Remembering Aaron Copland

Thirty-five years ago, roughly, I got myself into trouble. It was during music class, the once-a-week excursion outside of the classroom in the Catholic school that I attended in the 1970s, and into the music teacher’s classroom on the first floor. I’ll call the teacher Ms. F, but her full name isn’t really important to this story.

One day, as Ms. F was playing her piano and expecting us to sing along (I think I was in fourth or fifth grade at the time), some of my buddies and I were cutting up in class. We feared the nun who was our regular teacher–as we were supposed to do–but the music teacher didn’t scare us so very much. She probably ignored more of our misbehavior than she should have, but at some point she must have decided that we needed a punishment of some sort. So she told a couple of my buddies and I that we each had to write a report about Aaron Copland, who was probably the composer of the piece that she was playing for us that day.

A week went by, and I hadn’t done a thing for the report, and none of my buddies had, either. On the day that these reports were due, we all began writing reports that gave Copland credit for all sorts of amazing things. I specifically recall claiming that he had invented electricity, and the others were probably even more generous than I was. By the time we had finished out reports, Aaron Copland was just about the most accomplished man of the modern age.

I don’t remember what happened as the result of our creative academic works about Mr. Copland. We didn’t have Google back then, but it was pretty obvious that Aaron Copland hadn’t done any of the things that we gave him credit for. But today, all these years later, I read that Aaron Copland was born on this day (November 14) in 1900. So I decided to actually learn something about the man I was once sentenced to write a report on. And it turns out that I learned quite a bit.

But the single most amazing thing, which but for that long-ago punishment I would have missed out on, has a connection to Abraham Lincoln. The release of Lincoln in movie theaters has set me off on a bit of a Lincoln writing bender, so here’s still another piece about the Great Emancipator. But this one’s really good, I think.

In early 1942, when the nation was still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor, a concert was organized by conductor Andre Kostelanetz. Copland and two other composers were commissioned to write orchestral pieces about American themes. In the early 1940s, there was no television, no pay-per-view, and really no record industry as we know it today. There were no televised benefits where viewers could call in to an 800 number and make a donation with their credit cards. It was just a concert in a place, and in this case the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was playing the music in May of 1942. The piece that Copland wrote for Kostelanetz was called Lincoln Portrait.

What made this piece so special was that it made use of Lincoln’s own words, from the Gettysburg Address and his 1862 Message to Congress, in which he stated “We cannot escape history.” It also told details from Lincoln’s personal life, in the hopes of rallying its audience, and the nation itself, to war. Almost eighty years after his death, Lincoln’s life and words served as an artistic inspiration. And, as Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis are now showing us, they can still inspire us today.

Thanks to some Googling this afternoon, I was able to get the idea that Ms. F is still around, and probably living not very far from where I grew up. She probably won’t ever read this, as I’m sure that teaching music to me and my classmates is buried deep in the recesses of her memory. But thanks to her, and Google, and a composer’s name that I never forgot, I was able to learn something new and interesting today. Every day should hold such a pleasant surprise, shouldn’t it?.

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