Fanfare for the uncommon musician
The man who wrote music that 'nobody but an American would dream up'
AARON COPLAND: THE LIFE AND WORK OF AN UNCOMMON MAN By Howard Pollack Henry Holt & Co. 690 pp., $37.50
Composer Aaron Copland uncannily touched - and captured - this country's musical consciousness, earning himself an honored place in the hearts of the American public.
Howard Pollack, a professor at the University of Houston and author of this extraordinarily thorough biography, believes Copland's music, with its "strong American flavor ... reflective of the American scene," is perhaps the most distinctive and identifiable musical voice ever produced by this country.
Nine years after Copland's death, the composer has finally gotten the serious critical and biographical study he merits. There were, of course, the engaging two-volume Copland-Vivian Perlis collaborations (l984, l989), a mixture of biography, oral history, photographs, and autobiography, but nothing with the depth and breadth of Pollack's superb new study, "Aaron Copland." He provides a detailed critical view of Copland's own music criticism as well as his entire musical output, including the abstract concert music, ballets, and film scores.
Best known for "Fanfare for the Common Man" and "A Lincoln Portrait," which Pollack points out were considered "disturbingly bombastic" by "elite musicians and artists," Copland yearned to write music that, as he put it, "is an expression of the life we live - a zippy rhythm that nobody but an American would dream up ... big sounding, healthy-sounding music.... I must believe," Copland reflected, "in the ultimate good of the world and of life as I live it in order to create a work of art."
Born in l900 to Russian Jewish immigrants living in Brooklyn, New York, Copland was, some thought, rather discreet about his Jewish background, yet he certainly never hid it. Aside from a few works, Copland never intended his music to have a particular Jewish style or content. Pollack writes that his music "seemed to evoke Protestant hymns as often as it did Jewish chant."
Pollack's tendency to quote a large variety of critics' opinions about Copland's music occasionally gets tiring and even confusing. However, his quotes from Copland's friends and colleagues give the reader a very human portrait of this complicated individual.
Copland said he was fortunate to have been "born with a musical gift," which his famed teacher Nadia Boulanger described as "a demonstration of God." Pollack's accomplishment here is to show how the tension between Copland's "inner and outer man" was made "gloriously whole" in his music.
Pollack writes clearly about music - no easy feat - and he gives serious critical evaluations of each of Copland's pieces. A lay reader may feel deluged by the sheer amount of information, but this book will be of great value to those choosing a repertoire or making up concert programs, and certainly of great value to anyone interested in Copland and his impact on American music.
*Susan Miron is a freelance writer in Newton, Mass.