The Kennedy Center

Aaron Copland


(composer; born November 14, 1900 Brooklyn, New York; died December 2, 1990)

In a career that spanned over 50 years, Aaron Copland has earned the title, "Dean of American Composers." He is perhaps the most honored and best known composer of our time.

Copland was born in Brooklyn on November 14, 1900, the youngest of five children. He spent the first 20 years of his life here. As a child, he longed to study piano, but was forced to settle for lessons from one of his sisters. After graduating from high school, Copland decided to make music his career.

He encountered his share of failures during his first years as a musician. His first teacher considered his modernisitc chords to be sour notes, and his efforts at composition during a trip to Paris in 1920 went unnoticed. The young Copland persevered, however, and under the instruction of Nadia Boulanger, a well-known teacher of harmony, he continued to compose.

Copland returned to the United States three years later only to face more disappointing reactions to his composing endeavors. He decided to settle for a job playing piano in a trio at a Pennsylvania hotel. While he was a member of the trio, Boulanger asked him to write an organ concerto for her. During his off hours, Copland worked on the concerto, a piece that would eventually be written without organ to become his "First Symphony."

His "First Symphony" premiered in 1925 by the New York Symphony Orchestra. Conductor, Walter Damrosch, expressed his feelings about Copland's work by saying, "If a young man (age 25) can write a symphony like that, in five years he will be ready to commit murder." A few months later, in Boston, Serge Koussevitsky conducted the premiere of Copland's jazzy "Music for the Theater." The positive reception of this piece prompted him to continue experimenting with jazz, resulting in his "Piano Concerto."

In 1936, Copland began to change his style, concentrating on folk themes. He wrote music for high school musicians before moving on to ballet on American themes, such as Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944).

Among the many awards Copland received are, an Oscar for Best Dramatic Film Score for The Heiress in 1949, the Pulitzer Prize for Appalachian Spring in 1944, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Johnson, and the National Medal of Arts in 1986.

In 1985, the year of Copland's 85th birthday, more than 100 American music organizations joined in a celebration on a scale never before accorded an American-born composer. The celebration began in April 1985 with a performance of his "Symphony No. 3" by the Philadelphia Orchestra and ended with another performance of the symphony by the National Symphony in Washington in May of the following year. Copland, in failing health, attended one concert at Lincoln Center in New York on his actual birthday, November 14.

Copland's last public appearance was at an Aaron Copland Day celebration at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, Massachusetts on July 24, 1985. Leonard Bernstein conducted the center's student orchestra in the "Third Symphony." Copland died after a long illness, in North Tarrytown, New York, on December 2, 1990, at the age of 90.
Aaron Copland


View More