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Aaron Copland's America: A Cultural Perspective. (Book Reviews).

Aaron Copland's America: A Cultural Perspective. By Gail Levin and Judith Trick. New York: Watson-Guptill, 2000. [176 p. ISBN 0-8230-0110-5. $29.95.]

This handsome, glossy volume was published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name at the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington, New York, curated by Gail Levin (4 November 2000 to 21 January 2001). It consists of two parts. The first, "Aaron Copland's America: A Cultural Perspective," contains high-quality reproductions of the exhibition's paintings, drawings, photographs, prints, and sculptures, including more than fifty in full color, accompanied by Levin's substantial scholarly essay. Part 2, by Judith Tick, is entitled "The Music of Aaron Copland." The volume concludes with endnotes and a helpful index of names and titles.

Levin's essay is arguably the first substantial interdisciplinary study of Copland by a scholar outside musicology, and it sets a high standard. An expert on twentieth-century anti American art, Levin has published most recently on the Ballets suedois ("The Ballets suedois and American Culture," in Paris Modern: The Swedish Ballet, 1920-1925, ed. Nancy Van Norman Baer [San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1996], 118-27) and the artist Edward Hopper (including Edward Hopper: A Catalogue Raisonne, 4 vols. [New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, W. W. Norton, 1995]). Music scholars are fortunate to have an art historian with Levin's scholarly rigor bringing her knowledge to bear upon Copland. She draws from the popular press of the day, recent specialized histories, and biographies of individual artists, gallery owners, choreographers, writers, critics, directors, and composers, supplementing these sources with previously unpublished archival material and her own interviews with Copland's contem poraries and acquaintances. In this meticulously documented work, no statement is left unsubstantiated. In the section entitled "Billy the Kid," for instance, the reasonable suggestion that Copland "probably heard some cowboy songs during the two months he had spent working in Santa Fe in 1928" (p. 80) is supported with a reference to a history of New Mexico (p. 170 n. 226).

The art reproductions, impressive in their own right, closely coordinate with the text. When Levin recounts how the young Copland wrote from Paris begging his parents to forward the Dial, the facing page underscores that magazine's modernist appeal by reproducing Stuart Davis's 1922 cubist painting Still Life with "Dial" (p. 17). Levin explains in a section about Copland portraits and caricatures, "Picturing Aaron Copland," that the frontispiece by Gordon Parks conveys "that sense of place so many have associated with his music" by posing him in front of a simple, Shaker-like barn. She continues, "Yet because Parks photographed him formally--dressed in a suit and tie, wearing his glasses, and resting his hands on an open notebook with a pen at the ready--he caught a number of contradictions in Copland's public image. The composer pictured here is at once both the sophisticated urban modernist and the people's folksy champion of America" (p. 123-24). Tick's essay provides a parallel observation about the music : "Frames of silence around [folk] themes, or their equally ironic dismemberment into repeating motives ... create the illusion of a double-voiced discourse, the folk melody acting as one voice, and the composer's persona of objective urban narrator as another" (p. 154).

As in most good cultural scholarship, the book nuances large-scale lines of influence while clarifying local connections. The search for direct cause and effect becomes less important than understanding the rich network of events and ideas from which multiple artistic expressions arose. Both authors address the question of jazz's influence on Copland. Locally, Tick identifies the quote in the slow section of Copland's early piano piece "Jazzy" from Moods for Piano as Walter Donaldson's song "My Buddy" (p. 134; Howard Pollack adds this fact to the reprint of his biography without citing Tick [Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man (New York: Henry Holt, 1999; reprint, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 44]), and Levin tells us that Copland attended jazz clubs with the de Koonings and Max Margolis in the early 1940s (p. 75). On a larger scale, Levin demonstrates through works like Man Ray's 1919 Jazz (p. 24) and Arthur Dove's 1938 Swing Music (Louis Armstrong (p. 57) that jazz "fascinated and transformed the imagination across the arts on both sides of the Atlantic" (p. 22), from Copland's youth well into his maturity.

Copland's interests in politics and folk materials benefit from similar nuancing. In "Contested Cultural Leadership" (pp. 52-55) and surrounding sections, Levin describes the rivalry between politically conservative and left-wing Americanists, carefully placing Thomas Hart Benton, Diego Rivera, Paul Rosenfeld, Ben Shahn, Alfred Stieglitz, and others in the political landscape, illustrating their diverse approaches to art, and explaining their relationship to Copland. Tick's extensive knowledge of the Seegers (Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer's Search for American Music [Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997]) gives her particular authority on the political and musical context of Copland's folk-inspired works. In both essays, Copland's postwar years are treated less thoroughly than the earlier years, though Tick has some insightful comments on the 1972 piano piece Night Thoughts.

Although the dust jacket claims the two essays are complementary, they cover much of the same ground. Because each is chronologically based, there is frequent duplication of information: for example, that Copland attended the Ballets suedois premiere of Les Maries de la Tour Eiffel his first night in Paris (pp. 19, 137), or that pianist-composer Leo Ornstein influenced the young Copland (pp. 12, 135). Tick's distinct contributions include informative treatment of musical influences on Copland and occasional comments on reception (as for the Piano Concerto, p. 145), although the issue of the "American" values critics perceived in Copland's music is left largely unexplored. Tick's essay best complements Levin's when she paints a verbal picture of the music's sounds, which, unlike Levin's subject matter, must be imagined. Her skillful descriptions of Ornstein's recitals (p. 133), Vitebsk's music and origin (p. 145), and programmatic effects in Grohg (p. 140) are highlights. One should note that Tick's role was n ot limited to her essay; the acknowledgements indicate she served as consultant for the exhibit, and presumably, for Levin's resulting essay (p. 7).

While Levin's essay is aimed at the artistically minded historian, Tick provides less documentation for the curious reader to pursue. Tick's essay could have easily--and informatively--identified Copland's "composer friend" (p. 130) as Arthur Berger, author of the first book on Copland. Of dubious success are the parenthetical definitions that are meant to help the nonmusician but sometimes clutter the text. While Tick defines "scenario" (p. 138), Levin assumes we know the term (p. 26). Despite the fact that better editorial control might have minimized such inconsistencies in audience and scope, copyediting problems are remarkably few: a misspelled name in a caption (p. 53) and two reproductions with captions reversed (p. 79). In all, this highly polished book elucidates artistic connections previously approached only in general terms. The result is a reliable, unique, and important contribution to our knowledge of Copland and the American arts in the first half of the twentieth century.
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Author:DeLapp, Jennifer
Publication:Notes
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2001
Words:1179
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