Aaron Copland was born on November 14, 1900, in Brooklyn, New York, the youngest of five children born to Harris Morris Copland and Sarah Mittenthal Copland. The family lived above a department store, which they owned.
One of Copland’s sisters showed him how to play piano when he was eleven years old, and soon afterward he began taking lessons from a teacher in the neighborhood. At age fifteen he decided he wanted to be a composer.
The 1920s and 1930s were a period of deep concern about the limited audience for new (and especially American) music, and Copland was active in many organizations devoted to performance and sponsorship. These included the League of Composers, the Copland-Sessions concerts, and the American Composers’ Alliance.
His organizational abilities earned him the title of “American music’s natural president” from his fellow composer Virgil Thomson (1896–1989). Beginning in the mid-1930s through 1950, Copland made a serious effort to widen the audience for American music and took steps to change his style when writing pieces requested for different occasions.
He composed music for theater, ballet, and films, as well as for concert situations. In his ballets— Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944; Pulitzer Prize, 1945)—he made use of folk melodies and relaxed his previous style to arrive at a sound more broadly recognized as “American.”
Other well-known works of this period are El Salón México (1935) and A Lincoln Portrait (1942), while the Piano Sonata (1943) and the Third Symphony (1946) continue the development of his concert music. Among his famous film scores are those for Of Mice and Men (1939), Our Town (1940), The Red Pony (1948), and The Heiress (1949).
He innovatively blended popular forms of American music such as jazz and folk into his compositions to create exceptional pieces. Copland had contributed a lot to the music industry — both as a composer and as a speaker, who made the Americans aware about the importance of music.
Through his compositions, polemics, promotions and plain hard work, Copland established American concert music. He had a distinct American style of composition and was often referred to as the “Dean of American Composers”. Incorporating elements of jazz and serial techniques, Copland wrote ballets, orchestral music, chamber music, vocal works, operas and film scores.
In the late 1920s Copland turned to an increasingly experimental style, featuring irregular rhythms and often jarring sounds. His works were entirely personal; there are no outside influences that can be identified in the Piano Variations (1930), Short Symphony (1933), and Statements. The basic features of these works remained in one way or another central to his musical style in the following years.
Beginning with the Quartet for Piano and Strings (1950), Copland made use of the methods developed by Austrian American composer Arnold Schoenberg, who developed a tonal system not based on any key. This confused many listeners. Copland’s most important works of these years include the Piano Fantasy (1957), Nonet for Strings (1960), Connotations (1962), and Inscape (1967). The Tender Land (1954) represents an extension of the style of ballet to the opera stage.