Today in History

Today in History: November 14

Aaron Copland

Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland
Aaron Copland with Conductor and Friend Leonard Bernstein,
Bernardsville, New Jersey, August 1945.
The Leonard Bernstein Collection, ca. 1920-1989

American composer Aaron Copland was born on November 14, 1900, in Brooklyn, New York. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Copland had decided by age fifteen to become a composer.  After graduating from high school, he did not go to college: instead, he played the piano at venues in New York’s Catskill Mountains, among other places, before journeying to Paris in 1921 to study with the great composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. Returning to the United States in 1924, Copland embarked on a life as an independent composer, working on commissions and writing, lecturing, teaching, and conducting, nurtured by his association with other artists in creative ventures such as the Macdowell Colony and Tanglewood.

Aaron Copland at a desk with a candle
Aaron Copland by Candlelight, Studio in the Berkshires, September, 1946.
The Aaron Copland Collection, ca. 1900-1990

In his compositions Copland sought to fashion a distinctively American voice with a simplicity and clarity that appealed to ordinary listeners as well as to musical connoisseurs. His greatest achievements include Billy the Kid (1938), Quiet City (1940), Rodeo (1942), A Lincoln Portrait (1942), Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), and film scores such as The Red Pony (1948), as well as his remarkable collaboration with Martha Graham.

In his later years Copland composed little, and practically nothing after 1970, although he continued to lecture and conduct into his ninth decade. By that time, he had long since been recognized as the foremost American classical composer of his generation. He died on December 2, 1990, at a hospital in North Tarrytown, New York, near his longtime home (external link).

Aaron Copland standing near a house
Aaron Copland with Cat, ca. 1947,
Richmond, Massachusetts.
The Aaron Copland Collection, ca. 1900-1990

One of Copland’s most important works is closely connected to the Library of Congress. In 1942, Copland began working with the pioneering modern-dance choreographer Martha Graham on Appalachian Spring, a ballet that eventually won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize in music. The Library of Congress' Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation commissioned the work from Graham and Copland. Between mid-1942 and mid-1943, Graham sent Copland four scripts. Copland drew on the last three in writing the music now known as Appalachian Spring.

Music Sheet
Appalachian Spring, holograph score, 1943-44.
Imagination Section of the
American Treasures of the Library of Congress

Hearing the music, Graham revised the action yet again:

I have been working on your music. It is so beautiful and so wonderfully made. I have become obsessed by it. But I have also been doing a little cursing, too, as you probably did earlier over that not-so-good script. But what you did from that has made me change in many places. Naturally that will not do anything to the music, it is simply that the music made me change. It is so knit and of a completeness that it takes you into very strong hands and leads you into its own world. And there I am.

In the end, no script accompanied what Copland called Ballet for Martha and Graham retitled Appalachian Spring. A splendid collaboration between American masters of music and dance, the ballet premiered at the Library of Congress' Coolidge Auditorium on October 30, 1944.

A group of dancers
Erick Hawkins in the First Production of Appalachian Spring. In the Background, Left to Right: the Four Followers, Martha Graham, May O'Donnell, 1944.
The Aaron Copland Collection, ca. 1900-1990

The Library of Congress continues to support the performing arts through its special foundations and Concert Series, while maintaining vast performing arts collections available through the Performing Arts Reading Room. These collections are detailed in Music, Theater, Dance: An Illustrated Guide. In addition, the Library's American Folklife Center sponsors concerts, researches musical traditions, maintains an unsurpassed archive of field recordings on which Copland himself drew, and produces publications and recordings from its collections.

Explore American Memory collections related to Aaron Copland and the performing arts:

The Library Company

On November 14, 1732, the Library Company of Philadelphia signed a contract with its first librarian. Founded by Benjamin Franklin and friends in November 1731, the library enrolled members for a fee of forty shillings but had to wait for books to arrive from England before beginning full operation.

Painting of Franklin at the Library Company
Franklin Opening First Subscription Library,
Photograph of a painting by Charles E. Mills, between 1900 and 1912.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company Company, 1880-1920

Many subscription libraries—founded to benefit academies, colleges, and other groups—were established from the late seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. The Library Company of Philadelphia grew out of the needs of the Leather Apron Club, also known as the "Junto," of which Franklin was a member. In addition to exchanging business information, these merchants discussed politics and natural philosophy, contributing to their requirements for books to satisfy their widespread interests. Volumes were purchased with the annual contributions of shareholders, building a more comprehensive library than any individual could afford.

Directors of the Library Company made their holdings available to the first Continental Congress when it convened in Philadelphia in September 1774. Their offer is recorded in The Journals of the Continental Congress:

[An] Extract from minutes of the directors of the Library Company of Philadelphia, dated August 31 st .,—directed to the President, was read, as follows:
Upon motion, ordered,
That the Librarian furnish the gentlemen, who are to meet in Congress, with the use of such Books as they may have occasion for, during their sitting, taking a receipt for them.
By order of the Directors,
(Signed) William Attmore, Sec'y.

Ordered, That the thanks of the Congress be returned to the Directors of the Library Company of Philadelphia, for their obliging order.

Tuesday, September 6, 1774, Journals of the Continental Congress.
A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875

After independence, the third session of the new Federal Congress convened in Philadelphia in January 1791, and the Library Company directors again tendered use of their facility. In essence, the Library Company served as the de facto Library of Congress until 1800 when the fledgling legislature moved to its permanent Washington, D.C., location and the Library of Congress was founded.

Many other subscription libraries developed in the United States. These include:

The advent of free public libraries, supported in large part by Andrew Carnegie, diminished the subscription library's importance. Today, subscription libraries, with their rich holdings of rare books, prints, and photographs, are enormously valuable to students of United States history and culture.

Learn more: