Saturday, November 14, 2020

Copland watches Shostie

‘I watched Shostie while Lukas and Kabalevsky played a Haydn Symphony 4 hands. He loves music with a kind of innocent joy I have rarely seen in a famous composer. Music must have been a great solace to him in the tough days.’ This is the famous American composer Aaron Copland, born 120 years ago today, writing in a diary he kept while visiting the Soviet Union. Although there are ‘diaries’ mentioned in the inventory of Copland’s archive at the Library of Congress, it is only this diary that has ever been published.

Copland was born on 14 November 1900 in Brooklyn, New York, the youngest of five children in a Jewish family with a Lithuanian background. His father owned and ran a department store on Washington Avenue, with all the family working for it when they could. Copland attended attended Boys High School in Brooklyn, and developed an early interest in piano, being guided by an older sister. Throughout his teens he took piano lessons with Leopold Wolfsohn, deciding at the age of 15 to become a composer. He regularly attended music performances, and undertook formal lessons in various aspects of music, not least with Rubin Goldmark. His graduation piece was a three-movement piano sonata in a Romantic style. His interest in European music led him to study at Fontainebleau, where the French had set up a music school for Americans. There he came under the influence of the, by then, famous Nadia Boulanger.

After having studyied a variety of European composers while abroad, Copland made his way back to the US in the mid-1920s. He debuted Symphony for Organ and Orchestra in early 1925 with the New York Symphony Society under Walter Damrosch. Many works followed which would bring Copland national and international fame. He focused on music that could be identified as “American” in its scope, incorporating a range of styles, including jazz, folk and Latin American. Piano Variations (1930), The Dance Symphony (1930), El Salon Mexico (1935), A Lincoln Portrait (1942) and Fanfare for the Common Man (1942) are among his most well known compositions. He never married; biographers suggest he was gay and had love affairs with several men including Victor Kraft, artist Alvin Ross, pianist Paul Moor, and dancer Erik Johns.

In 1944, Copland composed the music for Martha Graham’s 1944 dance Appalachian Spring. The following year it won him the Pulitzer Prize. In 1949, he returned to Europe, where he met the new wave of avant-garde composers, like Pierre Boulez and Arnold Schoenberg. Adopting Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method of composition, he wrote Old American Songs, a first set of which which was premiered by Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten. In 1950, Copland received a Fulbright scholarship to study in Rome. During the 1951-1952 academic year, he gave a series of lectures at Harvard University, which he published soon after as Music and Imagination. During the first half of the 1950s, Copland was investigated by the FBI, and interviewed by Joseph McCarthy. However, the musical community promoted the patriotism of Copland’s music, and the investigations ceased in 1955.

Notable among Copland’s later works are the Piano Fantasy (1957), Connotations (1962), commissioned for the opening of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, and Inscape (1967). But, in general, his more avant-garde works were less well received, and after the 1970s he stopped composing, though he continued to lecture and to conduct through to the mid-1980s. Encyclopaedia Britannica has this assessment: ‘For the better part of four decades, as composer (of operas, ballets, orchestral music, band music, chamber music, choral music, and film scores), teacher, writer of books and articles on music, organizer of musical events, and a much sought after conductor, Copland expressed “the deepest reactions of the American consciousness to the American scene.” ’. He received more than 30 honorary degrees and many other awards. He died in 1990. Further information can also be found online at the official Aaron Copland website, Wikipedia,, and Library of Congress.

The Copland archive, at the Library of Congress, contains approximately 400,000 items, dating from 1910 to 1990. It includes his ‘music manuscripts, printed music, personal and business correspondence, diaries and writings, photographic materials, awards, honorary degrees, programmes, and other biographical materials’. Unfortunately, no further detail on the diaries is given (how many there are, from what periods of his life etc.). And though biographies of Copland mention his diaries very occasionally, it is only the brief day-to-day diary he kept during a four-week journey to the Soviet Union in early 1960 that has been published: in the Music Library Association’s journal, Notes  (vol. 70, no. 4, 2014) described and annotated by Kevin Bartig (available online at JSTOR).

According to Bartig, Copland was accompanied by Lucas Foss and visited the Soviet Union as a representative of the US State Department. He conducted and performed his own music, met with fellow composers and students, and distributed material on American music. The diary he kept is a considered by Bartig to be a rare day-to-day account of Cold War diplomatic work, and reveals how Cold War geopolitics mediated Copland’s musical evaluations.

Bartig, in his introduction, provides details of the trip and the diary: ‘In his initial entries, Copland, unlike most first-time visitors to the Soviet Union, barely mentions housing, transportation, or food. Although never loquacious as a diarist, he declared that “it would be easy to make hasty judgements” concerning Soviet life, presumably a reason to limit himself to musical observations. Copland summarized his experiences at the end of each day, usually relying on notes scribbled on scraps of paper during meetings and listening sessions. (Wherever possible, material from these notes has been included both in brief, explanatory passages between entries, and in the notes.)

