Listen: Connie Goldman interviews Aaron Copland in a diner

MPR’s Connie Goldman sits down with composer Aaron Copland for conversation at a local diner. In between food and drink, Goldman asks Copland about conducting, his film scores, time overseas, and his youth.


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CONNIE GOLDMAN: I am going to have the omelette.

SPEAKER: OK. All omelette?


AARON COPLAND: No onions, though.

SPEAKER: No onions for you?


SPEAKER: OK What kind of dressings do you have on your salad?



CONNIE GOLDMAN: Do you have oil and vinegar?

SPEAKER: Nothing.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: OK, coffee, please. Mr. Copland, would you like coffee?

AARON COPLAND: I'll have it later.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: I'll have mine now, please.


CONNIE GOLDMAN: Listen, I'll feel better if I tell you the truth.


CONNIE GOLDMAN: I'm really nervous about this interview.

AARON COPLAND: Why? Why should you be nervous?

CONNIE GOLDMAN: Well, I started reading through some of the articles that have been written about you and some of the interviews, and it's--

AARON COPLAND: You started believing them.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: I started believing them. And it's just awesome to sit here at lunch with the Dean of American Composers.

AARON COPLAND: That's just a name that somebody pinned on me. It doesn't mean a thing.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: Don't you hate it? I should think you do. Do you hate it?

AARON COPLAND: I'm not fond of it. It tends to, what should I say, categorize you. You're stuck on a shelf, and it tends to finish you off with no place to go.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: You went into conducting, though. You [INAUDIBLE] somewhat.

AARON COPLAND: There are no dean of conductors, I don't think. I don't know why.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: I know that's an interesting idea, too. I haven't thought about anybody being a dean of conductors.


CONNIE GOLDMAN: That's true.

AARON COPLAND: What do they call them? Senior conductors? I don't know what they call them. I mean, what is Leopold Stokowski at 90-something?

CONNIE GOLDMAN: The grand old man.

AARON COPLAND: The grand old man of conductors. That's right. Conducting is a passion, like people love to play ice hockey and [CHUCKLES] you can't wait to get to the place where you play it. I mean, it's just great fun to do, and you get to like it. And so the more you do it, the more you like it, it turns into a passion.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: Is that untrue of composing?

AARON COPLAND: Well, composing is a different thing. You see, composing depends more on the mood. And if you're not in the mood, you can't write a note. But if you have an orchestra, whether you're in the mood to conduct it or not, there it is, the instrument is there, and off you go.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: How come you sat on your passion for so long?

AARON COPLAND: For conducting?


AARON COPLAND: Well, like picking up a piece of paper, when you compose-- and a pencil-- you can't create the same situation as a conductor. You can't say just give me an orchestra, I want to conduct. It's the problem of, how do you practice to be a conductor without an orchestra? You really can't. And so a lot depends on your ability to obtain that orchestra in one form or another, either as a guest or as a regular conductor. I've never been a regular conductor of any orchestra.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: Did you study conducting?

AARON COPLAND: No, not really. No, just sort of picked it up from watching. I watched conductors all my life long, and I've been around orchestras all my life long.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: Well, then, who made the first offer of an orchestra?

AARON COPLAND: The very first?


AARON COPLAND: Gee, I haven't thought about that.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: Didn't think you were going to get asked that question.

AARON COPLAND: It's so long ago. The very first time I conducted a proper orchestra, it must have been in the WPA days. Do you know what that is?

CONNIE GOLDMAN: Yes, indeed, I do. What were you doing during that time? Seriously?

AARON COPLAND: Not too much. Those were tough days. The early '30s were not so good. No.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: What kind of music were you writing during that time?

AARON COPLAND: During that period, I was writing some of the pieces of the most played now, as a matter of fact.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: The Americana kind of thing?

AARON COPLAND: El Salon México is written in the '30s. I don't know, we struggled along somehow. And then I got an invitation to Hollywood, and that changed everything. [CHUCKLES]

CONNIE GOLDMAN: I'd like to talk a little about the Hollywood experience--


CONNIE GOLDMAN: --the popularization of a major composer to soundtracks.

AARON COPLAND: Well, it didn't present itself like that. I didn't think, oh, now, I'm going out to popularize myself. It didn't--

CONNIE GOLDMAN: But that was, indeed, the result, actually.

