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Thread: Aaron Copland: Cultural Diplomat in South America

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    Captain of Water Music Ouled Nails's Avatar
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    Aaron Copland: Cultural Diplomat in South America

    Aaron Copland: Cultural Diplomat in South America

    On December 21, 1947, Aaron Copland published a brief report in the New York Times titled “Composer’s Report on Music in South America.” In this article, Copland places emphasis on the extent to which American composers were known among South American concert goers and the “big” public, pointing out for instance that the latter remained unfamiliar with the work of Leonard Bernstein. Earlier, on a previous tour of nine South American countries in 1941, Copland had sought to engage fellow South American composers and music students for cultural purposes as opposed to some “political expediency.” Perhaps this previous cultural exposure to no less than sixty-five South American composers is what prompted the State Department, six years later, to rely on a cultural diplomat widely known for his “leftist” ideological opinions at this critical point in time (i.e., Truman’s containment policy and the beginning of the Cold War). Copland himself wrote, in the NY Times article, “Recently, world conditions (and political expediency) have provided an unexpected impetus to our musical relations with neighboring American countries.” But, whatever the political rationale in 1947, the evidence indicates that Copland, who first became acquainted with Latin American composers in the 1920’s, later sought to broaden his understanding of “Latin American music” on his own initiative, an individual impetus he characterized as “musical wanderlust. Too many people, when it comes to music, are inveterate stay-at-homes. They apparently feel uncomfortable unless they are in the presence of accredited genius. They prefer to wander down well-worn paths, clearly marked: This Way To a Masterpiece. But it has been my experience that those who really love music have a consuming passion to become familiar with its every manifestation.”

    During this first South American tour, Copland intended to give a more culturally and anthropologically informed meaning to the “Good Neighbor Policy.” Not only did he endeavor to report on the state of classical music in different South American countries, thus emphasizing cultural distinctions between Brazil, Chile, Argentina, etc., he also explicitly evaluated the musical achievements and artistic potential of these countries’ respective composers. While he performed these tasks with all the dedication of a professional musicologist, one might detect in this exercise a tendency to espouse national stereotypes as well as some preconceptions about original, pristine cultures. Nevertheless, in writing “Composers of South America” (drafted in 1941 and published in Modern Music 19, no. 2 (January-February 1942):75-82), Copland was showing the way toward a more culturally informed and musically knowledgeable implementation of the “Good Neighbor Policy,” articulating in the process evaluative observations rich in personal artistic values. Obviously, the author of Appalachian Spring was predisposed to view the countries “with the richest folklore” as those whose music had “developed most quickly.” More surprisingly, perhaps, he further pointed to those “countries with the deepest Indian strain” as the nations presenting more promising musical prospects. In doing so, Copland appears to have projected a future for South American classical music that differed rather significantly from the much more Euro-American centered aesthetic values of his own country, with its Appalachian farmers, Southwestern cowboys, and “common man.”

    With respect to Argentina, for example, Copland failed to observe “an Argentine school since a strikingly indigenous profile is lacking.” Could not the Argentine “melting pot” yield a body of compositions no less distinctive in style and sound than the American melting pot? Perhaps what Copland really looked forward to witness was the emergence of a collective voice in Argentine classical music similar to what he and his closest colleagues had only recently achieved in the United States (with much encouragement and advice from their common French European mentor). Nevertheless, neo-classical/neo-romantic composer Jose Maria Castro, with his strong “creative instinct,” and especially young Alberto Ginastera, with his “knack for bright-sounding orchestration,” both offered outstanding examples of artists who not only deserved to become better known in the USA but also in their own country where a small clique of conservative musicians exercised far too much control over the government’s “musical policy.”

    Brazil’s “full-blooded school distinguishable from the European or any other model” had found ample expression with the prolific Heitor Villa-Lobos. Here was an individual whose artistic stature probably rose above Copland’s own reputation in Latin America. Interestingly, this portion of Copland’s narrative displays a shift in emphasis from “indigenous” creativity – Villa-Lobos’ most striking attribute – to more conventional professional standards, particularly what Copland refers to as “the field of motion” and the ambiente. The “blanket” use of folklore in Brazil had narrowed this field of motion “to the languorously sentimental or the wildly orgiastic mood, with very little in between. Moreover, it encourages a type of romanticism that gives much of their music an old-fashioned touch – as if the essence had all been stated before, though not with the particular Brazilian twist.” Less “disciplined” than the Mexican “temperament,” Brazilian classical music also proved less compatible to the “sober line of new music.” Copland goes so far as to characterize Brazilian music as too “provincial” in its ambiente (ambiance, atmosphere), a criticism which seems strangely at odds with his prior emphasis on “Indian strain” and indigenous creativity. One wonders if Villa-Lobos’ propensity to uninhibited musical expression, which struck Copland more as a qualitative problem than as a quantitative achievement, might not explain this apparent contradiction and abrupt shift in emphasis. Indeed, upon reading the following assessment, one wonders if the two composers had been on good terms since their initial encounter in 1923:

    As I see it, the Villa-Lobos music has one outstanding quality – its abundance. That is the primary virtue. It is also at times enormously picturesque, free of musical prejudices, full of rhythmic vitality, sometimes cheap and vulgar with an overdose of figuration formulas – and sometimes astonishingly original. It has a way of being most effective on first hearing. Structurally, the pieces are often loosely thrown together, making the impression of an inextricable mélange of authentic Brazilian atmosphere plus a full quota of modern French compositional processes. At his finest, Villa-Lobos is a kind of zestful Brazilian Falla. His worst may be straight café concert music.

