Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland During the Depression and War

Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland During the Depression and War
By Elizabeth B. Crist
Oxford University Press; 201 pages
A review by R.C. Speck

To what extent was Aaron Copland a Communist? Or perhaps a ‘progressive’? We all know Copland’s passion for folk music: the cross-cultural melodies that made him popular, the jazzy rhythms that made him famous. We know him also for giving the Americas a musical identity separate from Europe’s.

But how much of this passion was the ideological journey of the composer? To what extent was his journey aligned with progressivism and similar movements shaping the political world in the 1930s and 1940s? And what was the role that music, especially Copland’s hybrid, groundbreaking music, played in this, both socially and politically? These are the questions that author Elizabeth Crist takes on in her book Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland During the Depression and War.

A scholarly and highly informative work, Music for the Common Man details how Copland’s music embraces “class-based politics of the Popular Front and the ideal of ethnic pluralism.” Crist begins with Copland in the Great Depression, which she claims “revivified collectivist energies” and “invested aesthetic philosophies with greater social urgency.” Copland’s political affiliation with the Communists during this time gets ample coverage. His music does too, such as the proletarian song “Into the Streets May First” and his Piano Variations.

Crist discusses Copland’s relationships with Latin American composers Heitor Villa-Lobos and Carlos Chávez and the influence these men had on Copland’s “El Salón México” and Billy the Kid. Crist also covers Copland’s work in government programs for cultural exchange and discusses his “Danzón Cubano” in detail (“The opening is purely percussive, with a syncopation characteristic of Latin American rhythms as well as African American ragtime”).

Crist offers much on Copland’s war years output, namely “Fanfare for the Common Man” and the gorgeous Appalachian Spring. His “Lincoln Portrait” gets much attention. Interestingly, Copland’s first choice for this piece was poet Walt Whitman, but the commission asking for these pieces already had a writer’s portrait from another composer. So Lincoln it was. Crist expounds on how Copland and Whitman shared much ideologically. But Abraham Lincoln was an excellent choice, and Crist describes how important Lincoln became to the American Left. Crist also writes about the debt “Lincoln Portrait” owes to African American music of the antebellum South, its syncopation, and its use of the “Camptown Races” melody.

The story continues into the McCarthy era. Crist includes Copland’s famous “I have never at any time been a member of any political party” letter and covers his less-than-forthcoming interview with McCarthy himself. In the end, Crist ties Copland’s fortunes to the progressivism of the 1930s and 1940s. When the American Left began to change in the 1950s to take on an anticommunist stance reflective of the Cold War, much of the idealistic collectivism of Copland’s youth became discarded. Modern composers had less interest in Copland’s grand and accessible style (Copland had always been the anti-Schoenberg), while leading intellectuals began to find middle class tastes banal. Copland’s star began to fade.

Crist’s premise is not so much that Aaron Copland was an integral part of the Left’s political culture during the 1930s and 1940s, but vice versa. In the case of Copland, ideology is married to music, and one cannot properly be discussed without the other.

This book review appeared in the fall 2010 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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