Aaron Copland Tries to Put It Into Words

Great writers will take on any of the great topics—war, love, death, cowboys—but few have made a serious attempt at writing about music.

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Great writers will take on any of the great topics—war, love, death, cowboys—but few have made a serious attempt at writing about music. Novelists may write about musicians, but they wisely stay away from describing music itself. Something about music just doesn’t work in prose. As Aaron Copland observed, “If a literary man puts together two words about music, one of them will be wrong.”

Copland, born November 14, 1900, is probably America’s most famous, and most popular, composer of symphonic music. He obviously didn’t consider himself a “literary man” because he put many words together in writing “The Pleasure of Music” for a 1959 issue of the Post.

How well does he do as a writer? Not bad. He’s smart enough not to dwell on the contents of music. Instead, he talks about the human experience it creates. For example, he describes the pleasure of musical motion.

“All of us … can understand and feel the joy of being carried forward by the flow of music. Our love of music is bound up with its forward motion … Music’s incessant movement forward exerts a double and contradictory fascination: On the one hand it appears to be immobilizing time itself by filling out a specific temporal space while generating at the same moment the sensation of flowing past us with all the pressure and sparkle of a great river. To stop the flow of music would be like the stopping of time itself, incredible and inconceivable.”

<em>The Pleasures of Music</em><br />by Aaron Copeland
The Pleasures of Music by Aaron Copland

He notes how music contains a sense of human contact.

“In our Western World, music speaks with a composer’s voice, and half the pleasure we get comes from the fact that we are listening to a particular voice making an individual statement at a specific moment in history. Unless you take off from there you are certain to miss one of the principal attractions of musical art—namely, contact with a strong and absorbing personality.”

He observes how we prefer our music to be familiar.

“The same people who find it quite natural that modern books, plays or paintings are likely to be controversial seem to want to escape being challenged and troubled when they turn to music. In the musical field there appears to be an unquenchable thirst for the familiar, and very little curiosity as to what the newer composers are up to. Such music lovers, as I see it, simply don’t love music enough, for if they did their minds would not be closed to an area that holds the promise of fresh and unusual musical experience. Charles Ives used to say that people who couldn’t put up with dissonance in music had ‘sissy ears.’ Fortunately, there are in all countries today some braver souls who mind not at all having to dig a bit for their musical pleasure, who actually enjoy being confronted with the creative artist who is problematical.

“These adventurous listeners refuse to be frightened off too easily. I myself, when I encounter a piece of music, whose import escapes me immediately, think, I’m not getting this; I shall have to come back to it for a second or third try. I don’t at all mind actively disliking a piece of contemporary music, but in order to feel happy about it, I must consciously understand why I dislike it. Otherwise it remains in my mind as unfinished business.”

Copland was so willing to try new music because he wanted to discover all its possibilities. This was the goal, he said, of “serious music,” which tried to stir the broadest range of emotions. To this purpose, he expanded the scope of the symphony, to see what new feelings and sensations it could stir. He readily incorporated  jazz into his works, but he recognized its limitations.

“Jazz does not do what serious music does either in its range of emotional expression or in its depth of feeling, or in its universality of language—though it does have universality of appeal, which is not the same thing. On the other hand, jazz does do what serious music cannot do—namely, suggest a colloquialism of musical speech that is indigenously delightful, a kind of here-and-now feeling, less enduring than classical music, perhaps, but with an immediacy and vibrancy that audiences throughout the world find exhilarating.”

His experimenting with sound produced astonishing results. In “Appalachian Spring,” we “hear” the first damp winds of springtime. “The Tender Land” musically conveys the dizzying sight of endless prairies. In “Fanfare for the Common Man,” he evokes a sense for the struggling nobility of laborers. And in “Rodeo,” he delivers a good, old-fashioned, boot-stompin’, high-kickin’ hoe-down. Across all his works—symphonies, ballets, songs, and concertos—he offers listeners new musical experiences, as well as his own interpretation of the great topics: war, love, death, and cowboys.

For further information about this great American artist, try these Web sites:


Also, for a look at the hill-top house where Copland did much of his composing, go to coplandhouse.org.


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