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Aaron Copland - America s composer

Aaron Copeland`s folk ballets and film music used folk songs that America loved best.

When Aaron Copland died in December 1990, he hadn t composed a note in almost 20 years. It wasn t that he had lost his ability to write new music, nor had he lost any of his considerable fame. On the contrary. He was too busy lecturing and conducting his earlier works to have time to sit down and scratch out new works on paper. Besides that, his latest works had not found favor with the public. He had ventured into the realm of the 12-tone style of Arnold Schoenberg -- ulta-modern sounds that mostly fell on confused ears. Compared to the style of composition for which he was best known and loved, the new music he composed was like a foreign language.

Copland s music evoked images of prairies and mountains by adapting folk melodies, dances and hymns in his compositions. His music recalled the spirit of the frontier -- the unmistakable sound of America being birthed, squalling to be free of its diapers and move on to its Manifest Destiny. Copland s music was a far cry from his own Jewish heritage and the grime-coated streets of New York where he grew up at the beginning of the twentieth century. His music painted vivid pictures of western towns, cattle drives, hoedowns, Saturday night waltzes, gunfights on dusty streets, and Shaker weddings in the verdant mountains of Appalachia. Copland s music conjured up specific images of America s cherished self-image, a land of hard, self-sufficient men and women carving a life for themselves from an untamed frontier. For this reason he was sometimes called America s composer.

His Fanfare For The Common Man, for instance, was a tone poem that sketched a pristine, heroic portrait of Joe and Jane American. It is said that the piece inspired painter Norman Rockwell to produce his famous Four Freedoms series. In nearly all that he wrote, Aaron Copland captured the indomitable American spirit in music, and laid it out for all the world to see.

Copland came to music late -- he was already in his teens when he began to seriously study music. But he progressed rapidly. Like most young artists and intellectuals during the 1920s, he made an obligatory pilgrimage to Paris to work and study. There he fell under the benevolent eye of Madame Boulanger of the new music school at Fontainbleau. When he returned to New York three years later, Copland had his first commission in hand -- a Concerto For Organ and Orchestra for Madame Boulanger to perform when she came to New York for a concert.

As his fame grew, so did Copland s security. Between 1925 and 1927 he held a Guggenheim grant which helped put bread on the table. His musical style was jazzy and experimental -- much like that of his friend, composer George Gershwin. But Copland longed for a unique style of his own -- something to set him apart from the pack. While Copland sought his niche, he taught, lectured and composed. He even wrote a few books to fill in what spare time he had. He could have made a career as a conductor, but he didn t want that. What he craved more than anything else was a simple, distinctive musical voice, one that would appeal to Everyman.

In 1936, Copland wrote a short piece called El Salon Mexico that used melodies and rhythms from south of the border. It was well received. Copland had always been interested in American folk music and suddenly wondered if he could incorporate folk melodies into symphonic music with the same flair as his Hungarian contemporary Bela Bartok had done with his own country s folk songs. Perhaps ballet was the answer. A ballet, unlike a symphony or concerto, told a story and literally dripped with imagery. So two years after El Salon Mexico, Copland wrote his first folk ballet, Billy the Kid, complete with a choreographed gunfight. It was a sensation.

Four years later came Rodeo . Again set in the wild west, Rodeo depended even more upon folk songs for themes than did Billy. In fact, Copland used one cowboy song in particular, I Ride An Old Paint, almost exclusively as background for an entire scene in the ballet. Then he wrapped up the work with a rip-roaring Hoedown, a wild musical prance that severely taxed even the nimble fingers of expert violinists.

In 1944, dance Martha Graham commissioned a third folk ballet from Copland. This one was entitled Appalachian Spring or Ballet For Martha, and was set in the Appalachian Mountains. It was originally scored for thirteen instruments and included an almost forgotten Shaker hymn, Simple Gifts . Probably the most successful of his ballets, Copland quickly re-scored the work for full symphony orchestra.

Unlike so many serious composers who considered it beneath their dignity to do so, Copland answered when Hollywood called. Producers were well aware of Copland s ability to paint vivid canvasses with music. Now they discovered that when the composer s work welded with images on the screen, the result was electrifying. Nowhere was this more apparent than his musical portrait of an American village in Our Town (1940), or California ranch life in The Red Pony (1948). It is a testament to his popularity that every one of Copland s film scores have been arranged in suite form and are now regularly performed in concert halls. In fact, almost all of Copland s stage work, including the three ballets, are seldom performed on the boards any more. In symphony concerts, however, they are all standard repertoire.

Copland also wrote numerous chamber works, songs and even two operas. Of these, only a suite of eight folk songs arranged for orchestra and voice Old American Songs is regularly performed. His best known opera, The Tender Land is primarily performed only as a shortened orchestral suite.

The musical style of Aaron Copland is so well known to the public that the works of other composers who venture into his style are often compared to him. When Randy Newman wrote his delightful score for the film The Natural , for instance, critics called the music Coplandesque . No other composer, with the possible exception on Virgil Thompson, has produced music so distinctly American, or so stylistically identifiable, as Copland.

In 1964, Copland was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson. In his presentation speech, Johnson said that Copland had produced a body of work that Americans could not only be proud of, but with which they could identify. Aaron Copland was truly a composer for America.