The itinerary and concert programs were sketched out only after arrival, on the first full day of the tour. Both were subject to last-minute changes. For example, an article in the Moscow newspaper Izvestiia reported that Moscow audiences would hear Copland’s Third Symphony and suites from Appalachian Spring and The Tender Land, but only the symphony eventually appeared on a program. Likewise, Copland and Foss were to visit Kiev, but Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, was substituted at the last moment for unclear reasons. Copland and Foss likely spent their first days at the imposing Leningrad Hotel, where the 1958 delegation had lodged, eventually moving to the more centrally located M√©tropole Hotel. Throughout the tour, a translator accompanied the Americans; Foss dubbed her their “spy secretary,” a rather accurate description of such functionaries, who were to document their guests’ movements and reactions.’

Here are several excerpts.

24 March 1960
‘I have a cold. Damn! Lunch given for us at the Embassy by the Counsellor Minister, Mr. Freers. Present Khrenikoff, Kabalevsky, Shostie (with 2 wives). It transpired that Leeds [Music Corp.) pays publication rights for Soviet music and them nothing (so reports Khrennikov). They looked hopeless at the prospect of paying American publishers’ fees for performance. This spoils my idea of a depot for Amer[ican] music in Moscow, tho’ they claim the Union will collect a library of foreign music on their own. I stayed home in the evening and nursed my cold.’

25 March 1960
‘Dress rehearsal in the morning. Concert at night. Felt strange conducting the Soviet anthem and Star Spangled Banner side by side, TV camera glaring at me. Third Symphony went pretty well, with a fair reception. L.F. big hit as pianist. Shostie’s Ninth completed the program. At the end I presented him with honorary membership in the Nat[ional] Inst[itute] of Arts and Letters. Post-concert party at the Tuchs - no Russians accepted invitations, so we were consoled with foreign press people and Amb[assador] and Mrs. Lewellyn Thompson.’

26 March 1960
‘Visits from Soviet literature paper, Gregory Schneerson, and Mr. Leonidoff of N.Y.C. ballet. Lunch at the residence of the Indian Ambassador Mr. [K.P.S.] Menon. Visit to the Conservatory. Instead of students we were met by a group of professors, including Shaporin. We heard a talented oratorio by a young man called Albert [sic] Schnittke entitled Nagasaki. This allowed him a few grave dissonances (like the Hollywood writers might allow themselves with similar material). Also heard part of a ballet The Hunchback by S[h]chedrin and a Sinfoniett by Karamanov, neither of which were in any way interesting. A short discussion followed in which I suggested that Russian composers knew too well what style to work in. Disturbed reaction on the part of our listeners. I told them that listening to typical Russian music exclusively it would be hard for me to imagine all the other existing styles of contemporary music. In the evening a service intim[√©] chez Shostakovitch. His wife and son Maxime, Kabalevsky and Khrennikov and their wives were there. (When I told Mrs. Khren[nikov] that she looked Scotch she replied: oh no, I’m Jewish.) Purely social evening - few toasts and Shostie in a relaxed and charming mood. Big and generous spread of food (all familiar items at our hotel) with shouts of Maxime (who looks at 20 like a young French intellectual) down the length of the table. I watched Shostie while Lukas and Kabalevsky played a Haydn Symphony 4 hands. He loves music with a kind of innocent joy I have rarely seen in a famous composer. Music must have been a great solace to him in the tough days. Much excitement about a chess tournament whose results were announced over the air. I was persuaded to play my Piano Sonata. At the end they all 3 said “Spasibo” (“thank you”) with no comment of any kind.’

30 March 1960
‘Rehearsal in the morning. Presented discs to the radio station, scores to a choral conductor, clar[inet] concerto to a clarinetist, etc. ’Tis thus we propagandize. Meeting at 5 with Composers’ Union of Latvia. Very well organized presentation of their music on tape with short fragments of works by younger men, Edmund Goldstein (1927) and [Romuald Grinblat] (1930) and older men Jacov Medina (18[90]) and Adolf [Skulte] (1909) teacher of most of the young composers. Top man seems to be Janis Ivanovs, composer of many works, including 9 symphonies. Saw little merit in his stuff, myself. They seemed genuinely interested in hearing some of our stuff. I gave them a taste of App[alachian] Spring and Lukas his Symphony of Chorales (2 mvts.) and Song of Songs (someone mentioned Hindemith, and unearthed his [Lukas’s] Berlin birth, with the usual innuendoes). Dashed off to hear two acts of Prokofieff’s The Duenna at the Riga Opera. One of his least inspired pieces in a creditable production.’

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