Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

AUFBAU 65:17 August 20, 1999 p.13

Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man
"The Definitive Biography of One of Our Greatest Composers"
by Howard Pollack; NY: Henry Holt & Co., 1999, [690 pp.] ISBN 0-8050-4909-6. 581 words Aaron Copland; A Brooklyn Jew, who became the quintessential [American] Composer
The "Definitive Biography?"

Any book that bills itself as "the definitive biography" of one of America's greatest composers raises expectations that almost dare critics to puncture them. None of the several Leonard Bernstein or Kurt Weill bios in print yet aspire to that. Anthony Tommasini could at least draw on close personal knowledge of his subject, Virgil Thomson, making his biography to at least some extent definitive. Eric Gordon's polemical Mark the Music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein of 1989 has gone out of print-- though copies are still available from the author in Venice, California.

Howard Pollack's Aaron Copland opus is larger than any of them, and is indeed likely to be the most important work on perhaps the most important American composer for some time to come. The writer is a musicologist heavily indebted to the pioneering efforts of mentors like William Austin (on whose writings, published and unpublished, he draws extensively), composers like Robert Palmer and Lukas Foss who worked with Copland, and colleagues like the composer Christopher Rouse (1949- ), who carried on a lengthy and illuminating private correspondence with Copland from 1962 almost until the latter's death in 1990.

What he has assembled is an impressive and exhausting, if not exactly exhaustive, compendium of observations, analyses, thoughts, and opinions by and about Copland and dozens of his associates on subjects ranging from the musical to the social, historical, and philosophical. Pollack has scoured thousands and thousands of letters and done hundreds of thorough, personal interviews.

He has missed Christopher Davis's 1975 roman a clef, The Sun in Mid-Career, in which Copland has a dominant appearance under the name Asher Moak. But Pollack does delineate in greater detail than has appeared anywhere else Copland's probable sexual and demonstrable intellectual involvement with Marc Blitzstein and Eva Goldbeck--and many, many others--which was one of the novel's main subjects.

One of my favorite Copland quotes, from his 1964 Perspectives of New Music article, does not appear: "Every artist has the right to make his art our an emotion that moves him." Still, nearly the same sentiment does emerge in this 1968 letter to Rouse (p.214): "the strength of one's inner conviction as to the importance of what one does... justifies the doing of it." Similar was the good advice he gave Leonard Bernstein re worries whether what he was writing was American: "Sit down and write what comes into your head; if it's good it will be American." (p.194)

Unfortunately this quote, like many in the book, is obscurely credited: the writer has adopted an annoying method of putting footnotes only at the ends of paragraphs, many of which contain several quotations, and then listing the sources seriatim, occasionally without specificity. Thus, Lukas Foss, whose 75th birthday was celebrated with much fanfare (and written up in many newspapers, including this one) in 1997, is revealed, in a footnote (p.608) to have "recently revealed" (where!?) "that he was born not in 1922, as usually given, but in 1923."

Anyone reading this book and trying to find a simple answer to the question as to how Copland, a Brooklyn Jew of Eastern European ancestry, managed to create a music and an image of himself that became internationally accepted as definitively American will not have an easy time of it. But (s)he [the reader] will certainly find plenty of food for thought, listening, and further research. Particularly recommended: the sub-chapter "The Composer as Jew."

--Leonard Lehrman

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