Born in 1900 to a family of Russian-Jewish descent, the young Aaron Copland lived a comfortable, middle-class life in Brooklyn, New York. His parents, Harris and Sarah, owned a successful dry-goods store, and Aaron was the youngest of their five children. He was perhaps closest to his eldest sister, Laurine, who encouraged Aaron's musical interests and introduced him to the piano. Aaron was a musical child, drawn both to the piano and to composition; at age eleven he began writing an opera-the plot was sketched completely, but the music never proceeded past the seventh bar-and by his teens he was composing short piano pieces. The earliest surviving letter in his hand provides evidence that he was writing songs at age eight and a half, in this case as a thank-you to his brother Ralph's friend (and later wife) Dorothy.
When as a teenager Copland decided to pursue a career in music, he shared his decision first with Aaron Schaffer, a kindred spirit whom Copland had met in 1916 while on vacation in upstate New York. Schaffer was a young literary scholar-a graduate student at the time-and eventually became a distinguished faculty member at the University of Texas. Though Copland's letters to his friend are lost, the surviving letters from Schaffer suggest that the two discussed literature, art, aesthetics, religion, and politics. Copland even set some of Schaffer's poetry to music in three songs from 1918. By this time, Copland had begun composition lessons with Rubin Goldmark, a noted teacher in New York City who had been a student of Anton��n Dvor��k. The two worked together until June 1921, when Copland set sail for France with a scholarship to attend the Conservatoire Am��ricain, a new school of music at Fontainebleau, for the summer.
Copland's letters to his parents document these exciting and decisive years, during which he immersed himself in the artistic life of Paris and also traveled to England, Germany, and Italy to explore the musical culture of Europe's major cities. His correspondence between 1921 and 1924 comprises some of the richest, most revealing, and most compelling letters that Copland ever wrote. His tales of life abroad are characterized by a mix of charming na��vet�� and increasing sophistication. At the end of his first long letter to his parents, Copland asked them to "save my letters as I have decided not to bother with a diary." And indeed his letters are a diary of the most delightful kind.
To Dorothy Levey
AC/LC. als. [H. M. Copland stationery] April 19, 1909
I received your pretty cherry this morning and thank you very much for thinking of me and also telephoning to me. I did not need three guesses I knew that it was from you, at the first guess. It certainly is great to have a sweetheart that is in the hat business, so they can send you cherries.
Mother said I should tell you in this letter that you made me feel very happy this morning when I received your cherry. I even made up a song with your name in it. I will be very pleased to sing it for you the next time I come down, which I hope will be very soon.
With best love to everyone from all, I remain Your sweetheart
These for yourself.
I am feeling very much better, and the doctor said he I will be able to be out very soon maybe Wednesday.
To John Kober
Courtesy of Vivian Perlis. als. [H. M. Copland's Department Store stationery] Oct 18 1917
Dear John,- I was delighted to hear that you've bought a ticket for the concert. Next time we ought to buy tickets next to each other. I will not be able to meet you at Nevins Street station as I take my music lessons Saturday morning and I shall remain in New York. However, I shall meet you at the front end of the 59th St. subway station. You take the subway at Nevins Street (no later than 2:05 P.M.) and go as far as 42nd St. (Grand Central). There, take a local and get off at 59th St. (Columbus Circle). Walk to the front of the station and wait for me if I am not there. I make the appointment downstairs as the streets are very confusing upstairs unless you know how to go. I'll be waiting for you at 2:45 P.M. [at] the latest, as the concert starts at 3.
I also have the program and in the musical literature that I have are included some of the numbers. These include Beethoven's Sonata Op. 110, the Brahms Intermezzo, the Chopin Valse, and the Ballade in G Minor. I also have the original song from which Liszt derived the "On the Wings of Song." It is a song by Mendelsohn and I sing it often. I regret that we have no opportunity to meet before the concert, but Friday is my Military Training Day, so it is hardly possible.
If I do not hear from you I will consider the arrangements all right for you. I hope you understand them.
