The Aaron Copland Collection ca. 1900-1990


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An Intimate Sketch

By Leonard Bernstein
Article from High Fidelity/Musical America
Vol. 20 No. 11 November 1970

On November 14, Aaron Copland will be seventy years old. November 14--it's a date seared into my mind. Two of the most important events of my life occurred on that day, the first in 1937, the second in 1943--and so I never forgot Aaron's birthday.

Bernstein reads music over the shoulder of Copland, seated at piano
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  Aaron Copland with Leonard Bernstein, ca. 1940, Music Division, Library of Congress.

In the fall of 1937 I had just begun my junior year at Harvard. Although I had never seen Copland, I had long adored him through his music. He was the composer who would lead American music out of the wilderness, and I pictured him as a cross between Walt Whitman and an Old Testament prophet, bearded and patriarchal. I had dug up and learned as much of his music as I could find; the Piano Variations had virtually become my trademark. I was crazy about them then--and I still find them marvelous today--but in those days, I especially enjoyed disrupting parties with the work. It was the furthest you could go in avant-garde "noise," and I could be relied upon to empty any room in Boston within three minutes by sitting down at the piano and starting it.

At the time, one of my close friends was a fellow student who went by the name of I. B. Cohen. (He's now known as I. Bernard Cohen, Professor of the History of Science at Harvard, but nobody yet knows what the I. stands for.) He was way beyond me--a graduate student who knew everything about anything--but we did have two things in common: the name Bernstein (his mother's maiden name) and a great crush on Anna Sokolow.

Anna Sokolow was a young and very striking dancer whose recital in Boston I. B. and I had attended. We both promptly fell in love with her. When we learned that her Boston performance was in effect a pre-Broadway tryout for her New York debut, we determined that nothing in the world would stop us from going down to catch that recital.

I. B. acquired tickets through a friend of his, the poetess Muriel Rukeyser and on magical November 14, we came to New York, met Muriel, and went with her to the Guild Theater on Broadway for the recital. Our seats happened to be in the first row of the balcony; I made my way through, followed by Muriel and I. B. Already in his seat on my right was an odd-looking man in his thirties, a pair of glasses resting on his great hooked nose and a mouth filled with teeth flashing a wide grin at Muriel. She leaned across to greet him, then introduced us: "Aaron Copland . . . Leonard Bernstein." I almost fell out of the balcony.

At the end of the recital, Copland announced that it was his birthday, that he was having a few people up to his "loft" (Aaron Copland's famous loft! Where he worked!) and would we care to join them.

It was indeed a loft, above a candy factory on Sixty-third Street, where Lincoln Center now stands. (He worked in the loft, lived down the block at the Empire Hotel, still standing at Sixty-third Street and Broadway.) As was my shameless wont, I gravitated to the piano. Naturally, I began with the Variations. It must have startled everybody that this last-minute guest, whom nobody knew--a provincial college boy from Boston who had been to New York only once or twice before and who was now obviously thrilled to be in a loft! . . . with artists!!--was playing their host's ferocious work. I was so excited to be the center of such a party that I followed the Variations with every piece I could remember; I recall to my shame that I must have stayed at the piano for hours.

From that time on, Aaron and I were fast friends. He seemed to be terribly taken by the conviction with which I played his music and even made such extravagant remarks as, "I wish I could play it like that." And thereafter, whenever I came to New York I went to Aaron's. I would arrive in the morning and we'd have breakfast at his hotel, then wander around and sometimes go to a concert. And all during those years I would bring him my own music for his criticism. I remember that I was writing a violin sonata during those Harvard days, and a two-piano piece, and a four-hand piece, and a string quartet. I even completed a trio. I would show Aaron the bits and pieces and he would say, "All that has to go . . . This is just pure Scriabin. You've got to get that out of your head and start fresh . . . This is good; these two bars are good. Take these two bars and start from there." And in these sessions he taught me a tremendous amount about taste, style, and consistency in music. I had never really studied composition with anybody before: at Harvard I had taken advanced harmony and fugue with Walter Piston and orchestration with Edward Burlingame Hill, but those were all theoretical elements of composition. Through his critical analyses of whatever I happened to be working on at the moment, Aaron became the closest thing to a composition teacher I ever had.

