The Achievements of an American Composer
When people talk about the American aspects of Copland's music, they often emphasize the Western flavor of some of his works. This is perhaps understandable, for the three major ballets (Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, and Billy the Kid), his three most often performed works in the concert hall as well as on stage, all deal with some aspect of the West or of the U.S. frontier: Appalachian Spring with Pennsylvania when it was the frontier, Rodeo with an established Western society, Billy the Kid with the West and frontier as well. And Copland's "Western" language was appropriated by a generation of film composers such as Elmer Bernstein, whose Copland-derived score for The Magnificent Seven, subsequently used also for a series of Marlboro ads, further cemented the association between the Copland sound and the American West.
Yet Copland's identification with American subjects goes much further. One of his central works is a setting of twelve Emily Dickinson poems, and he also set texts by Edwin Arlington Robinson, Ezra Pound, and e. e. cummings. He scored films based on Henry James's late nineteenth century New York and on Thornton Wilder's New Hampshire town seen against the backdrop of eternity; two of his film scores took on contemporary New York. (The City, despite its title, also invokes rural New England.) Nor was Copland's "America" limited to the United States: with such works as El Salón México and Danzón Cubano it embraced the northern half of the hemisphere.
In a letter to Serge Koussevitzky in 1931, Copland commented that Leopold Stokowski was not an ideal conductor for Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex because "there is one quality you must have in order to give a good performance of Oedipus and that is le sens tragique de la vie [the tragic sense of life]. This Stokowski simply has not got—instead he has le sens mystique de la vie [the mystical sense of life] which is something quite different." In his own music—and, one feels in his letters, in his life as well—what Copland had was le sens lyrique de la vie—the lyrical sense of life. Whatever his music may do, it always sings: of his century, of his land, of his life and of ours.