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Notes 58.2 (2001) 365-367

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Book Review

Aaron Copland's America: A Cultural Perspective

Aaron Copland's America: A Cultural Perspective. By Gail Levin and Judith Tick. New York: Watson-Guptill, 2000. [176 p. ISBN 0-8230-0110-5. $29.95.]

This handsome, glossy volume was published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name at the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington, New York, curated by Gail Levin (4 November 2000 to 21 January 2001). It consists of two parts. The first, "Aaron Copland's America: A Cultural Perspective," contains high-quality reproductions of the exhibition's paintings, drawings, photographs, prints, and sculptures, including more than fifty in full color, accompanied by Levin's substantial scholarly essay. Part 2, by Judith Tick, is entitled "The Music of Aaron Copland." The volume concludes with endnotes and a helpful index of names and titles.

Levin's essay is arguably the first substantial interdisciplinary study of Copland by a scholar outside musicology, and it sets a high standard. An expert on twentieth-century and American art, Levin has published most recently on the Ballets suédois ("The Ballets suédois and American Culture," in Paris Modern: The Swedish Ballet, 1920-1925, ed. Nancy Van Norman Baer [San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1996], 118-27) and the artist Edward Hopper (including Edward Hopper: A Catalogue Raisonné, 4 vols. [New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, W. W. Norton, 1995]). Music scholars are fortunate to have an art historian with Levin's scholarly rigor bringing her knowledge to bear upon Copland. She draws from the popular press of the day, recent specialized histories, and biographies of individual artists, gallery owners, choreographers, writers, critics, directors, and composers, [End Page 365] supplementing these sources with previously unpublished archival material and her own interviews with Copland's contemporaries and acquaintances. In this meticulously documented work, no statement is left unsubstantiated. In the section entitled "Billy the Kid," for instance, the reasonable suggestion that Copland "probably heard some cowboy songs during the two months he had spent working in Santa Fe in 1928" (p. 80) is supported with a reference to a history of New Mexico (p. 170 n. 226).

The art reproductions, impressive in their own right, closely coordinate with the text. When Levin recounts how the young Copland wrote from Paris begging his parents to forward the Dial, the facing page underscores that magazine's modernist appeal by reproducing Stuart Davis's 1922 cubist painting Still Life with "Dial" (p. 17). Levin explains in a section about Copland portraits and caricatures, "Picturing Aaron Copland," that the frontispiece by Gordon Parks conveys "that sense of place so many have associated with his music" by posing him in front of a simple, Shaker-like barn. She continues, "Yet because Parks photographed him formally--dressed in a suit and tie, wearing his glasses, and resting his hands on an open notebook with a pen at the ready--he caught a number of contradictions in Copland's public image. The composer pictured here is at once both the sophisticated urban modernist and the people's folksy champion of America" (p. 123-24). Tick's essay provides a parallel observation about the music: "Frames of silence around [folk] themes, or their equally ironic dismemberment into repeating motives . . . create the illusion of a double-voiced discourse, the folk melody acting as one voice, and the composer's persona of objective urban narrator as another" (p. 154).

As in most good cultural scholarship, the book nuances large-scale lines of influence while clarifying local connections. The search for direct cause and effect becomes less important than understanding the rich network of events and ideas from which multiple artistic expressions arose. Both authors address the question of jazz's influence on Copland. Locally, Tick identifies the quote in the slow section of Copland's early piano piece "Jazzy" from Moods for Piano as Walter Donaldson's song "My Buddy" (p. 134; Howard Pollack adds this fact to the reprint of his biography without citing Tick [Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of...