Defending American Identity in Aaron Copland’s Letters

I have selected the letters of Aaron Copland, particularly those during the time of McCarthyism in the US, in order to discuss the class topic of the privileging of Western music in our society. 

Copland is one of the go-to American composers for most people, and many  are unaware of the struggles he went through with the American musical audience post-World War II. These letters help historians to better understand the political atmosphere in the US as communism was on the rise, and allows them to see the effects of the Cold War on areas one might not think of right away, like the Western Classical music. In the book that the letters are compiled in, The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland, the letters are a useful way to understand the changes in Copland’s composition style that occurs after Copland’s personal struggles with McCarthyism. 

Copland’s style had changed to reflect a more simple style that was easily defined as American, and his Folk song arrangements “Old American Songs” were a hit (Crist 192). This was at a time where the roots of American identity were important in order to push away any suspicion of being too left-leaning. The folk-song roots of the composition can be heard, not only through its melodies but by the lyrics, a tenor singing about being thrifty and seeing a pretty girl (Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra). However, Copland was not always seen as being as clearly American as these songs make him seem.

A series of correspondences Copland made about a conflict between Arnold Schoenberg and himself reveal the defensive nature toward communistic accusations that affected the way Copland interacted with other composers and the music he made. In a letter to Virgil Thomson, he writes “Imagine my astonishment on reading your column this morning to find Arnold Schoenberg coupling my name with that of Joseph Stalin as one of the suppressors of his art”. The letters expand to explain Copland thought the reason of Schoenberg’s attack was that Copland and Shostakovich had been photographed earlier that year, making Copland anxious that his political beliefs were being associated with Shostakovich, and in turn, Stalin. (196).  Copland’s tone of urgency in his letter reveals how important it was for him to not have any accusations against him that would lead people to believe he was betraying his Americanness. 

In more correspondences between Copland, Thomson and Schoenberg himself, it is made clear it was not the photograph that led to Schoenberg’s remarks. Instead it was composition advice of using “simple intervals” Copland had been rumored to give that led Schoenberg to group Copland and Stalin together. Copland replied to Schoenberg, stating that “It is quite untrue, for example that I have advised students to compose in a ‘certain style’ or that I have recommended ‘simple intervals’. These impressions must have been gained from isolated sentences taken out of context by persons who do not know me well”(198). The language Copland uses here is again defensive, and admits no fault, demonstrating another time that it was of utmost importance to Copland to maintain an image of freedom in not only his compositions, but additionally in the advice he provided to others. 

Early American values of freedom for all rose to become top priority for all who were avoiding accusations of conspiring with communists. Copland’s works from this era reveal this phenomenon trickled into the world of composition, and his letters show us these values were essential in maintaining tranquility between prominent composers of the time.


Works Cited

Crist, Elizabeth B., and Wayne, Shirley, editors. “The Post-War Decade, 1948–58.” The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland, Yale University Press, 2006, pp. 191–220. Print.

Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra. “Old American Songs, Set 1- Aaron Copland- LSCO & Jeffery Madison”. Youtube, Nov. 8, 2014.

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