    By deploring, on one hand, the lack of an indigenous school in the highly cultivated and professionally demanding musical world of Argentina and, on the other hand, the unpredictable professional results of South America’s most salient representative of such a school, Copland probably raised the bar of the “fellow” South American composer far higher than he would have done among his U.S. peers. After all, nobody ever suggested that a successful “Good Neighbor Policy” would have to be carried on among absolutely equal partners.

    To his tremendous credit, Aaron Copland devoted attention to numerous other South American composers, many of whom were destined to only achieve local fame. In Chile, for instance, composers Domingo Santa Cruz, Humberto Allende, Carlos Isamitt, Rene Amengual and Alfonso Letelier were said to have enjoyed a considerable amount of artistic freedom due to the central role played by the university of Santiago in the development of classical music and the employment of composers as administrators. Unfortunately, Chile’s isolation from the rest of the continent meant that national creativity had developed along very narrow lines. “Chilean music lacks outside air.” Elsewhere, in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Paraguay, classical music remained in “its infancy” either because of a lack of institutional development or of this stereotypical South American attribute – dolce far niente! Notwithstanding his own cultural preconceptions, Aaron Copland had thus achieved, on his own initiative, a level of cultural understanding matched by no other North American or European composer at this point in time. With this pan-American cultural initiative he personally met sixty-five South American composers, read their scores, listened to local ensembles and orchestras perform their pieces, and presumably introduced them to the more recent works of several American composers.

    Source: Aaron Copland, “The Composers of South America,” The Aaron Copland Collection, ca. 1900-1990, Music Collection, Library of Congress, 14 pages, typescript, copland writt0051.

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    Vice Admiral Virtuoso rojo's Avatar
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    Wow. Thanks so much for sharing this, ON.

    I wonder which works Copland would have introduced to these South American composers (his own?,) and how much influence these works would have had on them... 'cross-pollination' of musical ideas and influence from other nations is inevitable, but might this have been a detriment to the nationalistic flavour of these countries' music? Just wondering...

    ...it has been my experience that those who really love music have a consuming passion to become familiar with its every manifestation.
    Only problem is that that would take eons... I do what I can.

    Interesting individual, this Copland. I'm only familiar with his more famous works (Rodeo, Fanfare for the Common Man, Billy the Kid, Appalachian Spring...) and I don't recall hearing any South American influences in those. Perhaps there are and I don't recall, or perhaps there are in some of his other works that I'm not familiar with. I guess I would have to research his post-1947 works, whichever those are.
    ''Music, I feel, should be emotional first and intellectual second.'' - Maurice Ravel
    ''The greatest education in the world is watching the masters at work.'' - Michael Jackson


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    Captain of Water Music Ouled Nails's Avatar
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    Thank you much for your observations, rojo. It's nice to know that some people actually read this "stuff."

    You're right about the lack of South American influence in his work. There's El Salon Mexico but that's not South America. When I read this 1941 report on South American composers it left me with, shall we say, a very mixed bag of feelings. Clearly, Copland is very open-minded as a "wanderlust" type of composer and it's amazing that he contacted or became acquainted somehow with so many S.A. composers. To this day, how many do we actually know? Probably not sixty-five of them! Yet, the American composer also strikes me as being very demanding -- he wants professional excellence and indigenous creativity, also signalling, it seems to me, that "folklore" is likely to restrict the field of motion. When I finished reading this manuscript I wondered "What does he want, exactly?! Could it be that the American composer approached all of these composers and their works with a touch of paternalism and a feeling of cultural superiority? I know that Villa-Lobos' output is uneven but why emphasize what he may have composed with a more "populist" approach in mind?

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    Vice Admiral Virtuoso rojo's Avatar
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    Well, the fact that Copland's music lacks any South American influences (I'll take your word for it) speaks volumes then, imo. And true, he seems to have had little flattery for Villa-Lobos. Abundance is his music's one most outstanding quality? Hmm, jealousy of some sort, perhaps? Who knows?

    Impossible to get the complete story from this one article; I'm probably jumping to conclusions. And I probably shouldn't.
    ''Music, I feel, should be emotional first and intellectual second.'' - Maurice Ravel
    ''The greatest education in the world is watching the masters at work.'' - Michael Jackson


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    Captain of Water Music Ouled Nails's Avatar
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    Well, rojo, before somebody else humbles me, don't take my word for it! He did write "Three Latin American Sketches" and a movement of his Concerto for clarinet and orchestra is inspired/animated by an Argentinian theme. So much for my expertise! It's never too late to learn....

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    Vice Admiral Virtuoso rojo's Avatar
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    Thanks for the update, ON; good digging. But still, that's just two works... better than nothing, I suppose, but his repertoire from after his trip isn't exactly teeming with South American references, is it? Or should I just cut Copland some slack?
    Last edited by rojo; Jun-10-2008 at 06:20.
    ''Music, I feel, should be emotional first and intellectual second.'' - Maurice Ravel
    ''The greatest education in the world is watching the masters at work.'' - Michael Jackson


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    Admiral of Fugues Contratrombone64's Avatar
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    I'll have to read that again, as it had too much for my clapped-out short term memory to hold and then analyse and form an opinon on ... but thanks Ouled, wonderful article.

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