AARON COPLAND: Yes, it helps, of course. It helps. Not that people who go to the film theater pay great attention as to who wrote the music. That isn't what they're looking for. They want to see who's going to star in the picture. But it was a very nice experience. I wouldn't--

CONNIE GOLDMAN: What was the first--

SPEAKER: Did you order coffee now?

CONNIE GOLDMAN: I'll have mine, thank you. What was the first film that you did the music?

AARON COPLAND: Well, the very first was a documentary film. Not in Hollywood. I did that in New York called The City. Did you ever happen to see it?


AARON COPLAND: It was very cleverly done and is still shown, occasionally, on art programs, like at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where they have film libraries. It's a kind of staple. It showed the ridiculousness of trying to live a proper life in a big city.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: Who did the film?

AARON COPLAND: I'm trying to think now. It'll come to me. But this was in the early '30s, I think it was. Or the mid-30s. And it gave me lots of opportunity, because there were scenes of downtown Wall Street area at noon. Everybody trying to get some lunch at the same time, standing up at a counter outside in the street, and the toast is popping up and down. And the music helped a lot to make the scene seem more exciting, they told me.

And I saw it not so very long ago, a couple of months ago, and it still holds up very well as a picture. Still as funny as it was and as apposite.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: But then you went from the art film, so to speak, into a movie.

AARON COPLAND: Yes, but it helped me to get a job-writing of film score for a fiction film because out in Hollywood, especially in those days, they were very wary of anyone who had never written for the films. And the fact that I had this one example that they could look at, I think that made the difference.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: When you were invited to Hollywood, were you invited there as a famous composer, or were they looking for cheap labor? [CHUCKLES]

AARON COPLAND: No. No, I think I got my first job because they were talked into it by Clifford Odets.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: Ah, you were friend of him?

AARON COPLAND: Clifford Odets was a friend of mine, and he was out there writing an occasional script. And he had a friend out there called Lewis Milestone, one of the producers and directors in films. And milestone was doing a film based on Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. And he talked Milestone into engaging me. I don't know that milestone knew about me except, perhaps, vaguely. But anyhow, he trusted Odets who was a passionate lover of music and a great collector of recordings. And so he was an authority by comparison with Milestone.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: Mr. Copland, what do you think about some of the contemporary music soundtracks for some of the new films? They've been impressive to you?

AARON COPLAND: Well, you know, I don't go to films that often. I live in the country where you have to make an effort to go to a film. What I tried to do was to write a kind of music that help to make the particular scene. I was picturing more real. In other words, when I did the film score, for example, for Thornton Wilder's Our Town, that was a typical New England town. And by the nature of the music that I wrote, I tried to suggest the atmosphere of a New England town.

Now that's different from writing a kind of a trademark Hollywood score with all the trimmings, full-sounding, and luscious, and effective, and wowing the public kind of thing, see.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: You know, that kind of music is the mood kind, the Americana feel, capturing of the landscape of America is very much associated with a major portion of your music. And it seems although you're into something else now, that's the popular feel that remains of the Americana kind of thing.

AARON COPLAND: Well, that's the easiest to label, you see. When you write a piece of so-called pure music, absolute music as we call it, like a piano sonata, to me my piano sonata is just as American as Our Town or Mice and Men, but it isn't as obviously American since it doesn't use any American folk materials or music that sounds like folk materials. But I would hope that it would be just as typical to those who are sufficiently cultivated in a musical sense to be able to recognize it.

SPEAKER: How did you happen to get started writing ballet music? Who got you into that?

AARON COPLAND: I got to ask.

SPEAKER: [LAUGHS] How very nice for you.

AARON COPLAND: I know he was writing a ballet.

SPEAKER: If you don't have a dancer--

AARON COPLAND: Somebody said, ah.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: Ah, yes. That's your whole story. People ask you to write a movie score.

AARON COPLAND: And the very first orchestral work I ever wrote was a ballet.

SPEAKER: Was it really?

AARON COPLAND: When I was still a student with Nadia Boulanger in Paris-- I forget where I got the story. It was a rather macabre story. And the leading character was a magician who could make the dead dance. Imagine that.

SPEAKER: Dear heaven.

AARON COPLAND: Bright and snappy number, that one.


AARON COPLAND: And I wrote the whole jolly thing. It must have been about half an hour. Of course, nothing happened. [INAUDIBLE] never want to take a score and make it. They want to have an idea for a ballet, and then find somebody who will write the music for them. I didn't know that at the time. But I did manage to rescue about 15 minutes of grog, and called it a dance symphony, and--

SPEAKER: Oh, for goodness sake.

