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Aaron Copland and His Contribution to American Classical Music

The Biography of Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland was an outstanding American composer who lived a long and fruitful life and produced many genius musical works, including ballets and symphonies. One of the distinctive features of his work is special attention to emotions and the ability to convey complex mental states. Equally important, the composer used folk motifs and skillfully weaved them into rhythmically complex compositions. This paper aims to discuss the biography of Aaron Copland and aspects of his composing practice.

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Aaron Copland, who lived from 1900 to 1990, is the widely recognized genius of American orchestral music. The composer’s work probably reached its greatest development during the Second World War, and its distinctive feature was the desire to reflect reality in a global, national, and partly political way (Lindegaard, 2021). Another feature of Aaron Copland’s music is a non-standard approach to expressing complex emotions through music. The composer was a person who conveyed to the broad masses the most significant milestones of his era in an emotionally comprehensive way.

There are many examples of how music by Aaron Copland influenced his contemporaries. For instance, the Preamble for a Solemn Occasion became a way of expressing resistance to authoritarianism during and after WWII (Lindegaard, 2021). The Second Hurricane is a prime example of how the politics of the New Deal and its naive optimism found expression in American classical music. Eventually, the clear vision of objective political realities made Aaron a renowned composer.

Aaron Copland paid particular attention to expressing emotions in music. To create additional dramatic effects, he used elements such as the abrupt, ‘full stop’ endings enriched by the perfect final chords, and ambiguous endings, like in Night Thoughts and Quite City, which became a worthy alternative to the strong silent type endings (Lindegaard, 2021). The volcanic eruption type of orchestral climax has also become a unique and exciting feature of pieces of music by Aaron Copland. In other words, the composer’s musical creativity has a unique style and is thoughtful, mathematically complex, and perfect. Aaron Copland had many students and followers, and the best conductors, including Leonard Bernstein, considered it an honor to perform his compositions.

Life Path of a Composer

Aaron Copland was an outstanding pianist, composer, and conductor, and they wrote books about composing music. Aaron’s family had Lithuanian and Jewish roots, and the composer anglicized the Lithuanian surname Kaplan (Perlis, 2018). The career in the music field started for Aaron when he began his education at the American Conservatory of Fontainebleau, where he studied for the course of Nadia Boulanger in 1921-1924. An important milestone in the composer’s life was the performance of his Piano concert by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1927, as this concert included jazz elements.

The performance caused controversy among critics, and even a scandal, which made Aaron famous. Later, in 1928-1931 Aaron organized and held Copland Concerts, where he represented young composers. He also directed the Festival of Contemporary Music in the same year (Perlis, 2018). Remarkably, in the 1936 presidential election, Copland supported the Communist party to contradict authoritarian government policies inherent in the pre-war period. As a result, he was blacklisted in Hollywood and gained the particular attention of the FBI, although he was not a Communist.

The composer wrote in a neoclassical manner, following the traditions laid down by Weber and Boulez. The works of Aaron Copland are conventionally divided into three periods – the first period was from 1924-1929. During these years, the composer widely used jazz polyrhythms in compositions and the innovative composition technique invented in the French tradition (Perlis, 2018). The second period fell from 1929-1935, when Copland’s musical style became more abstract, thanks to sharply discordant harmony based on the twelve-tone technique. In the third period, starting in 1935, Copland turned to folklore, motivated by the search for the simplest possible ways of expression. The composer’s later works contained elements from all three periods, including folk motifs, jazz style, and abstract style.

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Copland wrote music for films and was accepted in Hollywood, although he was critical of Hollywood production. Among the most significant criticisms, Aaron spoke about “profit over taste attitudes” (Vinson, 2021, p. 258). No less unpleasant, Copland considered the approach when the composers were degraded to the level of employees by limiting their creative powers and were not full-fledged participants in the creative process of making films. At the same time, the composer noted the positive aspects offered by the ‘dream factory’ – increased attention and priority for contemporary composers and high fees.

Thus, their biography and the most important aspects of musical compositions by Aaron Copland were discussed. This outstanding composer became the symbol of 20th-century American classical music. His symphonies and ballets were performed on the world’s stage by the most famous musicians and conductors, and his film music is a unique contribution to the cinematic culture of the past era. Aaron Copland used sophisticated technical approaches such as polyphony, discordant harmony, and twelve-tone technique and combined them with jazz and folkloric elements to create his musical works.


Lindegaard, K. (2021). The definitive guide to Copland endings: Part 2. Web.

Perlis, V. (2018). The man behind the music. Web.

Vinson, C. (2021). Unsettled Scores: Politics, Hollywood, and the Film Music of Aaron Copland & Hanns Eisler. The Bulletin of the Society for American Music, 47(1), 5-6.

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