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Aaron Copland and Friends

Aaron Copland (November 14, 1900 – December 2,1990), one of America’s foremost composers, lived in the carriage house at the rear of 9 Charlton Street. Located at the corner of Charlton and Sixth Avenue, the Greek Revival brick row house sits on the edge of the Charlton-King-Vandam Historic District. While Copland only lived in our neighborhoods for a couple of years, his legacy runs very deep in the DNA of our communities.

The carriage house where Copland lived from 1951-1952 is just visible at the rear of the alley.

As a composer, Aaron Copland is recognized as one of the most important and influential musicians of the 20th century. His tremendous breadth of style and originality celebrated America. Copland invented a unique sound that continues to evoke our nation’s expanse and history’s richness. In ballet scores like Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942) and above all Appalachian Spring (1944), and in concert pieces like El Salon Mexico (1937), Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), and Lincoln Portrait (1942), Mr. Copland touched a chord in the American psyche reached by no other classical musician our country has produced.

Copland composing, photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

In 1927, Paul Rosenfeld, a New School faculty member considered to be one of the original American music critics, hired Aaron Copland to lecture on modern music at The New School. At that time, Copland was a promising young composer without a steady income. Teaching at The New School provided him with a space to work on his compositions and gave him an opportunity to present his ideas in the form of lectures from his New School course Symphonic Masterpieces. These lectures were subsequently published in book form under the title What to Listen for in Music (1939).

While there, Copland met and began collaborations with fellow New School professors, choreographer and dancer Martha Graham, and visual artist Isamu Noguchi. Appalachian Spring was composed in 1944 for the Martha Graham Dance Company, whose first dance studio was in the area South of Union Square at 66 Fifth Avenue beginning in the 1930s, remaining there through the 1950s. Noguchi, whose studio was located in MacDougal Alley at number 33, designed the set for Appalachian Spring. Noguchi would go on to design many of the sets and costumes for the Graham Company.

Appalachian Spring with Martha Graham, set design by Isamu Noguchi

The music for Appalachian Spring was scored for a thirteen-member chamber orchestra and was created upon commission from Graham with funds from the Coolidge Foundation. The piece premiered on Monday, October 30, 1944, with Martha Graham dancing the lead role. Copland was awarded the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his achievement. Copland was subsequently commissioned by conductor Artur Rodzinski to rearrange the ballet as an orchestral suite, preserving most of the music. Copland cut about 10 minutes from the original 13-instrument score to make the suite.

Perhaps lesser known about Copland was his relentless advocacy for freedom of expression and American ideals, qualities that made him very much at home in the environment of Greenwich Village. Copland was deeply concerned about the plight of his fellow Americans during the depression, founded multiple organizations to support and advocate for composers, scored anti-Nazi films in the 1940s, and was a staunch patriot who was nonetheless questioned by Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953.

Copland and Joseph McCarthy

“When he touches on his magic theme, the ‘Commies’ or ‘communism,’ his voice darkens like that of a minister. He is like a plebeian Faustus who has been given a magic wand by an invisible Mephisto—as long as the menace is there, the wand will work. The question is at what point his power grab will collide with the power drive of his own party.” — Aaron Copland on Senator Joseph McCarthy, May, 1953

Copland’s impressions came from a face-to-face encounter. He wrote them down the day after appearing before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations on May 25, 1953. McCarthy chaired the committee with the lawyer Roy Cohn at his side.

Aaron Copland had run into trouble with the junior senator from Wisconsin. His work, Lincoln Portrait, had been scheduled to be performed in conjunction with President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first inauguration in January of 1953. Illinois Representative Fred Busbey queried, “Wait one minute. Isn’t the composer of that piece a Communist?” The piece was subsequently canceled. In May of the same year, Copland was summoned before McCarthy’s committee. Copland’s performance was, in some respects, breathtaking. He was considered a friendly, but not particularly cooperative witness. He named no names, and managed to evade every line of questioning about his own political leanings throughout the 30s and 40s.

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