Aaron Copland and the Golden Age of modern music

With the possible exception of George Gershwin or Leonard Bernstein, it would probably be difficult to come by a name more symbolic, more household, more completely identified with American ''composed'' music than that of Aaron Copland. Born in 1900 (in Brooklyn), Copland has meant 20th-century American music to literally millions of people around the world for a sizable portion of the century.

Virgil Thomson has called him the ''President of American Music,'' and, as such in fact, he needs no introduction. What is to be said is that in Copland, 1900-1942, newly released at $24.95 from St. Martin's/Marek, we have Part 1 of what would appear to be the book about the composer. From every angle it is a most satisfying volume, giving the story, through 1942, of the composer, author, teacher, and conductor whose works have vaulted back and forth from the jazzy, frothy ''Music for the Theatre'' to the stern ''Connotations for Orchestra,'' from a depression socialist-front anthem to Hollywood film scores.

''Copland, 1900-1942'' is co-authored by Copland and Vivian Perlis, director of the Oral History Program for American Music at Yale. The present book came about as the result of her interviews with Copland during 1975 and '76, and it combines the composer's engaging autobiographical chapters with her scene-setting, gap-filling ''Interludes,'' along with reminiscent affidavits gleaned from many notables who knew him at various stages in his career. Individuals like theater man Harold Clurman, choreographer Agnes de Mille, and composers from Roger Sessions to Henry Brant and Virgil Thomson offer third-party glimpses which are often as illuminating about the persons writing them as they are of aspects of Copland's nature.

And rightly so, for so integral has Aaron Copland been to the American music scene that any story on him is necessarily a chronicle of the progress of 20 th-century American music in 20th-century America.

One would have to have lived as much, done as much, heard as much as Copland in that scene's progress during the depression and war years for some of his descriptions of the period not to be surprising and disruptive of our stereotypes of it. For, no matter where he seemed to be at particular moments during those years, Aaron Copland was always at the prow of the aesthetic icebreaker that sliced through years of frozen snobbery and staid disdain, cutting a path to the recognition that the United States was second to no nation in its ability to produce composers of the first rank. An authentically ''American'' musical idiom was no longer merely possible, but growing daily more apparent to the age, even to musicians and audiences who considered the best in music to be European.

As a result of the convictions and pioneering work of musicians like Copland, Thomson, and Sessions, American music in the 1920s rounded the bend from modernism into a clearer perception of what lay waiting to be loosed from the confines of European attitudes. Wave upon wave of composers emerged from the icebreaker, warming the climate as they went, and making a beachhead on the artistic consciousness of America. Howard Hanson, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, William Schuman, Samuel Barber, Quincy Porter, Marc Blitzstein, Leo Sowerby, Elie Siegmeister, and Paul Creston were among the pioneers of the movement. Those who came a little later and whose names are still in currency include Vincent Persichetti, Peter Mennin, Gardner Read, William Bergsma, Norman Dello Joio, and Robert Ward. Even more are not so easily recalled today - Harl McDonald, Louis Gruenberg, Marion Bauer, Conlon Nancarrow, Paul Bowles, Ray Green. The era was brimming with a musical genre that brought composer, performer, and audience together to a degree that has been unmatched in any other place or time. This writer refers to it as the Golden Age of American Music.

The book breaks off at the peak of this cultural awakening, and the reader is baited and hooked, wondering how that part of the story came out. What happened, in fact, was that the door that opened during the '40s to expatriate artists such as Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Kurt Weill, and Paul Hindemith also let back in the chilling draft of European modes and styles which, but for those 20 short years, had always dominated musical thought. And the place they blew most effectively was on the traditional American cultural inferiority complex, which, despite those sanguine years of looking past it, was apparently still quite ready to be reactivated to full strength.

What blew around the globe - and commanded such servility in America - was the international atonal idiom. Quite apart from censuring tonal writing, squelching both national and individual modes of expression, and negating the very heart and soul of the ''Golden Age'' movement, the New Faceless Music has been both a symptom and a kind of symbol of that boxed-in compartmentalizing that so informs all of America's musical life to this day.

Music in America is compartmentalized, at least when compared with what was being heard in the '30s and '40s, to the extent that performers and composers much less frequently have anything to do with one another. Young violinists wrap themselves around Wieniawski and coast blissfully along, untroubled about living as 20th-century artists. Composers, for the respect of their colleagues, have turned out enough screeching sound-effects music to turn off any performer, no matter how solicitous toward modern music. And audiences have attended so many of the powdered-wig repertory offerings of the ''star'' performers that they have become unconsciously bored by, and rather inured to, the whole process of the public concert in its near-ritual state.

Although recently things have improved somewhat, we still have the composer fleeing into his hothouse, while performers and audiences escape to the previous two centuries. In America, at least, the persistent image of music as an imported thing, a classic relic, has had much to do with keeping that chasm wide.

This apparently active taste is simply the other side of the cultural inferiority-complex coin, which, until it is taken out of circulation (if it ever can be), will continue to keep music in America from the respect and indigenousness it will need to survive in a recognizable shape.

Not that things are so different in Europe or elsewhere; but America has always seemed to have the greater potential for surmounting past, caste, and custom - for working at a musical scene much more in the spirit of whole cloth, of a balanced give-and-take between creators, players, and listeners.

In a survey article in 1943, Copland wrote, ''It is true that nobody wants to write 'modern music' any more. Yet the modern movement has been historically sound and musically fruitful ... it was an exciting time for musical ideas and works. We can consider ourselves lucky if we produce as vital a progeny in the next twenty years.'' American music's modern movement culminated in that Golden Age period, which, although it can't be literally repeated, of course, nevertheless holds for us some valuable lessons about what a healthy native art at least looks and sounds like. Perhaps if those lessons could be absorbed sufficiently well, the rest of American music's tangles could more readily start , at last, to unravel.

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