Copland in Aspen

“Aaron Copland is—and for forty years has been—so commanding, so vital, and so essential a figure on the American creative musical scene that it is virtually impossible to consider it even generally without his name coming immediately to mind.”

—William Flanigan, Aspen Music Festival 1975 program book

Aaron Copland at the Conference on Contemorary Music, 1975_Charles Abbott
Aaron Copland at the 1975 Conference on Contemporary Music in Aspen (Photo by Charles Abbott)

Though this statement about Copland was penned forty-four years ago, it still resonates strongly—the association between American music and Aaron Copland remain as inseparable today as it did in the twentieth century. So, it’s only fitting that both Copland and his music have played a prominent role throughout the Aspen Music Festival and School’s seventy-year history.

Copland first attended the Festival as a composer-in-residence during the 1960 summer season. Commitments at Tanglewood had prevented him from making an appearance in previous years, but Norman Singer—director and dean of the Aspen Music Festival since 1952—reached out to the composer in August 1959:

“. . . to invite you to be with us next summer when it is our intention to feature your music in celebration of your sixtieth birthday.”

—Letter from Norman Singer to Aaron Copland, August 1959

Copland was already slated to conduct his First Symphony at Tanglewood on August 13 but was able to arrange a flight to Aspen after his Tanglewood performance. He ultimately spent nine days in Aspen that summer (August 15–24), leading workshops, conducting the Aspen Festival Orchestra (in a program which included his Orchestral Variations and Red Pony Suite), and meeting with students. One such student was a young Philip Glass, who recalls their contentious first encounter in his 2015 memoir Words Without Music:

“. . .through Milhaud’s class, Copland invited students to meet with him one-on-one to show him their compositions. I took him one of my pieces, a violin concerto . . .

Mr. Copland looked at it and said, ‘You’ll never hear the French horn.’

‘Of course you will,’ I said.

‘Nope, you’ll never hear it.’ . . .

‘I’m sorry, Mr. Copland. I’m going to hear it.'”

—Philip Glass, Words Without Music

Despite this experience, Howard Pollack mentions in his book Aaron Copland: The Life & Work of an Uncommon Man that Glass made a “great impression” on the older composer, and Copland went on to follow Glass’s music in his later years.

As a whole, Copland reflected warmly upon his first summer in Aspen:

“Aspen offered a different atmosphere of musicmaking in a very beautiful setting. . .[I] enjoyed it so much that I promised to return if invited.”

—Vivian Perlis, Copland Since 1943

Indeed, he did return. Fifteen years later—in 1975, the year of the composer’s 75th birthday—Copland was invited back to Aspen once again to serve as composer-in-residence alongside David Del Tredici and Earle Brown. In a letter sent to his friend and patron Mary Lescaze, Copland expressed an eagerness to return to Colorado:

“To-morrow [sic] I’m off to Minneapolis for two symphony concerts; and then ASPEN for 10 days. I’m looking forward to that! Very distingué crowd of musicians they get.”

—Letter from Aaron Copland to Mary Lescaze, July 1, 1975

Aaron Copland, David Del Tredicic, and John Ward (1975) PC, Charles Abbott
Copland (left) with composer David Del Tredici (center) and John Ward of Boosey & Hawkes (right) at the Aspen Music Festival in 1975 (Photo by Charles Abbott)

This time around, Copland spent ten days at the Festival, from July 12 to 22. His residency included panel discussions, workshops with composition students, and showings of two films for which he wrote the scores (The Heiress and Of Mice and Men). Ten of his compositions were also performed during the Conference on Contemporary Music. One further highlight was, as in 1960, Copland leading a program with the Aspen Festival Orchestra.

Copland’s program that year was eclectic, mixing two classic works by Purcell and Schumann with a 1934 composition by Milhaud (who had passed away the previous year, in 1974). The program also included two of Copland’s own compositions—the gorgeously tender Quiet City and the thorny Connotations for Orchestra. Below is the program page from that concert:

Program page from Copland’s July 1975 concert with the Aspen Festival Orchestra

Copland, once again, cherished his time at the Festival and his good humor clearly shone through. Bruce Berger reports one such incident that year during a rehearsal with the Festival Orchestra:

“. . . Copland asked the orchestra to repeat the last chord of Connotations for Orchestra, a sustained dissonant blast. ‘Thanks,’ he said with a grin. ‘I just love making all that noise.'”

Music in the Mountains: The First Fifty Years of the Aspen Music Festival

Sadly, the 1975 Festival would be the last time Copland would grace Aspen with his presence. (He passed away fifteen years later, in 1990.) However, like the impression Copland has left on the American music scene, the impression he left on the Aspen Music Festival’s students, artist-faculty, guest artists, and audiences was indelible.

Perhaps Copland’s impact is best summed by someone who knew him. To conclude an essay honoring Copland’s 75th birthday, which was printed in Aspen’s 1975 program book, Leonard Bernstein wrote:

“It is futile to say: may he live forever! Of course he will.”

—Leonard Bernstein, Aaron and Moses


Header photo by Charles Abbott

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