them, Copland assimilated into his style what many critics have recognized as a contemporary Soviet ideal: music that aspires “to achieve maximum accessibility to the new mass audience.”

Interestingly, for all the populist appeal of Copland’s audience outreach, the music that results from these ideals is not inherently patriotic. These works have endured in the orchestral repertoire for so long because they speak to a broad audience on many levels. Further, they have come to musically represent America more by appropriation than by explicit connection. However, the Third Symphony was composed at the tail end of World War II, a very brief period in Copland’s career where his Popular Front aesthetic merged with explicit musical nationalism. In addition to the aforementioned characteristics of the symphony, the most profound impact on the listener will likely be made by the opening of the finale: a setting of Copland’s earlier composition, “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

The Fanfare was composed in 1942 and premiered the following year at the behest of Eugene Goosens and the Cincinnati Symphony. The commission was explicitly patriotic, as Copland’s work was one of 10 fanfares performed by the orchestra as an attempt to musically contribute to the war effort. While Copland’s work retains the simplicity of earlier works, it is distinguished (in Copland’s oeuvre and from the other fanfares) by its deliberate tempo and its strident, leaping melody. Though today it is ingrained in the American consciousness—the Fanfare has appeared in Army commercials, movies, and many other sources—the Cincinnati commission was relatively minor. There is no reason to believe that Copland aimed to reach as broad an audience with the Fanfare as he did with his ballets or film scores. Thus, it is no surprise that he composed the Fanfare in a contrasting idiom from his earlier populist works.

Both the title and the music went through many revisions. (Sketches show that Copland struggled to devise a title that he found sufficiently universal, and a discarded fanfare motif was used as the first theme of the symphony’s second movement.) Vice President Henry Wallace’s speech, in which he talked about the next century being the century of the common man, inspired the title Copland eventually settled on. This was a well-documented concern of Wallace’s, as audiences likely would have recognized the source. Additionally, Copland later commented, “I sort of remember how I got the idea of writing “A Fanfare for the Common Man”—it was the common man, after all, who was doing all the dirty work in the war and the army.” The concern with the workers in society is a familiar theme for the composer. It is neither patriotic nor anti-patriotic, but here this agenda merges with explicitly American nationalism.

This combination of ideals transfers easily to the symphony, largely due to the use of the Fanfare. It has been noted that the Fanfare is a disruptive, rather than unifying, force in the finale, as are effects like the industrial-sounding anvil rhythms at the very end. The main musical materials of the movement retain the populist orientation of Copland’s 1930s works, but the Fanfare materials provide a sharp contrast every time they are used. However, the melding of musical materials ultimately produces a unique affect. For example, the anvil blows occur over the homophonic chorale texture that is so reminiscent of workers’ songs. Additionally, the first entrance of the Fanfare will likely surprise the listener, appearing after the understated third movement. Each of these elements is similarly joyous and optimistic, even as they arise from largely disparate ideologies.

The point is ultimately not to reclaim Copland’s music from the American patriotism that has appropriated it. There is certainly a degree of explicit patriotic flavor in symphony. However, as a listener 60 years removed from the work’s composition, it is important to recognize the story of the symphony as one of shifting ideologies rather than static symbolic representation. The piece emerged from a populist compositional practice infused with essentially American and nationalistic ideas. In the radically different political and musical climate less than 10 years later, Copland was labeled un-American. (Interestingly, his opera “The Tender Land,” whose musical style owes a debt to his 1930s ideology, found few sympathetic listeners when it was completed in 1954).

To modern ears, the symphony’s Popular Front origins have likely been supplanted by a different kind of patriotism. It has been given a permanent place in the musical canon and has come to symbolize a timeless American ideal. Ultimately, this reveals more about the nature of the listening public than it does about the meaning and specific cultural moment from which the symphony emerged. To sample the listening public’s reaction to Copland, see the Third Symphony on March 6 in Mandel Hall.