Copland, the Writer, On Jazz

Aaron Copland was not just a prolific composer, but also wrote extensively about both his own works and his contemporaries. In a preface to a collection of his writing, he’s described as having “epitomized the ideal of the composer-writer” in his career.1 He also wrote about trends and occurrences in music, particularly American music. One example of this is a short essay from 1927 titled “Jazz Structure and Influence.” 

In the essay, Copland aims to contribute to analytical and critical writing about jazz, a field of study which had just begun to emerge. The essay’s general thesis argues that jazz’s main contribution to music as a whole is its rhythmic innovations. He begins by consulting a few different sources for a definition of jazz, including composer Virgil Thomson and music critic Henry O. Osgood’s book, So This Is Jazz. Both of the definitions emphasize rhythm, and the central function of “‘a counterpoint of regular against irregular beats.’”2

Copland continues to build on these assertions by pinpointing a particular type of syncopation that is unique to jazz. He traces the development of this jazz rhythm through spirituals, ragtime, and the foxtrot. He asserts that “Modern jazz began with the fox trot,”3 and identifies a specific rhythmic motif, pictured below. By putting it over four quarter notes, “the play of two independent rhythms…” creates “a molecule of jazz.”4 He clarifies later that polyrhythms themselves were not invented by jazz, but that “the polyrhythms of jazz are different in quality and effect… The peculiar excitement they produce by clashing two definitely and regularly marked rhythms is unprecedented in occidental music.”5

The “molecule of jazz” pictured in Copland’s essay.

Copland then moves into an analysis of the ways in which this identifying aspect of jazz has “achieved a new synthesis in music.”6 This is also where his rhetoric begins to feel problematic for a modern day reader. Copland posits several times that jazz is “so difficult for ordinary ears” that these polyrhythms only appear a few measures at a time in contemporary music, and goes on to credit Gershwin as having written the “most original jazz song yet composed.”7 These statements indirectly communicate a belief that jazz’s rhythmic complexity places it above music “developed among primitive races.”8 Also, he places a white man at the pinnacle of achievement in a genre that he even describes as having Black (specifically African-American) origins. He provides some nuance when he argues that European composers have “exploited it as an exotic novelty.”9 However, his concluding statements describing jazz as “indigenous, music an American has heard as a child,” and encouraging American composers to draw on it as a musical resource, are ignorant of the actual Indigenous music of the Americas, as well as the institutional racism in America that complicates the use of jazz by white composers as inspiration and source material.10

1 Kostelanetz, Richard. “Preface.” In Aaron Copland: A Reader : Selected Writings 1923-1972, by Aaron Copland. New York: Routledge, 2004.

2 Copland, Aaron. “Jazz Structure and Influence.” In Aaron Copland: A Reader : Selected Writings 1923-1972. New York: Routledge, 2004, 83.

3 Ibid, 84.

4 Ibid, 85.

5 Ibid, 87.

6 Ibid, 85.

7 Ibid, 86.

8 Ibid, 86.

9 Ibid, 87.

10 Ibid, 87.

Spirituals as Advocacy

H. T. Burleigh composed beloved arrangements of Black spirituals for voice and piano, and as a result became one of the most well known Black composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.1 As an influential proponent of the development of the spiritual as an art genre, much of his beliefs and practices legitimized Black folk music within the classical music tradition.2 In addition to a prolific compositional career, he had an extensive career as a vocalist and performed internationally.3


"Deep River" arrangement for voice and piano; by H.T. Burleigh

“Deep River” arrangement for voice and piano; by H.T. Burleigh 7


During Burleigh’s life, Black-face minstrelsy was the most prominent form of entertainment in popular culture.4 Minstrel shows are unquestionably racist and dehumanizing towards Black people, featuring a combination of expropriated folk music and dance performed by demeaning caricatures. In his edition of “Deep River,” Burleigh comments on the ability of spirituals, when performed well, to express hope, faith, and justice.5 Additionally, he acknowledges the prevalence of Blackface minstrelsy and warns against the use of the spiritual in a way that is an inappropriate imitation of vocal inflection and body language for the sake of racially extortive humor.6


H.T. Burleigh, “Deep River” preface 9

 Not only were spirituals a way to uplift the Black community and counter the damage being done through minstrelsy, but their ability to empower was recognized and used to advocate for other groups as well. An example of the use of the Black spiritual as a means for advocacy is the work of Paul Robeson, who spoke out on the behalf of the lower class and other marginalized groups. 8 It seems as though the development of spirituals as art songs coincided with the practice of minstrelsy. However, minstrelsy expropriated black folk songs as a method of dehumanizing and profiting from the marginalization of Black people, while Burleigh’s work with Spirituals helped to legitimize Black folk music and empower other marginalized communities.


