Aaron Copland and America’s Musical Identity

Brandeis University

Gil Harel is a musicologist and music theorist who lectures widely at Brandeis University and additional venues on topics ranging from renaissance motets to atonal opera. A piano accompanist and vocal coach, Professor Harel’s musical interests range from western classical repertoire to musical theater and jazz. Previously, he has served on the faculty at the Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in Chengdu, China, and at CUNY Baruch College, where he was awarded the prestigious “Presidential Excellence Award for Distinguished Teaching.”



Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is ensconced in the annals of music history as one of the foremost composers of the 20th century. Perhaps the most salient part of his legacy, however, is that his music is suffused with a distinctly “American” character. Often, he accomplished this by writing works that evoked tableaus of American history and culture. Ironically, he began his career by studying composition at the famed Palais de Fontainebleau. During this period, Copland became wary of the increasingly dissonant music written by European composers of the age and, in his own works, would eschew modernistic tendencies such as atonality. During this program, Professor Gil Harel will discuss Copland’s important pieces, such as Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, Fanfare for the Common Man. and more. In each case, we will see how Aaron Copland – born in Brooklyn to a Jewish family of Lithuanian origin – embraced his love of and fascination with American culture to shape profoundly memorable musical compositions. 


Recommended Reading: 

What to Listen for in Music, by Aaron Copland   

Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man, by Howard Pollack 

Aaron Copland’s America: A Cultural Perspective, by Gail Levin and Judith Tick

Discussion Questions:

  1. How did Copland’s music depict aspects of Americana? What specifically about America inspired his works? 
  2. What is “Gebrauchsmusik” and how did exposure to modernism (specifically: atonality) shape Copland’s compositional style?
  3. Music and politics were intertwined for many composers, from Shostakovich to Bernstein to Copland himself. How did this affect his life and career? 
  4. What are the most enduring and oft-performed works in the Copland catalog? Why might we suppose these works have captivated audiences so profoundly? 




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Timothy Wills

Copland and his Influence

I enjoyed the look at Copland and his music. Seems like such a nice man. I am 62 and my introduction to Copland was through Emerson, Lake and Palmer versions of Fanfare and Hoedown. Thanks for mentioning that. Thanks again!

1 year ago
Joy Morros

Very informative.

1 year ago
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