Copland: Communist Composer?

Responsible for some of the most important works in 20th century American classical music, Aaron Copland earned the label often applied to him: the Dean of American Composers. Despite his stature, Copland was red-baited: in 1953 he was called in front of Congress. his activities and sympathies that led to that encounter are highlighted during Brevard Music Center’s “A Copland Celebration.” This summer, two specific performances in Western North Carolina were connected to the composer’s populist period which eventually led to him being caught up in the 1950s Red Scare: “Copland and Mexico” on July 13, and “Copland and the Cold War” on July 17.

Copland’s music moved through several distinct styles during his carer (roughly 1918 to the mid 1970s). His best-known works include 1942’s Fanfare for the Common Man and the ballet scores Billy the Kid (1938) and Appalachian Spring (1944). But some of his earliest works are avant-garde and challenging; case in point is his 1930 Piano Variations, one of the pieces presented as part of the July 17 program.

L-R: Aaron Copland, Joseph McCarthy, Roy Cohn (source: Wikimedia Commons)

“It’s an abstract, high modernist piece,” says cultural historian Joe Horowitz, producer of BMC’s “Copland and the Cold War” and “Copland and Mexico.” He describes Piano Variations as “very dissonant, which alienated audiences in 1930; [Copland] seemed like a crazy person.”

But during a trip to Mexico, Copland experienced an epiphany, one that set him upon a very different musical path. Upon meeting artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and composer Carlos Chávez, Horowitz says that Copland was shocked. “As an American composer, he was completely unprepared to discover that artists and intellectuals were catalysts of social and political change.” Thus inspired, he returned to the U.S. with a new mission.

Copland’s subsequent work would be composed with the intent of being accessible to all listeners, not merely the intelligentsia. “He went so far as to urge his colleagues to do the same,” says Horowitz. “He said that they were morally bound to address that new audience.” Copland’s newfound focus also led him toward ballet and film scoring.

1936’s El Salón México and “Hoe Down” from 1942’s Rodeo – both part of BMC’s July 13 program – were among the most examples of Copland’s new everyman style. Copland was especially impressed with Silvestre Revueltas’ stirring orchestral score for Redes, a 1937 film from Mexico. (The BMC program on July 13 included a screening of Redes with live orchestral accompaniment.)

Meanwhile, it didn’t escape the notice of arch-conservatives in the United States that many of the artists with whom Copland associated had left-leaning political sensibilities. Forces were hard at work attempting to root out the perceived communist menace from society.

Copland certainly didn’t help himself in that regard by composing “Into the Streets May First,” a 1934 workers’ song for The New Masses, a Marxist magazine. A stridently right-wing pamphlet in 1950, Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television named Copland along with Lena Horne, Leonard Bernstein, Orson Welles and many others.

While Copland was clearly sympathetic to at least some ideas espoused by communists, it’s never been proven that he was a party member. That didn’t stop Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy (and his chief counsel Roy Cohn) from compelling the composer to appear before a panel under oath.

Copland did show up, and for the most part, his artful answers avoided giving McCarthy and Cohn much ammunition. (Had they been more prepared, they might have caught him in an untruth regarding the New Masses song.) Still, the exchange among the three is chilling. Horowitz’s program will juxtapose a reading of that testimony against a musical backdrop of “Into the Streets May First.”

The composer’s testimony came at the tail-end of the Red Scare, but as Horowitz notes, the experience changed Copland. He quickly abandoned his music-for-the-masses approach and again adopted a more ambitious style.

In an era when a Roy Cohn protégé lives in the White House, Copland’s grilling at the hands of overzealous and jingoistic politicos is as timely as ever. Perhaps wisely, Joe Horowitz demurred on the subject. “That’s a dangerous question,” he says. “But you’re not going to be able to attend the event without asking yourself what it has to do with the present moment.”