The New York Philharmonic honors Aaron Copland tomorrow, on his 85th birthday, with a gala concert to be simulcast (both TV and radio) at 8 p.m. on PBS. The orchestra will be honoring a composer of remarkable richness, and one who single-handedly (if, perhaps, unintentionally) gave a profile and direction to serious American music. The Brooklyn-born composer knew from an early age that composing was going to be his main interest. With the support of his family, he went to France to learn the craft of composition.
Fortunately, he was in the first class of the School of Music for Americans at Fontainebleau, just outside Paris, in the summer of 1921. Presiding was the remarkable and influential musical pedagogue, Nadia Boulanger. Apart from an astounding depth of musical knowledge, her particular gift was allowing young composers to try their creative wings without subjective value judgments. Her criticisms were based on strictly musical matters; she taught how to refine the individual voice and make it more effec tive, rather than imposing some arbitrary set of values on the voice. It is this quality that younger composers praise in Copland the teacher, for he, too, lets the muse flower without subjective strictures.
Boulanger, knowing that Copland was unusual, suggested he write the organ-and-orchestra work that conductor Serge Koussevitsky agreed to perform (with her as organ soloist) with the Boston Symphony in the 1924-25 season. This became the ``Symphony for Organ and Orchestra,'' premi`ered, as it turned out, in New York under Walter Damrosch. After the performance, the conductor (who did not like the composition) turned to the audience and uttered the now-legendary words: ``If a young man, at the age of 23, can write a symphony like that, in five years he will be ready to commit murder.''
Koussevitsky, on the other hand, so liked the work that he took Copland under his wing and became an important musical mentor, commissioning and premi`ering the early works. The above-mentioned symphony (which in 1928 he reorchestrated without organ and renamed First Symphony) and themes included in ``Music for the Theatre'' and the Piano Concerto were all influenced by jazz. But Copland was already stretching his creative gifts, experimenting with headier musical ideas and more frankly contemporary tec hniques. These flavored such important, musically searching, and self-consciously monumental works as ``Symphonic Ode,'' the ``Piano Variations'' (later turned into ``Orchestra Variations''), ``Statements,'' the Third Symphony, and the more recent ``Connotations.''
In 1938 Copland wrote the ballet ``Billy the Kid,'' which was to change the direction of his music. In it he began to explore American folk songs, experiment with a simpler harmonic language, and give more consistent attention to mood and melody. There followed ``Rodeo,'' ``Appalachian Spring'' (for Martha Graham), and later such non-balletic works as ``El Sal'on M'exico'' and ``A Lincoln Portrait,'' all of which reflected this new direction in Copland and revealed a serious musical Americana that inst antly became popular with a broad range of music lovers.
One cannot overlook the various chamber pieces, piano works, and many film scores (``The Heiress,'' ``Our Town,'' ``The Red Pony,'' ``Of Mice and Men'' among them). Copland was not above recycling favorite projects gone awry. ``Music for a Great City,'' commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, was culled from music written for the movie ``Something Wild''; ``Dance Symphony'' came from a score for his early ballet ``Grohg''; the ``Sextet for Clarinet, Piano, and String Quartet'' was an effort
to keep the ``Short Symphony'' (actually his second work in that form) alive at a time when the orchestral version was deemed too complex to rehearse adequately. His ultra-famous ``Fanfare for the Common Man'' was made the centerpiece of the stirring final movement of his Third Symphony.
There is hardly a piece he has written that is not recognizably Copland, even through all the shrieking, clanging dissonance of the Schoenberg-inspired 12-tone work, ``Connotations.'' Generally speaking, Copland's use of rhythms is as distinctive and personal as Stravinsky's. His melodies, even at their most angular, have the simplicity of the folk songs and jazz tunes that have been his inspiration, and even his melodic source. The harmonic underpinnings (where he chooses to enliven a given mel odic line with carefully planned dissonance) and the juxtaposition of sections of the orchestra -- particularly the use of brass in its higher ranges to create a very specific aural effect -- instantly cry ``Copland.'' This is what caught the discerning public's ear in the first place; this is what has kept him a national treasure throughout his long composing career -- which he has only recently declared officially at an end. This uniqueness is what is being celebrated tonight, and will continue to be ce lebrated every time a Copland is performed. -- 30 --