MANY people know and love Aaron Copland's music - or snatches of it - even if they aren't sure who wrote it: that irresistably jubiliant theme from ``Appalachian Suite,'' the beguiling lyricism of the score for the film ``Our Town,'' the jaunty dances from ``Rodeo'' and ``Billy the Kid.'' His music is the sound of America. Mr. Copland, who died Sunday, wrote in an unmistakable style that established him as the premier American composer of our generation and ``put America on the map'' musically, as a biographer once said. But it wasn't until he studied in France that he decided America should have its own voice, just as European countries did. The result was ballet scores and other classical pieces with a sassy rhythm and vitality - or sometimes a tranquility - that comes closer to evoking the American soul than any formal music ever has.
An immigrant's son from Brooklyn, Copland took cowboy tunes, Appalachian folk themes, and other sources to make appealing and highly accessible works of art. In ``Billy the Kid,'' he tells you how the prairie makes people feel as it stretches out in the morning, endless and haunting. In his memorable ``Our Town'' score, Copland leads listeners by the hand into a quiet New England town, gently conditioning them for the questions about eternity Thornton Wilder raises in his script.
Without compromising the dignity and formal values of serious music, he defined the spirit of the people and exalted it in works like ``A Lincoln Portrait'' or ``Fanfare for the Common Man,'' a short piece that Leonard Bernstein once called the ``all-time top of the hit parade in American music.'' A champion of new music and nurturer of promising young composers, Copland was totally free, friends say, of the self-serving streak often found in genius at his level. He once told a pupil that music should sound ``inevitable'' - a simple test passed only by the greatest art. Copland's work amply qualifies. His music is as inevitable as America.