To John Kober
Courtesy of Vivian Perlis. als. [H. M. Copland's Department Store stationery] Dec 21, 1917
Excuse the pencil, but I'm writing between a rush of business. Now that Christmas holyday is here, I'm very anxious to see you. The most convenient time I can think of is Teusday, Christmas afternoon (and maybe evening?). Will that suit you? Could you get the Tchaikovsky Pathetique Symphony No. 6 for four hands through your library. I heard the Philharmonic play it and I am sure I can now show you some beauties in it that we missed. It is perfectly ravishing. Can I say more? If you write and let me know immediately whether you are coming (as I hope you are) I will get your card by Monday. Be over at about 2 P.M.
P.S. I have 4 piano pieces by my teacher (Goldmark) that I want you to hear. And this confidentially, I have just composed a song that I have not been able to sing to anyone yet, so you will be the first victim! The words, written by a Belgian poet are
Sing, Belgians, sing, Although our wounds may burn Although our voices break Louder than the storm, louder than the guns, Sing the pride of our defeats, 'Neath the bright autumn sun, And sing the joy of courage When cowardice might be sweet.
They are, in my opinion, very stirring. Sir Edward Elgar has written music which is played as an obligato when the words are recited. However, I have not seen the music.
Come, won't you?
Copland left New York with plans not only to enroll at the summer school but also to study in Paris afterward-though with whom he did not yet know. At Fontainebleau Copland studied composition with Paul Vidal, took a few conducting lessons with Albert Wolff, and attempted to work with pianist Isidor Philipp. But undoubtedly his most important teacher was Nadia Boulanger, a young instructor in harmony. Copland seemed immediately entranced by her and, after the courses at Fontainebleau ended in September, traveled to Paris to begin composition study with Boulanger at her home on rue Ballu. Among his fellow students in Boulanger's studio were other young American composers, including Herbert Elwell, Melville Smith, and Virgil Thomson. But Copland was closest to Harold Clurman, a young man about his age whom he had met through family before leaving for France. Clurman came to Paris in the fall of 1921 to study at the Sorbonne, and the two lived together until June 1924, when both returned to the United States.
To his parents
AC/LC. als. [A Bord de "France" stationery] Fri. June 10 1921, 9:05 a.m. Dear Ma & Pa,-
I have decided to write you a little every day and so give you an idea of life on board this boat. After I left the deck for the first time, I looked over some of the numerous presents showered upon me. Harry Brin gave me a fancy book about France, Arnold a swell wallet, and Charlie a brand new camera with plenty of films, so that you shall get plenty of pictures. I got on deck again just in time to wave good-bye to the Statue of Liberty. By that time, dinner was ready. It was very nice and I ate my share. Then I started looking for my deck chair, but I havn't found it yet. We just sit down in any chair until someone puts us out. It seems there arn't enough chairs to go around and I have been advised to get my money back. But, of course, you are anxious to know whether I am sea sick. Everyone agrees that they never saw the sea calmer, but nevertheless, I feel none too sure of myself. You know how it feels to be in the dentist's chair when he is drilling your teeth for 8 minutes. Well, the throbbing of the ship does the same to my stomach, only this is for 8 days! However, I have had no spills or mishaps, and so I feel the worst is yet to come. I feel fairly perfect when I stay on deck; it is only when I go below that the foolish feeling comes on me. You can well believe that I fly down those stairs and up again as fast as my long legs can carry me. To my great surprise, I slept quite well last night.
It seems that the fourth fellow missed the boat. So we have a little spare room in that dinky little place. But even if it were a palace, you couldn't get me to stay down there! I have met the other two fellows, and some more of the students going to Fontainebleau, but I haven't felt the need for company yet, and so have been rather by myself, looking out at the sea and resting. The piano is also below deck and so out of the question. I have begun reading my French book, but feel that I can learn more by listening in on some french conversations. There are a great many Frenchmen on board, and I make it a point to speak French to the stewards and waiters, even tho they don't understand me.