Written by Charles Edwin Price -

Jean Ritchie: short biography

Born in Viper, Kentucky, performing on stage for over 50 years, dulcimer-playing Jean Ritchie is one of the legendary folk singers.

The upper end of Charles Street in Baltimore, Maryland, was once dotted with basket houses where pungent coffee and sweet Italian soft drinks blended with heaping helpings of live folk music. At the end of each set, the performer passed a wicker basket through the audience. Individuals would drop in whatever coins they thought the performance was worth. It was all very democratic. Nearly anyone who wanted to stop by to play or sing performed a four-song set, then passed the basket.

One of the regulars was an elderly man with the home-spun name of Virgil Sturgill. He d arrive every Saturday afternoon and play mountain songs on a plucked dulcimer. His voice was like a asthmatic hound dog stuck in a well, but he was authentic and the beatnik audience loved him. Besides that, he KNEW Jean Ritchie and that made him somewhat of a celebrity. To everyone who knew anything about authentic folk music, Jean Ritchie was the undisputed queen.

I got to know Virgil pretty well. He told me endless stories about growing up in the mountains and about his father, who he said could play the banjo before he could even talk. But the stories I liked best were the ones Virgil told about Jean Ritchie.

See this turkey quill ? Virgil once said to me. Me and Jean are the only ones who play the dulcimer with a quill. Most people use a guitar pick or their fingernails. But me and Jean still use a turkey quill. That s the way they used to do it in the hills.

Virgil died in 1965, but Jean Ritchie is still going strong. She is one of the legends of folk music along with the likes of Josh White, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. She was singing to an audience long before folk music became generally fashionable. And, though nearly 80 years old, she still performs in concert.

Jean Ritchie was born in 1922 in Viper, Kentucky, the youngest of the 14 children of Balis and Abigail Ritchie. Her family were poor farmers, but what they lacked in money they more than made up for in music. Their Scot-Irish heritage was rich in songs sung by generations of mountain people, tucked away from the world in the remote hollows and valleys of Appalachia. Jean was the beneficiary of this bottomless well of material which she absorbed like a roll of paper towels drinks in a spill.

Jean s father encouraged music making in all his children and the whole family sang and played together. Balis taught her to play the mountain (or plucked) dulcimer when she was five or six years old. The instrument fitted her small lap well. It s narrow, fretted finger board did not intimidate tiny fingers and it s three strings were easy to control. Two of the strings were tuned in unison and played the melody. The third was a drone, like a five-string banjo. She strummed it like her father taught her -- with a turkey quill. She also learned another trick early on. She strummed toward herself, not away like many other players. And she also learned to sing one melody while she strummed a counter melody on the dulcimer, creating a kind of duet with herself.

In her early days at home, little Jean learned all the sad old English ballads that her ancestors had brought with them when they came to the New World. She learned the made up songs they sang while at work or play. She learned the hymns that they sang in the little board church down the road. She learned the instrumentals -- the dances and reels and jigs that they danced to at weddings and ice cream socials.

She took all these things with her when she went to college -- a rare event for a woman in the mountains in the 30s. Four years later she graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a social work degree from the University of Kentucky. Then she went to New York to work in the Henry Street Settlement, where she used her songs to entertain children. Of course, the kids were delighted but there was more ahead for Jean. The New York folk music scene soon discovered her and she became its darling. She had all the qualifications the intellectuals were looking for: she was a woman, had been born and raised in Appalachia, knew a lot of authentic folk songs, and played a little-known instrument.

Jean was asked to play formal recitals and concerts. New York ate it up. Her first formal concert was in 1948 at the Little Greenwich Mews Theatre. After that, Jean became a busy performer.

In 1950, Ritchie married photographer George Pickow and the union endures to this day. Two years later, she recorded her first solo album and received the Fulbright award to study folk music in the British Isles. In 1955 her first book, Singing Family of the Cumberlands was published.

When general interest in folk music became widespread in the early 60s, traditional Jean Ritchie fit in perfectly. She played concert dates at colleges throughout America and abroad, and appeared on television. Intellectuals still considered her the essence of the true folk artist, unlike the urban folk singers who were then in vogue. For this reason, she never approached the popularity of the slicker singers like The Kingston Trio, Judy Collins, or Peter, Paul and Mary.

One night in 1962, I had the privilege of seeing Jean Ritchie perform at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village. The place was crowded. It was a hot summer night and the air conditioning must have been on the fritz because it was like an oven inside the hall. Members of the audience furiously fanned themselves with whatever was available.

Then it became deathly quiet. A lone spotlight shone on stage as Jean Ritchie strode out, dulcimer in hand, sat down and began to sing the songs of her childhood. In spite of the heat, all paper rustling stopped. All ears were concentrated on the music of a living legend. All hearts were returned to a simpler time of horses and wagons, of family reunions and golden harvests.

And, yes. Virgil Sturgill was right. Jean Ritchie played the dulcimer with a turkey quill. Whether she still does, I don t know. I haven t seen her perform in years. But I imagine, considering the songs she s sung, that the poor old turkey must be getting pretty bald.

Written by Charles Edwin Price -

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