Though certainly not the first American composer whose music captured the national mood, Aaron Copland created ballets, popular works, and film scores that earned him the unofficial title as “The Dean of American composers.”
Copland weaved such true American musical idioms as jazz and folk into his compositions, and audiences loved him for it. He looked to these forms to liberate our classical music from the influence of Europe. He loved the European masters, of course – he spent a great deal of time in Europe and Asia, immersing himself in the music of the world. But he felt it was time for America to establish its own musical identity.
His first composition to achieve iconic status was the ballet Billy the Kid (1935). It incorporated cowboy tunes and folk songs, and is still one of his most popular and widely performed pieces. Similarly, another ballet with a western theme, Rodeo (1942), also blended recognizable folk tunes with a Copland flair. Especially notable was the “Hoedown” section near the end. (Beef – it’s what’s for dinner.)
That same year, Copland composed one of the most instantly recognizable and loved pieces of American music, Fanfare for the Common Man. Written as America was gearing up for World War II, it accomplished Copland’s goal to create a national morale booster.
Copland later arranged his most famous ballet into an orchestral arrangement – Appalachian Spring. Originally written for 13 instruments, it incorporated the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” in a beautiful and inspiring American classic. It earned him the Pulitzer Prize (Great American Things, February 19, 2010).
Copland also wrote film scores, most notably Of Mice and Men (1939) for which he received an Academy Award nomination, and The Heiress (1949) for which he won the award.