The Aaron Copland Collection ca. 1900-1990

Aaron and Moses

By Leonard Bernstein

I have known Aaron Copland for half of his lifetime, and loved him all those years. I have known his music for even longer than that, and have loved it with equal constancy. But critics and colleagues have been writing about the man-and-his-music for even longer, for half a century, in depth and out of it. And so, at this seventy-fifth milestone, I find myself shying away from the perquisite Tribute; such panegyrics are streaming in by the dozens. We are about to be saturated with Coplandiana on the Lincolnesque, the homespun, charming, plain-spoken, youthful, kindly, humorous, energetic, affectionate Aaron. We shall be hearing enough, and more, about his giggle, his Socratic pedagogy, his solitary disciplines, his dedications to the young.

One curious birthday thought springs to mind; let me ponder it. It has occurred to me that Aaron is well-named. Like his Biblical namesake, he has functioned as the high priest of American music, the gentle but forceful leader and taste-maker, adored by his disparate tribes for his flexibility, facility and immensely appealing articulateness. And yet this is a superficial portrait--the benign bestower of the Golden Calf. For within this pleasant and reassuring persona called Aaron lives the mysterious anima of the brother Moses, the stern and stammering lawgiver. It is as though the amiable, cultivated Aaron provides the public voice for the harsh and resolute prophet that rages within And it is this inner voice that ultimately informs the whole Copland musical corpus, uniting all its flexibility and "eclecticism" into a significant and lasting whole. Those critics who speculate, not quite sympathetically, on how the same composer could have written the pop-toned Music for the Theatre and the thornily severe Connotations should listen more carefully. They will find in both works, and in all others between, that unmistakably consistent Mosaic voice, attenuated, adorned or mollified to varying degrees according to the changing visibility of the Aaronic vestments, at the gleaming, opulent priestly breast-plate.

One of the most fascinating studies of Copland's music is the reconciling of that opulence with the much-discussed directness and "plainness" of the Copland image. For me the reconciliation took place easily, and long ago. As a student, back in the mid-Thirties, I heard my first Copland piece, a recording of his Piano Variations . In my instant, over-whelmed reaction to this music I automatically envisaged the composer as patriarch, perhaps bearded like Whitman, certainly Mosaic. Some time later I met the patriarch, cleanly shaven, broadly smiling, a young thirty-seven. In fact, the occasion of our meeting coincided with his birthday; there was a party in his loft, all charm and gaiety, and I "entertained" by playing the Piano Variations . There it all came together, and so it has remained. Our relationship has been long and joyous, but at its core those Variations have been ceaselessly hammering. Similarly with his music: from Billy the Kid to Inscape , from the Salon Mexico to the Nonet, those Variations are the key. There is always the prophetic statement, the reflective meditation, that curiously tender hesitancy: There are always those angular leaps, those scherzando spasms. Moses in Aaron's garb. I love all this music, in all its degrees of severity and charm. And I love the man, in all those same degrees.

It is futile to say: may he live forever! Of course he will.

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Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland shaking hands
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon [Detail] Aaron Copland 70th birthday celebration: Claire Reis, Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Olga Koussevitzky, 1970.
Music Division, Library of Congress.