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  • Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland during the Depression and War
  • Leonard J. Lehrman
Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland during the Depression and War. By Elizabeth B. Crist. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. [x, 253 p. ISBN 0-19-515157-7. $35.] Index, bibliographical references, music examples, illustrations.

I met Aaron Copland only once, at Tanglewood, 4 July 1974. He had flown in to conduct his "Appalachian Spring," on the first half of a Koussevitsky memorial program on which Leonard Bernstein had been told by his doctor he should conduct "only"(!) the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, on the second half. The previous December I had completed Idiots First, an opera begun and left unfinished by Marc Blitzstein (1905–1964), and needed—and obtained—Copland's permission to proceed with it, having already obtained Bernstein's, they being the two musical advisors to Blitzstein's estate.

Copland was very friendly and cordial, though a bit distant and even foggy when I tried to bring up the period of the 1930s when he and Blitzstein (and Elie Siegmeister, and several others) had set the same Alfred Hayes text to music: "Into the Streets May First." This book helps illuminate why.

Its very first music example is page 1 of that very song, in Copland's setting, which won the first New Masses/Composers Collective competition for a May Day song in 1934. The first verse was published in New Masses and The Workers Songbook, vol. 2. (When it was performed at the Bard College Copland Festival of 2005, no one seemed to remember that there had in fact been a second verse.) Crist quotes the 1970 interview Charles Seeger gave Vivian Perlis, stating that Copland's piece was chosen because it was the "best" submitted, though this was not the memory of other Collective composers like Herbert Haufrecht and Elie Siegmeister, who gathered to discuss the Collective with Charles's son Pete, Carol Oja, this writer, and others, in Beacon, New York in June 1989. They remembered, rather, that Copland's piece had actually been chosen simply because he was the most prominent entrant. (Blitzstein's version has been preserved, and performed, and in fact incorporated, musically, into this writer's completion of his magnum opus, the opera Sacco and Vanzetti. The other settings seem to have been lost. Excerpts from the Beacon workshop were broadcast on WBAI in the fall of 1989.)

Be that as it may, Copland's position as the "dean" of American composers throughout most of the twentieth century was earned, both through his own compositions and his encouragement of other American composers to challenge the Teutonic establishment and find "freshness" in the traditions of France, Mexico, and the wide, transparent spaces of America, along with American jazz and folk music. What was forgotten, or repudiated, if not admitted only with trepidation or embarrassment, was the important influence of the Popular Front and the New Deal on Copland and so many mainstream American intellectuals and composers of the 1930s. This fear, or forgetfulness, is directly attributable to the Cold War and its aftermath, and may be observed most vividly in Copland's encounter in a closed session hearing, 26 May 1953, presided over by Joseph McCarthy and his sidekick Roy Cohn, the transcript of which deserves full publication (and was given a dramatic reading during the American Piano Festival at the University of Maryland in March, 2006). It is available online at [End Page 379] (S.Prt. 107-84 v. 2 pp.1267-89; accessed 23 August 2006), and brings to mind the description Martin Esslin provided of Bertolt Brecht testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee: "as though a zoologist had been cross-examined by apes."

Crist's book expands on her excellent article "Aaron Copland and the Popular Front" (Journal of the American Musicological Society 56, no. 2 [Summer 2003]: 409–58), incorporating many of the same music examples, with score parts now transposed to concert pitch, and in one case the addition of dotted lines (which unfortunately confuse more than they clarify) to the structural outline of the third symphony...


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