AARON COPLAND: --we should play it the next time.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: Does anybody know about it?

AARON COPLAND: Oh, yes. It's published, and it's recorded.


AARON COPLAND: Yeah. It's good play.

SPEAKER: You mentioned your early days when you were studying with Nadia Boulanger. Can I ask you some little told student stories? Well, you just gave me one of your experiences, maybe some of your frustrations?

AARON COPLAND: My student days were divided between New York and Paris, because I studied in New York for four years with a good teacher called Rubin Goldmark. And then, of course, it was after the First World War, everybody was dying to go to Paris where we couldn't have gone there sooner. And so I went to get in touch with all the latest music, Ravel and Debussy and all that kind of thing. Stravinsky, we had heard, he was living in Paris. That's why I went there and found Boulanger as a teacher and stayed three years with her.

SPEAKER: Was it difficult to become a student of Boulanger? Was she already as famous--

AARON COPLAND: A simple girl?

SPEAKER: Yes. I mean, was she--

AARON COPLAND: No, she wasn't famous.

SPEAKER: She has taught so many people.

AARON COPLAND: It's true, but we're talking about 50 years ago.

SPEAKER: Oh, yeah.

AARON COPLAND: Did you know that she is still teaching in the same apartment where I first visited her in 1921? The last time I was there, about three years ago, I remember getting in the elevator to go up to the same fourth floor. And by golly, that elevator shook off from side to side, going up to the fourth floor exactly as it did in 1921.


CONNIE GOLDMAN: Who are her students now? Do Americans still go?

AARON COPLAND: Yeah, Americans, and French. They come from all over now, because she's famous everywhere as a teacher. Germany, the Scandinavian countries, South America. And of course, when I came back after my three years, I propagandized like anything and among my young composer friends. They want to study with someone, go to Paris.

SPEAKER: How did she acquire such an unbelievable reputation so early on in her life?

AARON COPLAND: Well, she, after all, taught at the conservatoire in Paris, you see.

SPEAKER: But she must have been a very young woman.

AARON COPLAND: She was. Well, I was 21, and she was about-- I thought she was 40. I came across a letter. I wrote home in those days, I'm studying with a 40-year-old woman. Actually, she was about 34. [CHUCKLES]

CONNIE GOLDMAN: Well, those are six valuable years. How old were you, exactly?


CONNIE GOLDMAN: How old were you at that time, those three years?


CONNIE GOLDMAN: Do you remember any of your immediate plans for your future? What did you see your immediate future?

AARON COPLAND: In those days? I want to write music. That's all. It was a question of how do you make a living while you try to write serious music?

CONNIE GOLDMAN: That's that same old problem. That's still around, isn't it?

AARON COPLAND: Yes, it is.

SPEAKER: How did you?

AARON COPLAND: Well, I came back from Paris, and I thought I'd better open a music studio and try and get some pupils. Harmony lessons, and such. My family's helped to rent an apartment on West 74th Street. And then I waited for the pupils, and nobody came.


And after about three months, I decided, well, this is not going to work.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: All the time, you were composing, and it was quiet, you didn't care.


CONNIE GOLDMAN: So what did you go to next?


CONNIE GOLDMAN: What did you go to next?

AARON COPLAND: Well, then, some delightful man by the name of Mr. Guggenheim dreamed up the idea of founding something called the Guggenheim Foundation.

SPEAKER: Don't tell me he asked you to take his money.

AARON COPLAND: I got the first fellowship for music. This was January, I guess, 1925.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: You were in the right place at the right time.

AARON COPLAND: Right. And they started it at the right time from my standpoint. It's still going strong, by the way.


AARON COPLAND: And then that was renewed. So my first two years after coming home, except for those grim three months. Actually, when I came home, I came home in June, I took a job in the summer hotel playing a piano in a trio.

SPEAKER: In a summer hotel?

AARON COPLAND: In a summer hotel. Piano, violin, and cello.

SPEAKER: Up in the mountains, you mean?

AARON COPLAND: Mountains, and sort of the Borscht Belt, the equivalent. I remember the man who owned the hotel was a big music lover. And the trouble was, he was running this hotel for the first time that summer, and they had very few guests. And at dinner time, with about three people in the dining room, we had a play. And he would stand right next to us and criticize the tempo and concentrate on our playing because he didn't have anything else to concentrate on.


CONNIE GOLDMAN: What a memory of your first job.


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