Aaron Copland, a tall, stooped, rather ingenuous man with greying wispy hair and the trace of a Brooklyn accent, has never had a steady job. He has drifted around from Tel Aviv to Hollywood, varying his work for each different audience, and in the process contributing probably more to contemporary music than any other living composer.
The only thing Copland has been forced to bear with is the twentieth century. "You're stuck with your period, just as with your family," he says, not unhappily. "A period would have to be pretty grim not to find something in it worth composing." This fidelity to his own time is undoubtedly the reason for Copland's extraordinary influence on modern music. The dean of American composers has severed his ties with the romanticists; he writes his music to reflect the outside world rather than to rework the feelings of a past age. "You don't pick the music," he points out, "it picks you."
Copland's choices of a medium for composition are as varied as his travels. Three years studying music in the cosmopolitan Paris of the early '20's gave him a catholicity of musical interests which was later to be tempered by the jazz and folk melodies of America. Copland therefore likes to think of himself as belonging in several categories. "I can be the easiest or the hardest to understand," he says; "it depends on who I'm writing for." He has written for many people, having composed music for the radio, schools, the theatre, and motion pictures, as well as for the more restricted audience of the concert hall. The Pulitzer Prize winning "Appalachian Spring," written in 1944 for Martha Graham, was in line with his theory of "music for use."
One of the chief causes for discomfiture among contemporary American composers, it appears, is the American public. It won't buy their music. Copland, about the only serious modern composer whose music has been commercially profitable, is nevertheless worried about the problem. "We like to think that people don't hear enough contemporary music. At any rate they don't understand it. There is a confusion in modern minds between art in literature and art in music; people will accept Gide and Mann in their literature, but must have Tchaikowsky and Brahms in their music."
Copland is now back at Harvard for the third times He is taking over the Charles Eliot Norton professorship this year after having replaced Walter Piston in 1935 after having held the Horatio Appleton Lamb chair in Music in 1944, Besides preparing the five Norton lectures and a half course in "Music in the '20's, "to be given this Spring, he is working on what he rather vaguely calls "a long piano piece." "You get a certain number of musical ideas; before they jell, you can't tell what it'll turn out to be." No more can Copland tell what he'll be doing next year--"except that I'll be composing."