The Aaron Copland Collection ca. 1900-1990

My Friend Aaron

By Harold Clurman

[Reprinted by Permission Kennedy Center Stage bill, Feb 1974 Copyright B&B Enterprises, Inc. 1974]

Aaron Copland is quite simply a great man. I do not refer to his eminence as a composer; I speak of the person. It is his simplicity which is the essential mark of greatness.

He did not "develop" it, he always possessed it. When he was twenty-one, he was in considerable measure the man he was to become: relaxed, considerate, balanced, modest, unostentatiously secure. No "intellectual," he is more than intelligent. Put down baldly, the description suggests dullness. But the virtues named, in a man of vast artistic gifts, are rare. It is a miracle when a complexity of attributes resolve themselves into a strikingly simple consistency.

I have known Aaron for over fifty years. We met in Paris, where he had gone to study composition with Nadia Boulanger, the teacher most respected among French musicians. I went there to study literature at the Sorbonne. Our friendship has never been clouded by a single quarrel or misunderstanding, nor has it ever grown stale or perfunctory. One reason for this is that Aaron is always interesting--because he is always totally aware.

Strong feelings stir within him, but there is little evidence of this on the surface--except perhaps when he conducts! He is always outwardly calm, though never cold. His approach to people is unfailingly receptive, friendly, wherever possible helpful (and polite without regard to the other's place or position) Nor have I known anyone who could take advantage of him. He always understands the situation in which he finds himself. He is always just, not in the sense of being "fair," but in that he stands in the exactly fitting relationship to each of his own experiences. He instinctively avoids all intemperance he never goes "overboard." Sometimes he pretends surprise--that is his little joke--but the truth is, he is prepared for everything. His wisdom consists of having learned how to make himself ready for all contingencies.

In the days of our youth I used to wonder why it was that whenever we had meals together, his checks always came to less than mine; and when we traveled together, he chose the more reasonably priced quarters. At first I took this to mean that he "understood" money better than I did. But I soon came to understand his frugality was a result of neither caution nor asceticism. In every respect, he knows what things cost. His speech and writing are as economical as his music--that is why we always find him upright and never "uptight."

With all this, he is endowed with great humor. His music is as full of it as it is of passion. Nothing could be more false than the conductor Walter Damrosch's quip at the premiere of Copland's First Symphony in 1925: "If a young man at the age of twenty-three," Damrosch said to the audience on completing his performance of the piece, "can write a symphony like that, in five years he will commit murder." This of course, was Damrosch's way of softening the impact of the audience's bewilderment or hurt at the time, when the work was considered wildly "modern." But Copland's modernism does not arise from a desire to innovate or to startle, but from his responsiveness to everything that is going on--outside and inside himself. For this reason, his most "difficult" or "severe" compositions, though they may shock at first, are on further acquaintance appreciated for their directness of statement, their clarity of aim.

There is mystery in Aaron, but no ambiguity. He says what he feels and means. He would make a great diplomat (he is one, in fact) not because he ever prevaricates, but because he tells the truth--nothing more nor less. He is not given to overstatement of any kind. A stranger aboard a transatlantic liner, having recognized Aaron, approached him and said, "Mr. Copland, I don't like your music." To which Aaron, unruffled, replied, "Does it matter?" Of this incident Aaron's comment to me was "I didn't think any better of him for having said it." Aaron's humility does not forgo a sense of his own merit.

He always desires to express what is there. At the outset of Aaron's career, America was hardly present in music, though America's presence was very much felt in the world. He wished America to manifest itself musically. Among the most salient aspects of American life is its energy, its rhythm, and perhaps its bluster. In the early Twenties, jazz was America's musical emblem. Aaron employed the jazz idiom as one of the forms of our common speech. In its invention and momentum, jazz communicates exuberance and fun. These qualities have always remained in Aaron's music as in his personality, even when they were no longer "jazzy." There has always been in him the exultation of forward movement, a forging ahead.

The central control of Aaron's being is thoughtfulness. One recognizes it throughout everything he does: the person who reflects in tranquility within the hurly-burly, the melodrama of a fantastically extroverted society. Yet for all the turbulence, turmoil and danger of our contemporary action, Aaron holds to and reminds us of the basic truths of our conscience in proud, forthright, majestic annunciation.

None of this in his art or in his private address ever becomes ponderous. Even in his most serious moments, Aaron never loses the capacity to smile, to joke, even to "kid" within the boundaries of veracity.

In Aaron we meet a whole man.

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portrait of Aaron Copland
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Aaron Copland as photographed by David Diamond.
Music Division, Library of Congress.