Aaron Copland: Biography, Music & Facts

Instructor: Caitlin Daly

Caitlin has taught students in grades K-College. She has an MA in Musicology and an MS in Education.

Aaron Copland was a prominent American composer during the 20th century that was known for such popular pieces as 'Hoedown' and 'Appalachian Spring.' Learn more about his career, musical influences, and musical style in this lesson.

Biography and Musical Career

American composer Aaron Copland
Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland was an American composer known for his ability to musically portray the American midwest. He was born in New York City on November 14, 1900 to Russian immigrant parents. He received his first music lessons from his older siblings and mother, who were interested in piano and vocal studies. By his mid-teens, Copland had settled on music composition as his passion in life. After taking lessons with local teachers for a few years, he moved to Paris for more formal training and later returned to the U.S. with a renewed vigor for the American spirit.

Copland became a trusted mentor to different musicians, conductors, and composers throughout his life and career. His most notable mentee was conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein, who he worked with during many summers at Tanglewood (the Boston Symphony Orchestra's summer home). Bernstein later became the conductor of the New York Philharmonic and wrote such famous musicals as West Side Story and the operetta Candide. After his death, many other composers who had come under Copland's tutelage at some point in their careers wrote musical pieces to honor his memory.

Later in his career, Copland discovered a love for conducting and began to promote his own music along with other composers' new works. He also gave many lectures at New York's New School, wrote a few books, and became a reviewer of new compositions for several publications. As a testament to his long career and positive attitude, he received dozens of honorary doctorates and the Queen's College at CUNY created the Aaron Copland School of Music in his honor.

He died after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease at age 90 in 1990.

Musical Influences

His time in Paris proved to be a fantastic place for Copland to meet like-minded thinkers and grow his music knowledge. He studied with Nadia Boulanger, a well-known teacher whose unorthodox teaching methods touched dozens of Copland's contemporaries, including Quincy Jones and Elliot Carter. During his three years with Boulanger, Copland learned counterpoint, orchestration, theory, and other musical components.

A portrait of Nadia Boulanger
Nadia Boulanger

Upon his return to America, Copland drew early inspiration from Igor Stravinsky, a famous Russian composer that immigrated to America after spending many years in France. Stravinsky's music provided Copland with lots of compositional ideas, like looking to jazz music and folk songs (Stravinsky used Russian folk songs while Copland drew from American folk tunes) and a focus on interesting rhythms. Both men also experimented with more chromatic language later in their careers, using more dissonance in their music that may not have agreed with some listeners' ears.

Musical Style

During the 1930s, America was defined by the Great Depression. The struggle for survival resonated with Copland, and he changed his composition style to a more accessible one that celebrated the working class's spirit. This period in his career became known as his populist period and featured works like his ballets Appalachian Spring and Rodeo (which included the famous 'Hoedown' section popularized in the 'Beef: it's whats for dinner!' ad campaign), as well as his short brass-focused piece, Fanfare for the Common Man.

Copland successfully captured the idea of the American midwest (like this cowboy) in musical form.
American midwest

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