Working in the Shadow of the Master

Working in the Shadow of the Master

“The world badly needs its artists, if only because the artist’s life affirms the individual and the importance of the individual. Such artists symbolize the free man [sic], the man who must decide for himself what is right, who must be free to make his own mistakes.”

—Aaron Copland (Autobiography)

Copland House

I’ve begun a month-long stay at Aaron Copland’s former house—”Rock Hill” as he simply and affectionately dubbed it—and the place is amply decorated with framed Copland quotations and other memorabilia. Were it not for this slight but nagging feeling of living in a museum exhibit, the house might feel more like an unpretentious older relative’s retirement cottage rather than the home and workplace of one of America’s strongest and most identifiable compositional voices.

(That is, if that relative had an awesome studio in the woods with huge floor-to-ceiling windows—quite a luxury after living in the metro D.C. area!)

Inside the house, many of Copland’s possessions remain. Some of them have been categorized and arranged so thoughtfully (by Copland friend and biographer Vivian Perlis) that it’s easy to imagine Copland being amused, perhaps slightly taken aback at the sight of every last receipt and back-of-envelope lecture outline ascribed with such significance; some possessions (a retro-knit back cushion bearing the inscription “AARON COPLAND: AMERICAN COMPOSER”) are strewn about with a casualness that belies their actual importance in everyday life. In the latter case, a few glances through old photos reveal that I am indeed using the same butt-cushion that A.C. did—these kinds of silly epiphanies are a welcome counterbalance to the sense of weight that comes from composing at the home of the guy who composed Fanfare for the Common Man.

The novice scrutinizes the master’s hand for obvious clues—as if mastery might be revealed in a pen stroke. There is something terribly intimate about seeing another composer’s own manuscript.

Aaron Copland with Leonard Bernstein

For many in the contemporary music world today, the compositions of Aaron Copland would seem to epitomize the mainstream, specifically the mid-century tonal/contrapuntal style that continues to be enshrined in Hollywood film-scoring practices; but Copland’s status as a homosexual and Jew (with ties to ultra left-wing politics, no less!) put him squarely outside the mainstream in a time even less tolerant than our own. Perhaps what fascinates me the most about Copland is this marriage of the folksy and old-fashioned with the genuinely progressive—a simultaneous belief in both a certain “rugged individualism” alongside a celebration of the communal. Listening to the Piano Sonata as the woods grow dark, I am again struck by what an uncompromising, formally adventurous, and remarkably un-dogmatic work it is, the final chilling movement bordering on a near-minimalist sensibility at times.

It must have taken not only a plethora of compositional chops but also a genuine largeness of character for an artist to span such a breadth; today, for better or for worse, none among us seems able to fill the shoes of the kind of “mega composer” that Copland personified. Which makes me wonder what Copland himself might have thought about our musical landscape in 2010…

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