The Simple Gift of Aaron Copland

Copland[First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk 9 Nov 2015]

Even without Appalachian Spring, Aaron Copland might still be considered the greatest American composer. But this week, as we celebrate Copland’s birthday, WRTI’s Kile Smith thinks that the key to Aaron Copland is heard more clearly in Appalachian Spring than in any other of his works.

He wrote complicated music, deep music. He was erudite, urbane, smooth, and up-to-date. He wrote books, he advised, he conducted, he moved and shook the centers of power. He was in Paris, he was in New York. He was all these things—but so were dozens of other composers.

What made Aaron Copland the American composer of the 20th century?

Without Appalachian Spring, Copland would still be one of our greatest composers. With Billy the Kid, Rodeo, the Third Symphony, Fanfare for the Common Man, and others, he would still be the most well-known.

But his 1944 ballet for Martha Graham, so identifiable as his, is a thing unto itself. Even though Graham came up with the title, even though Copland had no story in mind, Appalachian Spring defines him and defines American music unlike anything else.

And why? Well, the answer is simple. It’s summed up in a little tune he took from a mostly-forgotten religious sect, the Shakers. “Simple Gifts” is the answer. Yes, of course, it’s what Copland did with it, how he arranged and placed it, how he did all those complicated and deep and smooth things composers do. But the key to Aaron Copland’s greatness is exactly what he discovered in Appalachian Spring.

The answer is simplicity itself.


4 thoughts on “The Simple Gift of Aaron Copland

  1. Philip Korb

    First, a fan’s note. I read everything I find of yours. You are one of the most insightful writers about music I know, and your writing is both clear and passionate. As to Copland, he surely is a wonderful composer. My objection is subjective. I think Charles Ives is our greatest composer, going back to William Billings. Like Copland, he wrote quintessentially American music, free thinking and innovative. As a choral singer, I rate Psalm 90 as one of the greatest choral works, from any country, of this century.

    1. Kile Smith Post author

      Thanks so much, Philip, very kind. Keeping these to c.200 words for a 90-second spot concentrates the mind wonderfully. Calling anyone “greatest” or “one of” has subjectivity to it, of course, but not entirely, and my appreciation for Ives (and Billings!) is huge. I think I’ll stay with “What made Aaron Copland ‘the’ American composer of the 20th century?” and own that as my opinion, based on the reach of all his work. But does he have anything like the Concord Sonata? Interesting discussion, and thanks!

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