NEW YORK — A century after his birth, the composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is idolized as the creator of such folksy classical hits as "Fanfare for the Common Man" and "Lincoln Portrait," and ballet music like "Rodeo," "Billy the Kid," and "Appalachian Spring."
Parts of his music have extended beyond his original intentions - a section from "Rodeo" was used on a TV commercial for beef ("It's what's for dinner"), while "Lincoln Portrait" has been performed by narrators from Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf to Vice President Al Gore.
Spike Lee's 1998 basketball movie, "He Got Game," was jam-packed with Coplandiana because, according to Mr. Lee, "When I listen to Copland's music, I hear America, and basketball is America."
This year, Copland's "got game" in more than 500 commemorative concerts and CD releases worldwide, but some questions remain about his achievements.
A recent biography by Howard Pollack, "Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man," (Holt, 690 pages, $37.50) points out that Copland - the closest America has come to having a national composer - was gay, a leftist, and Jewish. These minority identities caused some problems, such as when a performance of "Lincoln Portrait" was canceled at Dwight D. Eisenhower's first inauguration in 1953 for McCarthyite reasons.
But mostly, Copland seems to have breezed through life with genial aplomb, a basically sweet and good-natured man.
His music is good-natured, too, despite the misleading declaration by contemporary American composer John Adams that Copland was akin to the painter Edward Hopper and the poet Robert Frost, brooding creators of considerable menace. Instead, Copland was a positivist, which is one reason why, this past August, the United States Army Concert Band and Soldiers' Chorus recorded two CDs, "The Legacy of Aaron Copland," for distribution in thousands of US school libraries.
Appropriately in the "don't ask, don't tell" tradition, Copland was always publically discreet about his sexual identity.
Composer Ned Rorem explains, "During his lifetime he was a Jewish urban homosexual composer, but he never wrote anything urban or Jewish [except the early "Vitebsk"] and sexuality was muted in his work. His subject matter in vocal works was always children and the Wild West, without any grown-up problems."
If he eschewed tragic adult emotionality, his work's grace and refinement was remarkable.
"His music permeates the public consciousness because he was able to take lofty ideals and express them in a commonplace way," says pianist Michael Boriskin, director of the Copland House in Cortlandt Manor, N.Y., the composer's home for his last 20 years and now a musician's retreat.
"He made the commonplace lofty and the lofty commonplace," he says.
Copland always adhered to the notion of "The Gift to Be Simple," as one of his beloved "Old American Songs" states. The original recording of this piece, with Copland at the piano and baritone William Warfield, expresses tenderness and gallantry that is lost in most performances today, but also expresses how in Copland's case, the music fit the man.
"He was one of the first American composers to shake off German influence in classical music," Mr. Rorem adds, "and his teacher in France, Nadia Boulanger, helped him strip his music down to the bare essentials. To this day, a lot of other music pales beside his."
Indeed, compared with Copland, works by the WASPish Virgil Thomson, who also studied with Ms. Boulanger in France, can sound thin and pallid. Other American modernists like Roger Sessions or Charles Ives concentrated on complexity and thick orchestral textures.
Copland's friend and prodigal-son figure, Leonard Bernstein, produced a skilled combination of his mentor's American sound and showbiz. But Bernstein's debt to Copland is by no means unique, as Rorem reminds us: "Everybody has been influenced by Copland, just like Benjamin Britten influenced all subsequent British composers."
This year's opportunity to hear a variety of Copland's music makes these influences all the more clear. Vivian Perlis, a Yale University music professor who co-authored two documentary collections of memoirs with Copland, says, "All of his music is of very high quality, admired by his colleagues as well as the ... public."
She points to some lesser-known works that have been performed this year, like the song cycle "Poems of Emily Dickinson" and "The Short Symphony," and those which have not yet been widely heard recently, like the "Jazz" Piano Concerto and "Variations, Fantasy, and Sonata" for piano.
Ms. Perlis regrets that Copland's only full-length opera, "The Tender Land," has not received a fully staged production this year, although in February, a new chamber version conducted by Murry Sidlin appeared on CD (on Koch 7480). She also complains that this past summer at Tanglewood, the music festival in Lenox, Mass., in which Copland was for many years a key figure, there was a "puzzling lack of celebration.... One can only speculate that [Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Seiji] Ozawa is not interested in Copland."
This may or may not be the case. But almost everyone else would agree with the San Francisco Examiner headline which called the skinny, bespectacled musician "The Babe Ruth of American Composers."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society