November 14, 1900 – Aaron Copland:
”Listening to the Fifth Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams is like staring at a cow for 45 minutes.”
I took my very first steps as a performer not as an actor, but as an instrumentalist performing symphonic music. For realz. I studied piano from six years old to 17, and I played the string bass in my school orchestra, the Spokane Junior Symphony, and the Tanglewood Youth Symphony. As with so many of my so-called-talents, I was bit of a dilettante. If I had really applied myself, I might have been become third chair string bass in the Possum Holler Symphony Orchestra or in the pit orchestra at the Chateau de Ville Dinner Theatre.
My string playing did come in handy twice in my acting life. My character played the cello in Stephen Sondheim‘s magical A Little Night Music in 1977. My character played the bass in a long run of the rockabilly musical Pump Boys And Dinettes in the early 1990s. I played the piano in a production of Noël Coward‘s Private Lives in college, and again in Coward’s Hay Fever in 1979.
What could make a person in the 20th century be so accepting of themselves that being gay was never a catastrophe of confidence? Aaron Copland lived a very cool life as an openly gay man during an era where such a thing could be considered professional suicide. Unlike most gay men of his era, Copland was neither ashamed nor tortured by his sexuality. He apparently understood and accepted being gay from an early age.
Throughout his life Copland was involved in relationships with other men. His affairs were mostly with younger guys, almost always musicians or artists, many whom he mentored, including young Leonard Bernstein.
Copland was an American composer of concert and film music, as well as an accomplished pianist. He helped forge a distinctly American style of composition.
While his orchestral music and his ballets found success on the stages and in the concert halls of America, Copland sought to enter another arena, the emerging industry of motion pictures. He saw this as both a challenge for his abilities as a composer and an opportunity to expand his reputation and audience, plus make some money.
The practice of the studios to edit and cut film scores went against Copland’s desire for creative control over his work. Copland found a kindred spirit in director Lewis Milestone, who recognized the benefits of allowing Copland to supervise his own orchestrations and refrained from interfering with his work. Their collaboration resulted in the film Of Mice And Men (1939), which earned Copland his first Academy Award nomination.
In a departure from other film scores of the time, Copland’s work largely reflected his own style, instead of borrowing from the Late-Romantic period. He rejected the widespread practice of using melodies to identify characters with their own personal themes.
His score for William Wyler‘s The Heiress (1949) won an Oscar also. Many of his musical themes are encapsulated in the orchestral suite, