The late 1930s to the early 1940s were a turning point for American identity as we now know it. In the midst of World War II, Americans’ perceptions of themselves and their relation to the world shifted dramatically with the rise of nationalism and a sense of a distinct American identity – one that did not revolve around the previously established identities of other nations. This creation of an American identity called for the generation of what we now consider the “American sound.”
Aaron Copeland was the pioneer of this sound. Hailing from Brooklyn, he became influenced by street jazz, as well as music from his travels to Paris, Mexico, and Cuba. He found real success beginning in 1939 with a move to Hollywood, where he composed commercial film scores, which led him to a New York premiere of a ballet – Billy the Kid. This premiere brought his name to national recognition, which led to, arguably, his greatest success and a key example of the aforementioned American sound, Appalachian Spring.
1939-1945 was also a period of personal and musical identity exploration and definition for Copeland. In 1939, he began what would become a long-term friendship with composer Leonard Bernstein. The two wrote often, and it is speculated that the two were involved romantically from ‘39 to ‘41. When Copeland visited Havana, he wrote Bernstein about sitting in clubs for hours on end listening to music, saying “the thing I like most is the quality of voice when the Negroes sing down here. It does things to me … and just to think, no serious Cuban composer is using any of this.”
I found it particularly interesting to see Copeland, who is the father of American sound, influenced by Cuban and Parisian music, especially at a time when it was so important for America to distinguish itself as a leading nation.
CRIST, ELIZABETH B., and WAYNE SHIRLEY, editors. “Musical Triumphs, 1937–42.” The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland, Yale University Press, 2006, pp. 120–147. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1nq05k.8.
PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/keepingscore/copland-american-sound.html.