Monday, December 08, 2008

American Anthems: The Music of Aaron Copland
By Nicholas Stix

Assigned for the first time to teach philosophy, I faced a daunting task: Making Hegel's irrational yet hugely influential metaphysics of the synthesis of opposites understandable to undergraduates of, um, modest gifts. Aaron Copland to the rescue! I played a tape of Copland's 1942 Lincoln Portrait, in which a variation on "Camptown Races" representing the South (point), and a brass-and-percussion evocation of a cavalry charge representing the North (counterpoint), fuse into the "new birth of freedom" and national rapprochement of Lincoln's sublime Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural, respectively. Alas, music can do what neither politics nor logic can.

University of Houston music professor Howard Pollock's ambitious, uneven book, Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man, while occasionally indulging in academic nonsense, is redeemed by the author's encyclopedic knowledge, informed affection for Copland's (1900-1990) person and music, and Pollock's ability, more often than not, to write technically sophisticated musical analyses without obscuring the music.

Aaron Copland was born in Brooklyn, educated in Paris, and lived in the American grain. We still live enveloped in his sounds: His 1942 ballet, Rodeo, hawks beef; the then obscure Shaker song, "Simple Gifts" (ca. 1848), that he worked into his most famous ballet, Appalachian Spring (1944), accompanies airline ads; and his short, 1942 work, Fanfare for the Common Man, has ennobled spots for New York's Museum of Natural History, and the Trinidad and Tobago TV show, Panorama, alike.

More important is the spell Copland's music has cast over other artists. For but one example, in Hugo Friedhofer’s Oscar-winning score to William Wyler's 1946 masterpiece, The Best Years of Our Lives, Friedhofer took an uptempo theme from Copland's 1938 ballet, Billy the Kid, evoking western town (as opposed to much slower farm) life, and made it slow and wistful, to express three returning veterans' problems readjusting to small-town life in Michigan. Much later, John Rubenstein adapted the same theme for the epic ABC drama, China Beach (1988-1991), to contrast wandering, lost Vietnam veterans' similar struggles with civilian routine with their intense, purposeful years "in country."

The best thing about Howard Pollock's book is its repudiation of the highbrow assumptions that popular music is somehow "derivative," orchestral music "original," and each at odds with the other.

Pollock's painstaking, chronological analyses show how Copland's "serious" works often derived from his more popular ones, and that some of his most ambitious pieces, e.g., the score to the 1949 film, The Red Pony, were composed for popular venues. In his Oscar-winning score for William Wyler's 1949 film, The Heiress, based on Henry James' story, "Washington Square," Copland had to portray a sensibility very unlike the robust attitudes he had been associated with. He came to depict feminine emotions with a delicacy new to Hollywood. That same, new delicacy suffused Copland's critically acclaimed Dickinson Songs, based on twelve Emily Dickinson poems, the following year.

Pollock's worst flaw is his occasional embrace of academic "queer theory." He calls "intriguing" idiotic notions advanced by K. Robert Schwartz, Susan McClary, and Mark Levine, who claimed that the postwar music that Americans emotionally responded to was somehow "gay music," adding, "More generally, the dialectical complexities of Copland's work arguably incorporate not only a Marxist perspective but the kinds of 'binarisms' characteristic of modernist homosexual-identified literature as explored by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick." Huh?!

In alternately affirming, demolishing, and reaffirming such lunacy, Pollock seems either spineless or cynical: "However intriguing such notions may be, they failed to illuminate the wide variety of styles and aesthetics among gay and straight composers alike."

Pollock discusses responses to Copland's "Jewishness" by early critics who projected their anti-Semitism onto his music, but fails to see the same phenomenon afoot in contemporary theorists' similarly tone-deaf insistence on "queering" Copland's music, based merely on the fact that he was a homosexual. (But aren’t we all?)

Aaron Copland strove always to create a quintessentially "American music." As Pollock points out, in Copland's most popular works, such as Appalachian Spring, the composer's "Americanism" might involve quoting from American folk music, i.e., "Simple Gifts," making allusions to other works, and finally, creating the illusion of derivativeness, by seeming to quote tunes, when he is in fact creating his own.

Pollock sees a second meaning to Americanism of "vastness" -- of solitary prairies and lonely cities -- but this sounds too vague and metaphysical to me.

Finally, following the author's hero, composer and Copland-friend Walter Piston (1894-1976), Pollock suggests that Copland's own ambiguity about the phrase "American music" gave it an even vaguer, third meaning: American music is anything that an American composes (to which I would add: which is not simply derivative of a foreign composer's music). But that would trivialize musical character as being no more than the matter of a composer having an American passport.

Ultimately, I think, Copland used the myth of an existing, distinctively American idiom, in order to create such an idiom.

In seeming contravention of logic, Aaron Copland can seem, musically, at any given moment to be any given thing to any given listener, but not all things to all listeners at all times. But then, amid his sophistication, he had gained true simplicity:

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn, will be our delight,
'Till by turning, turning we come ... round ... right.

(Simple Gifts)

Postscript: This essay was commissioned by a major, conservative magazine in 1999. In preparing it for publication, however, an assistant editor cut it from 900 to 600 words, making it unpublishable. The book editor was a gentleman, however, and while most publications pay "kill fees" of one-third to one-half the publication fee, he paid the full publication fee of $200.

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