This winter (January 26 to February 7) New York City Ballet premieres Copland Dance Episodes, a new ballet to the music of Aaron Copland, the dean of American composers, by Justin Peck, the Company’s Resident Choreographer and Artistic Advisor. Featuring sets by acclaimed painter and sculptor Jeffrey Gibson, lighting by Peck’s frequent collaborator Brandon Stirling Baker, and costumes by former NYCB dancer Ellen Warren, the ballet will be Peck’s first evening-length work.
What would American music be without Aaron Copland?
His music is played everywhere—at heartfelt memorials, inspiring commemorations, and raucous ball games. He wrote symphonies, ballets, operas, chamber music, songs, film scores. Copland’s life spanned nearly the entire twentieth century, from 1900 to 1990, and his art bridged the colloquial and the academic, the utterly specific and the widely enduring. How central is Copland? Spike Lee paired Copland’s music with songs by Public Enemy in his film He Got Game. Copland’s music—spacious, open, sweeping, propulsive—evokes American landscapes, democratic vistas, and changed how we think about this country.
Copland’s life story is a quintessential American one: how the child of immigrants (in his case, of Lithuanian origin), who grew up above a store in Brooklyn, creates artworks that come to define this country. And though Copland studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, visited Mexico to work with composer Carlos Chavez, and was fascinated by the vanguard music of European serial and twelve-tone composers, he remained a lifelong New Yorker. There’s a poetic irony here in that a guy who wrote music that is uniquely American spent most of his adult life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Copland lived for many years in the Empire Hotel, which—though now much gussied up—is still right across the street from NYCB’s home at Lincoln Center. Copland spent a lot of time at his place upstate starting around 1960, before the then-New York State Theater opened. But you can’t help wondering if he and NYCB co-founder George Balanchine (another longtime Upper West Sider) ran into each other in the neighborhood, maybe in the coffee shop of the Empire Hotel, or at the pizza joint on Amsterdam Avenue that Balanchine liked. It’s a heady thought: two supremely sophisticated, completely unpretentious artists, schmoozing over a cup of joe.
Copland wrote all kinds of music for all kinds of settings, but he may be most closely associated with dance, and no wonder. Many of his works—even the ones not written for ballet—have an ineffable dansant quality. They make you want to move. And it took ballet to kick-start Copland’s career. In the 1930s, Copland had been on the new-music scene for a while, making the inevitable pilgrimage to study in Europe, forging connections, winning commissions from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and other groups, when Lincoln Kirstein invited him to compose a new ballet for choreographer Eugene Loring. Yes, that Lincoln Kirstein—the impresario who co-founded New York City Ballet with Balanchine. Kirstein and others had launched Ballet Caravan, one of New York City Ballet’s predecessor companies, to create ballets with American themes. Billy the Kid (1936) was an immediate hit. The success of that ballet and the lively, one-movement orchestral work El Salón México (1937) put Copland on the map.
Though today we tend to know Copland for a certain kind of music—the aspirational Fanfare for the Common Man, the vibrant dance scores for Rodeo and Appalachian Spring—his range was large, he contained multitudes. He admired the insights and improvisation of jazz, experimented with serial methods, stayed up to date with musical and cultural trends. He championed new music by emerging composers, mentored generations of young musicians, talked about music to widely divergent audiences in academia and on television. And he kept experimenting: Copland’s later works embraced austere atonal methods.
For many of his works, Copland built on selections of folk tunes, giving them a new harmonic underpinning and context, and, not incidentally, advocating for the quality and value of vernacular American art. Over time, music that was written for specific contexts in the middle of the twentieth century has come to represent America—or how America would like to see itself. As familiar as Copland’s music might be, people keep discovering new riches, new mysteries in its open, spacious sonorities.
Robert Sandla is the editor in chief of Symphony, the magazine of the League of American Orchestras, and writes frequently on the arts.