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Aaron Copland: THE LIFE AND WORK OF AN UNCOMMON MAN (Music in American Life)

4.6 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0252069000
ISBN-10: 0252069005
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Opening with a 12-page chapter that gives a sharper impression of the great American composer's personality than many full-length books, this superb biography goes from strength to strength as it elucidates Aaron Copland's background, beliefs, affiliations, and achievements. Music historian Howard Pollack depicts Copland (1900-90) as a man whose inner serenity and self-confidence enabled him to encompass "startling dichotomies" in his life and work. "A participant in the avant-garde, he wrote works of popular appeal," comments the author. "A Jewish, homosexual, liberal New Yorker, he became a national hero." Moving forward in a generally chronological manner, the narrative mixes two kinds of chapters. Some pursue themes over time: his feelings about European music (he adored Stravinsky, was ambivalent about Mozart), his political commitments (which got him into trouble during the McCarthy era), and his relationships with fellow composers and a host of nonmusical artists all equally determined to give America its own distinctive culture. Others concentrate on describing and analyzing groups of compositions: perennial favorites like Appalachian Spring and Billy the Kid, of course, but also the concertos and symphonies respected by his peers. In either mode, Pollack writes with a clarity and dignity eminently suitable to his subject, who seems as warmly appealing as his music. --Wendy Smith --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

In this exhaustive study, Pollack (Walter Piston) offers a compelling look at a composer whose output included much more than the ballet scores so familiar to the general public, such as Billy the Kid, Rodeo and Appalachian Spring. Copland (1900-1990) wrote music for opera, ballet, chorus, orchestra, chamber ensemble, band, radio and film, while making important contributions as a music critic, teacher and conductor. Pollack follows Copland's development from the early pieces written when Copland was a student of Nadia Boulanger in Paris to his later 12-tone scores that alienated the public and many critics. He discusses the music that influenced Copland and examines his most important works, arguing that his compositions are distinctly American. Interspersed with analyses of Copland's music are discussions of his personality (he was typically characterized by friends and colleagues as warm and charming), his homosexual relationships and his lifelong social consciousness, which made him a tireless promoter of young composers and also led to his involvement in radical politics and hard times during the McCarthy era. Pollack captures the spirit of Copland's music in words, as when he compares the 1926 Concerto for Piano and Orchestra to a "mobile" in which "separate but related ideas appear and reappear in various combinations."
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Series: Music in American Life
  • Paperback: 728 pages
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press (March 8, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0252069005
  • ISBN-13: 978-0252069000
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #981,349 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
When Pollack wrote this book, Copland desperately needed a biographer, and for a initial comprehensive effort, Pollack's book more than fills the bill.

The book is a hefty 550 pages, not counting notes and index, but its unorthodox organization--the chapters are chronological, alternating, for example, a history of a few works with an analysis of some aspect of Copland's life--keeps the story moving. In fact, this organizational gambit is about the only thing that makes a life so sprawling as Copland's manageable. By grouping together everything having to do with, say, Copland and European composers, in one chapter, he makes it much easier for the reader to sink his teeth into the subject and to refer back to a topic later on.

This book is almost a hagiography--Pollack clearly adores Copland and, if anything, views him as underappreciated. In particular, Pollack seeks to revive Copland's reputation as a "serious" composer, right up there in the 20th-century American canon with Ives. Along with such staples as "Appalachian Spring" and "Fanfare for the Common Man," Pollack wants us to recognize the achievements of his later, twelve-tone works. Further, he attempts (somewhat convincingly) to show the relationship between his "popular" works and the less-accessible ones, whereas Copland's works have often been seen as belonging to different "periods."

I wouldn't be surprised if someone supersedes this biography in another 15 or 20 years, but for now, Pollack's book is a great introduction to the man and his work. Not only that, but it places Copland's ascension from struggling artist to eminent public figure in such a way to inspire young artists in all fields. A great read.
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Format: Hardcover
For me, a young American composer, this book was inspirational! It had a perfect balance between Copland's personal life and his music. My only minor complaint is its organization. I have recommended this book to many friends both, musician and layman; and I recommend it to you!
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As one who adores Copland's music, I found this comprehensive biography to be an incredibly difficult yet satisfying work. To fully appreciate it, one needs to be a serious musician. I am not and therefore found some of the passages needed rereading to at least glean something of what the author intended to convey. If you delve into this book, be prepared to reread and re-reread a number of passages and chapters if you want to learn as much as it has to offer.

Many have commented on the disjointed order of the book. I agree, at first it was disconcerting. Many of the chapters are stand-alone essays that, especially in the first half of the book, require a certain knowledge of Copland and his works. But, as stated above, if one is patient and willing to reread the passages after the discussions of individual works that come later, it is understandable why the author chose this approach.

For young students of 20th century American music, this is a treasure trove of information about the many composers who are more than obscure to casual listeners of this era of music. I found myself looking up many of the artists and expect it will keep me busy for years to learn more. Readers will get an incredible understanding of what Copland meant to his colleagues. His promotion and encouragment of their work shows a selfless side of Copland that only endears him more to those who love his music and influence.

As a trivial side note, I was particularly pleased that the author noted Keith Emerson's "respectfully arranged" interpretation of Fanfare for the Common Man. It was as a young high school student listening to Emerson, Lake & Palmer's version that introduced me to Copland in the first place (and Mussorgsky as well).
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Format: Hardcover
Howard Pollack has, quite simply, written the finest account of Aaron Copland' life and music thus far. I have all of the other biographies - including the excellent autobiography by Copland and Vivien Perlis. As worthwhile as these earlier publications are, it is Howard Pollack who has given all Copland devotees the quintessential story of the life and the music of America's greatest composer. I can think of no better place to start exploring Copland's genius than with this book as an introduction to the music, without which the world would be a poorer place and the 20th century would be missing a unique body of sound. It is inconceivable, to me at any rate, to imagine a world without Copland's music. No one else comes close to creating his sound world.
Thank you Mr Pollack for making it so clear to all of your readers that Aaron Copland is not only America's greatest composer but is, historically, and without question, one of most important composers the world has ever produced.
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Format: Paperback
Howard Pollack has written a large, immensely-detailed, and very moving biography of a marvelous composer. Copland (1900-1990) was Jewish (Copland later wrote that his parents were "more traditional than religious, but observant"), and Pollack notes that "if Copland was discreet about his Jewish background, he never hid it either.... (T)hroughout his life, Copland spoke warmly of the Jewish traditions he had grown up with." Copland was not traditionally religious, however: "He occasionally referred to God ... but he apparently rejected the idea of a personal deity who intervened in human affairs." His funeral was, at his request, nonreligious.

"Copland never joined a political party." He was nevertheless later compelled to testify at the McCarthy hearings "as a friendly but not particularly cooperative witness," who stated categorically, "I have not been a Communist in the past and I am not now a Communist."

Pollack covers all of the necessary biographical details fully, such as Copland's studying advanced composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Furthermore, "Boulanger's efforts on behalf of his career also earned his gratitude."

Pollack's book is filled with insights into Copland and his music. "Copland composed primarily at the piano ... he felt somewhat defensive about this practice until he learned that Stravinsky did likewise." Copland was also influenced by jazz (he later wrote, "I was born in Brooklyn, and that in Brooklyn we used to hear jazz around all the time"), but after writing his Piano Concerto (1926), he "felt I had done all I could with the idiom."

He notes that "to the end of his life, Copland named (Stravinsky) as his favorite twentieth century composer"; yet "Copland and Stravinsky maintained a rather cool friendship.
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