We of course played other music than mine at these sessions. We played his. Not while he was composing it though: Aaron was very jealous of the music he was working on and would never show anything before it reached its reasonably final form. But then would come that glorious day when he would pull something out and we would play it, four-hand, from the score. I learned such works as Billy the Kid and An Outdoor Overture--later, the Piano Sonata and Third Symphony--that way before they were ever performed publicly, and the scores to Quiet City, Of Mice and Men, and Our Town before Hollywood got them. El Salón México had already been composed--and first performed by Carlos Chávez in Mexico City a few months before I met Aaron--but the published piano transcription was made by me.

During those years, I was also very much concerned about my own future and I'd bring all my problems to Aaron. He became a surrogate father to me. Even after I developed the close relationship to Koussevitzky that made me his official (according to the press) substitute son, it was always Aaron to whom I would turn with my worries. I was quite a whiner in those days and I would constantly bewail my plight to him: "When is anybody ever going to play my music?" or, in later years. "Oh Lord, how does anybody ever get to conduct an orchestra?" He would always giggle first--the infectious giggle is his most common reaction to anything--then, with an attempt at sternness, glower. "Stop complaining. You are destined for success. Nobody's worried about you. You are the one person worried about you," and I would get very angry and insist upon being worried about.

Then on Sunday, November 14 (again), 1943--his forty-third birthday--I was awakened at nine in the morning by a phone call from the New York Philharmonic, of which I was then the assistant conductor. Bruno Walter was sick and I would have to conduct the concert, scheduled for national broadcast, at three that afternoon. There was no time for a rehearsal and barely time to shake my hangover. That concert, of course, changed my life. It was a dramatic success, all the more so for me since Aaron's words seemed to come providentially true on his birthday. When the review, incredibly, made the front page of the New York Times the following morning, Aaron's response was, "Oh, it's only what everybody expected," and I, of course, got twice as furious with him as ever.

I was not, certainly, the only young musician for whom Aaron was a beacon. In America he was The Leader, the one to whom the young always came with their compositions. Every premiere of a new Copland work found the concert hall filled with young composers and musicians. And from all over the world young composers would come to study with him at Tanglewood. (Aaron and I used to spend our summers there--we opened the first Tanglewood season together in 1940--he as administrative head of the school, I as a student.)

But then, after the war, the Schoenberg syndrome took hold and was heartily embraced by the young, who gradually stopped flocking to Aaron: the effect on him--and therefore on American music--was heartbreaking. He is, after all, one of the most important composers of our century. I am not thinking historically now, but musically. In fact he became an impetus to subsequent American music only because his own music is so important. It contains a rare combination of spontaneity and care: his creative material is purely instinctive and his crafting of it extremely professional. Unlike much of the past decade's transient works, Aaron's music has always contained the basic values of art, not the least of which is communicativeness.

As these virtues became unfashionable, so did Aaron's music. One of the sadnesses I recall in recent years occurred at the premiere of his Inscape, when he said to me. "Do you realize there isn't one young composer here, there isn't one young musician who seems to be at all interested in this piece, a brand-new piece I've labored over?" The truth is that when the musical winds blew past him, he tried to catch up--with twelve-tone music, just as it too was becoming old-fashioned to the young.

When he started writing twelve-tone I figured that it was inevitable--everybody has to fool with serialism. God knows I spent my whole sabbatical in 1964 in a desperate attempt at it: I've actually thrown away more twelve-tone pieces and bits of pieces than I have written otherwise. But still I asked him, "Of all people, why you--you who are so instinctive, so spontaneous? Why are you bothering with tone rows and with the rules of retrograde and inversion, and all that?" and he answered me. "Because I need more chords. I've run out of chords."* And that lasted for four more pieces and then he didn't write any more. How sad for him. How awful for us.

Of course, as Aaron himself pointed out when I complained to him about his forsaking composition for the stage (he's become quite an excellent conductor, by the way, and has always been a marvelous lecturer), how many composers have lived into their late sixties still writing? We know the obvious example of Verdi, who at sixty thought he was through as an operatic composer, struggling halfheartedly with a King Lear, only to emerge after a fifteen-year hiatus, in his mid-seventies, with his two masterpieces Otello and Falstaff. Perhaps, we can hope, this will happen to Aaron. All it will take, it seems to me, is another musical turn, this time to a rediscovery of the basic simplicities of art, in which Copland will once more be looked to as a leader, will once again feel wanted as a composer.

Happy Birthday, Aaron. We miss your music.

* This reminds me that Paul Simon (of Garfunkel fame) told me the summer before last that upon meeting Bob Dylan for the first time Dylan's first sentence had been, "Hey you got any new chords? I've run out of chords."