Copland’s Passion for American Music

In reading through the letters from The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland, I was reminded of our discussions in class regarding the exerted effort to define and develop an American classical music. This proves to be a major theme in Copland’s letters, and it manifests in several ways.

One of the most explicit examples of his passion for cultivating American classical music is in a 1932 letter to the New York Times in response to his being misquoted as calling music critics a “menace” to American music. Regarding the conference during which he was misquoted, he writes:

Our purpose was the thoroughly serious one of considering the relation between the American composer and the music critic. . . . The composer needs the critic. . . . He is an absolute necessity, if only because he serves as the middle man between the public and the creative artist.

. . . The position of the American composer has changed, and . . . he is no longer satisfied with the merely tolerant and often apathetic attitude of the press toward American music in general . . . [as it is] no longer apposite to the body of vital music which is being created—and what is more, performed.1

In the postscript, Copland also writes:

In justice to myself I am forced to add that the above remarks are made distinctly in relation to new American music as a whole and not to my personal creations, which have almost always been quite sufficiently noticed, due to the particular auspices under which they were presented.1

Despite having great success as a composer himself, Copland is passionate about improving the attitude towards American music in general—a “thoroughly serious” matter regarding this “body of vital music,” in which critics are an “absolute necessity,” all very strong language, and aimed at the issue of American music more than the actual controversy of his being misquoted.

The conference at which he was misquoted provides more evidence for this passion. It was the First Festival of Contemporary American Music, in which Copland played a major administrative and musical role.2 In the letters sent around the same time as his note to the New York Times, he focuses on the success of the festival, and gives much encouragement to composers whose works were performed at the festival, an example of the encouragement he gives to other composers, students and colleagues alike, throughout his letters.

In his letter to Virgil Thomson about the festival, he writes, “I’m delighted for you because I feel it’s the first real success you’ve had in America. I’ll see to it that the League of Composers performs it in N.Y. next season.”3 This quote also brings up his involvement in the League of Composers, another organization championing American classical music.

In another letter about the success of the festival, he writes to Carlos Chávez of his fondness for the Mexican-inspired music at the festival, illustrating how Copland viewed Mexico as an appropriate and even desirable inspiration for American music.3 Incidentally, around this time Copland also traveled to Mexico, which his letters trace, and did seem to find the trip inspiring. In another letter to Carlos Chávez, he writes, “I regretted leaving Mexico with a sharp pang. It took me three years in France to get as close a feeling to the country as I was able to get in three months in Mexico.”4 The visit to Mexico inspired Copland’s piece El Salón México, which started him down the path of using Mexican and folk inspiration for his music, making it both American and accessible.5

American music was clearly a passion for Copland, and he was much more involved in developing and promoting it than he needed to be as an already successful American composer. From being active in organizations to supporting other composers to seeking out his own American inspiration, he saught to create an American music that would satisfy not only the composers but also as much of the American public as possible.

1 Crist, Elizabeth B., and Wayne Shirley, eds., The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 91.

2 Ibid, 88.

3 Ibid, 92.

4 Ibid, 101.

5 Ibid, 89.

“Copland: El Salón México ∙ hr-Sinfonieorchester ∙ Carlos Miguel Prieto.” YouTube video, 13:36, posted by hr-Sinfonieorchester – Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Jan 22, 2013,