Today I feel fine. The sea is like a lake and so I am just beginning to enjoy the trip. Lets hope it stays this way. This morning I and a violinist got a pass to get into the first class and played there for an hour. It certainly was a relief to get something to do. Until now the time draged terribly, but now that I can eat and move off the deck I think things will go better. There is to be a dance this evening to help break up the monotony and then, of course, I read a great deal.-I am continuing now, after having eaten my dinner. We had some soup, some omelettes with potatoes inside, some mutton chops and french fried potatoes and coffee. I also ate the whole business for the first time since Thursday noon. They also serve white and red wine at meals. I don't like the white stuff, but the red wine tastes like poor port wine. I am getting used to it. I am very lucky in being seated next to three French people, who always converse in French. One is an old priest, another a painter, and a young woman who has attended college in America. They are very nice to me and always encourage me when I try to splash some French. Sunday: 6 p.m.
One more day gone, and still nothing but water, water everywhere. On board ship Sunday is exactly like every other day. Last night there was a very dense fog and the fog horn kept on blowing every 2 minutes. It was quite dangerous since we were right in the iceberg zone, but by to-night we shall be out of the way of those unecessary [sic] affairs, they tell me. I have gotten thoroughly accustomed to the movement of the ship and have not been at all sick since Friday, nor do I expect to be in the future. You can just imagine how glad I am. I also sleep and eat well. Tell Lil they serve everything in a peculiar manner. Breakfast is opposite-first coffee, then eggs, and finish with oatmeal! At dinner if we have, say, green peas, they always serve them separately, and never with the meat. And then there is always the wine which everyone drinks like water, and it is little more than that. But best of all at meals are the three French people who have taken me under their care and teach me French while eating. They roar at my funny mistakes, and I learn by leaps and jumps. I spend a great deal of time with one of them, the painter, who is a man of about 30 and has been giving me the most valuable information about Paris, a fellow who reminds me of Aaron Schaffer sometimes.
Monday. 6 p.m.
I dont expect to add much to-day. Everything is about the same. Altho the sea is rougher to-day than it has ever been, I feel just as if I were at 628 [Washington Avenue]. To kill some time I took a bath to-day and so spent my first franc for soap! After putting 3 cakes in my trunk, I find that they do not supply any soap on the ship. Also, I forgot to tell you that there were handkerchiefs in my valise.
Well, to-day is our last day on the water, thank Heavens! It was all very nice, but-! Yesterday, the sea was at its roughest, and after having decided I would never be sea sick again, I felt it worse than ever. The worst part of it was that I had promised to play a solo, and also accompany a fiddler at a concert in the first class. In spite of feeling punk, I played the solo, 'tho I was the only one in a room of 400 people that had no dress clothes on. Even if I had had them, I would not have been well enough to change into them. I am enclosing the program. Ask Ralph to tell you who Irene Bordoni is (she was on the programme). I had the exquisite honor of being congratulated on my playing by the captain of the ship, who is like a king here. So much for that.
We expect to arrive at Havre sometime during the night, and leave for Paris about 7 A.M. to-morrow morning. I expect, then, to go to a hotel that my friend the painter has assured me is fine.
I'll mail this letter to-day in order that it may go off as soon as we land and write you again from Paris. You may write to me as soon as you get this letter in care of the school at Fontainebleau (Viola has the address), since by the time it gets there, I will be there also. At any rate, I may send you a cablegram from Paris, as I imagine you must be anxious to hear from me by now. Well, you need never worry. If anything extraordinary should happen (like my giving a concert in Paris) why, I will cablegram to you immediately.
It is impossible ["useless" crossed out] for me to name everyone to whom I send my love, but spread it around generally, to yourselves, the folks, Lil and Eva and the girls in the store.
Yours for Paris, Aaron
P.S. Give my special thanks to La & Charlie who lavished on me book, candy, shirts and camera. To-day I expect to drop Arnold and Uncle Sam a card, tip the waiter and steward. Now that the trip is almost over I can say that altho France may not be a Paradise, it is H- to get there anyway (at times)! (Save my letters as I have decided not to bother with a diary.)
Excerpted from The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Coplandby Aaron Copland Copyright © 2006 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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