Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man by Howard Pollack - review by Frank McLynn

Frank McLynn

All Three Coplands

Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man


Faber & Faber 687pp £30

Aaron Copland, who was as quintessentially American as Elgar or Vaughan Williams were British, is often considered the musical voice of the United States. In a long life he wrote sixty works, and his oeuvre extend to variations on previously composed works and orchestral suites drawn from ballets, operas and film music. He was versatile and experimented with jazz, the twelve-tone method and musical abstractionism as well as orthodox tonality. The usual judgement is that there are two distinct Coplands: the accessible, tonal, lyrical composer of Appalachian Spring, The Tender Land, Billy the Kid, Rodeo and the Third Symphony on the one hand, and the esoteric creator of the Piano Variations, Symphonic Ode, Connotations and Inscape on the other. As with Prokofiev and Stravinsky, who also each composed in two very different styles, the two strands of composing rarely met; of twentieth-century composers only Bartok successfully integrated the romantic tradition of the nineteenth century with the. dissonance of the twentieth.

Actually, as Howard Pollack shows, there are really three Coplands, for the distinguished movie scores he composed put another wheel on the wagon. One of the most commendable things about Pollack’s excellent biography is that he takes film music seriously, and does not evince the de haut en bas attitude of most music critics. Not only does Pollack understand the world of Hollywood very well – the distinguished director William Wyler was always trying to get Copland to score his films – but his thorough knowledge generates unexpected insights. He points out that it was no accident that Copland wrote his song cycle based on poems by Emily Dickinson immediately after his score for the Wyler movie The Heiress – a version of Henry James’s Washington Square. Pollack argues persuasively that Dickinson and James’s heroine Catherine Sloper could have been contemporaries and that they faced similar problems: overweening respect for a distant father, followed by withdrawal from the world.

On Copland the composer, Pollack is invariably lucid, judicious and insightful. His portrait of Copland the man is also fascinating. Three facts are salient: Copland was Jewish, leftist and homosexual. The Jewishness does not seem to have struck deep roots in his music and there is no evidence of Zionism; indeed, both musically and as a ‘promised land’ Copland preferred Mexico to Israel. However, Copland’s role as a man of pronounced leftist sympathies takes Pollack into interesting areas. In the 1930s Copland regarded Communism as the true spirit of Americanism, the logical conclusion of the ideas of Jefferson, Lincoln and Walt Whitman. But in the very different climate of the post-1945 Cold War Copland had to do some nifty verbal juggling to avoid proscription by the anti-Communist zealots. When summoned before Senator McCarthy’s notorious inquisitorial committee, Copland played a cool hand, appearing to co-operate but luring the committee onto ground where it got bogged down in a morass of detail and obfuscation. Had McCarthy and his acolytes not been so stupid, they would have realised that Copland was making monkeys of them.

Pollack devotes a lot of attention to Copland’s homosexuality, without really offering any explanation for his ‘deviant’ socialisation. His significant partners included Leonard Bernstein and Victor Kraft, but he was promiscuous and had numerous lovers among the young men he picked up in gay bars. He refused to ‘come out’ and deplored the overt campness of his friend Bernstein, who, together with Koussevitzky, was his principal champion among the world’s leading conductors. Pollack flirts with the curious yet intriguing argument that the tonal and melodic composers of the twentieth century were gay (‘feminine’) while the atonalists and serialists were macho, but admits that no convincing correlation can be made between Copland’s music and his sexuality.

Copland made a bad mistake when he propositioned Roy Harris, the good-looking heterosexual composer. Not onlv did Harris rebuff him. but he took the view that Copland had stolen his musical thunder and that he (Harris) was the authentic musical voice of America, the Walt Whitman of the concert halls. One of the surprises of Pollack’s fine biography is to discover the edginess of Copland’s relations with his fellow American composers. While he maintained cordial relations with Benjamin Britten in England and Carlos Chávez in Mexico, jealousy and recrimination impeded any real entente at home. He did not get on with Gershwin and resented his rival’s greater musical popularity. His relations with the other first-division American composers were similarly frosty. Virgil Thomson, who regarded Copland’s secretiveness and reticence as a machiavellian career ploy and hinted that his success was due to the ‘Jewish Mafia’, particularly disliked him. but then Thomson detested everyone and everything, so that is perhaps no great matter.

Pollack’s life of Copland is a major achievement. For once, the decision to eschew a straight linear narrative in favour of thematic treatment works, as it seldom does in biography, mainly because Copland’s external life was uneventful and thus, as a conventional story, rather dull. But it is difficult to think of any significant aspect of his life that is left untreated, whether Copland’s austerity of lifestyle. meanness with money, taste for belles-lettres, especially Santayana, or musical likes and dislikes (he loved Bach, Beethoven, Palestrina, Mussorgsky, Verdi and Mahler; he disliked Wagner, Bruckner and Sibelius). This is a superb book about the composer who best expresses the ideal of America as the ‘city on a hill’, if not the gruesome reality.

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