1 Dickinson, Peter, H. Wiley Hitchcock, and Keith E. Clifton. “Art song in the United States.” Grove Music Online. 25 Jul. 2013; Accessed 5 Oct. 2023.



2 Bell, Danna. 2018. “Link to the Library of Congress: Harry T. Burleigh—The Man Who Brought African-American Spirituals to the Classical Stage.” Music Educators Journal 104 (4): 9–11. doi:10.1177/0027432118767819.



3 Ibid.



4 Lott, Eric, and Greil Marcus. Love and theft: Blackface minstrelsy and the American working class. Oxford University Press, 2013.



5 “Deep River : Old Negro Melody / Arranged by H.T. Burleigh.” Omeka RSS. Accessed October 6, 2023.


6 Ibid.



7 Ibid. 



8 Riis, Thomas. “Robeson, Paul.” Grove Music Online. 31 Jan. 2014; Accessed 6 Oct. 2023.



9 Ibid.

Why don’t we talk about Arthur P. Schmidt?

While scrolling the archives of the Sheet Music Consortium to find fodder for this weeks blog post, I found myself a bit at a loss. For the past few classes we’ve begun to study early American art music and I was hoping to find some manuscript of Amy Beach’s or Edward MacDowell’s to put on display. While I did find scores from both composers, what I found more compelling was the name at the bottom of nearly every score I examined.

Canadian Boat Song by Amy Beach

No, not Mrs. H.H.A. Beach like you see on the right, but rather Arthur P. Schmidt. This name appeared on several scores of both Beach and MacDowell. Who was Arthur P. Schmidt? Why does his name get to be on an exorbitant amount of the music published in 19th-century America? And why should you care?

Musical scholarship often focuses on the narratives of performers and mostly of composers, but equally important to these artistic forces were the business people that helped create the music industry. Figures like Theodore Thomas helped define the idea of a duality between art and the free market. Arthur P. Schmidt, while not a conductor or music director, was a music publisher. The publishing side of the music industry became increasingly important as the 19th century marched on. Soon, the publishers of Tin Pan Alley would help define American musical tastes.Arthur P. Schmidt, too, became a taste-maker of sorts. In fact, Douglas Bomberger states in an article about Edward MacDowell and Arthur Schmidt that the later 19th century became known as the “Golden Age” of music publishing in America. Schmidt’s Boston based publishing company would come to publish nearly the entire compositional body of Edward MacDowell and feature several compositions by Amy Beach. In total, the Boston office had printed over 15 000 titles. The publisher Arthur P. Schmidt, when searched in the Sheet Music Consortium, comes up with over 4,000 results.

From the back page of an Edward MacDowell Composition

The guy was really popular. But why don’t we hear about him? In Richard Crawford’s American Musical Life, there is an entire chapter devoted to the music of Edward MacDowell, but it never once mentions the way MacDowell’s music got published. In the scholarship this class has read about the music industry of mid to late 19th-century American art music, there has been little discussion of the way music publishers shape the reception and transmission of famous musical works. Money and music have never been as separate as we want them to be. The influences of capitalist market demand have no doubt shaped the way we consume, study, and participate in music. According to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the Arthur P. Schmidt company grew so popular that it opened an office in Leipzig, Germany. What impact did the transmission of American composers like MacDowell and Beach have on American and German cultural interactions? How did these relationships develop during the first world war? How did music publishers influence understanding of American musical culture? Music publishing is still and must have been incredibly important. So why isn’t it talked about more?

Personally, I think that this hesitancy to acknowledge the codependency of music and capitalism results from our societies binary system of thinking. The notions of artists and business people are often seen as contradictory by most of the public. We don’t want our art to be infected by money. But, like everything in life, it most definitely is. A complete understanding of American musical life demands that we consider not only our beloved composers and performers,  but the hardened business people responsible for shaping our musical tastes. Including examples of music published by someone like Arthur P. Schmidt in an exhibit about America’s music, for example, could help prompt further questions about the codependent relationship between music, money, and American markets.


Bomberger, E. Douglas. “Edward Macdowell, Arthur P. Schmidt, and the Shakespeare Overtures of Joachim Raff: A Case Study in Nineteenth-Century Music Publishing.” Notes 54, no. 1 (1997): 11-26. doi:10.2307/899930.

Cipolla, Wilma Reid. “Schmidt, Arthur P..” Grove Music OnlineOxford Music OnlineOxford University Press, accessed October 24, 2017