Music: Aaron Copland

The common men may play their fanfare for him now...

You know all those things you like about America? The huge tracts of untamed land, the cities bustling as one of the mothers of western industry, the pioneer culture that eventually tamed The Wild West? The music of Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is basically all that distilled into the purest musical form you could imagine. Go listen to "Fanfare for the Common Man". Now.

Aside from that well-known piece, Copland is most famous for his ballet music for Billy the Kid, Appalachian Spring, and Rodeo (especially the "Hoedown" movement from the latter, which you've almost certainly heard, either in a Western or in the background while someone told you what beef is for.)

Copland also composed music for a few movies, including Of Mice and Men (1939), Our Town (1940), The Red Pony (1949) and The Heiress (1949; Academy Award winner for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture).

Copland actually began making music that attempted to emulate the foremost German composers of his time, until his teacher told him that he was trying too hard and that he should simply be himself (i.e. an American). And it worked.

Because of Copland's Americana styles, right-wing politicians frequently use his music or a Suspiciously Similar Song version of his music in their campaign ads. Ironically, Copland was quite openly gay and left-wing with Communist views. Needless to say Joseph Mc Carthy didn't like him very much and Copland was put on the Hollywood blacklist at the time.

Hugely influenced by early modernist musicians, like Igor Stravinsky and Claude Debussy, Copland in turn influenced such Hollywood composers as Elmer Bernstein (whose theme for The Magnificent Seven in particular is sometimes mistakenly credited to Copland).

Tropes associated with Copland's music:

  • Dramatic Timpani: "Symphony for Organ and Orchestra", the timpani pounding out the work's motto theme in the final movement would be more impressive were they not overshadowed by the organ playing at full power.
    • In his ballet "Billy The Kid," the timpani are used to depict the sounds of a gun battle.
  • Instrumentals: "Fanfare For The Common Man" is an instrumental piece.
  • Letting the Air Out of the Band: At the climax of the ballet "Rodeo", the dancing grinds to a halt and Aaron Copland's hoedown music loses pitch like a record winding down as the tomboy reappears in a nice dress.
  • Literary Allusion Title: "Appalachian Spring" is named after the poem "The Dance" by Hart Crane.
  • Mood Motif: "El Salón México" uses a small clarinet in E-flat or D.
  • Named After Somebody Famous: His ballet "Billy The Kid" is named after the notorious outlaw of the same name.
  • Standard Snippet: The "Hoedown" from "Rodeo" is used a lot in westerns. His "Fanfare For The Common Man" is very popular for scenes of North America, particular panoramas, grand cityscapes, stadia and stadium events.
  • Uncommon Time: The "Mexican Dance" in Aaron Copland's Billy the Kid music is in 5/8, alternating with the occasional bar of 4/8.
  • The Wild West: "Billy The Kid" and "Rodeo" fit this trope perfectly, evoking the atmosphere of the cowboy era.
  • Working Title: When Aaron Copland received a commission to compose music for a Martha Graham ballet, his composition bore the heading "Ballet for Martha". The Literary Allusion Title "Appalachian Spring" was apparently decided on by her shortly before the premiere.

Aaron Copland in popular culture:

  • Emerson, Lake & Palmer recorded a Progressive Rock version of "Fanfare Of The Common Man".
  • The classic Shaker hymn Simple Gifts has been appropriated twice: Once for another hymn (Lord of the Dance), but most people would recognize it as the first movement of Copland's ballet/suite Appalachian Spring. The tune is attributed: that section is titled Variations on a Shaker Melody.
    • People who were in elementary school wind ensembles probably first knew it as an unnamed (or possibly numbered) warm-up "etude".
    • Weezer's "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived", subtitled "Variations on a Shaker Hymn"—you guessed it.
    • Speaking of Copland, how many people can hear the Hoedown from his "Rodeo" (itself based on an older folk tune), and not immediately think "Beef, it's what's for dinner"?
  • Superman: The Animated Series - its Awesome Music theme bears a striking resemblance to a sped-up version the Copland masterpiece "Fanfare for the Common Man" melded with bits the John Williams theme from Superman: The Movie. Given that the series was heavily influenced by the John Byrne era Superman (Clark is the real person, Superman is his disguise, and Clark sees himself as a perfectly normal person who happens to have extraordinary powers), this probably wasn't unintentional.
  • Terry Funk: He used "Fanfare Of The Common Man" as his introduction song.
  • An advertisement for beef used "Hoedown" as its theme song.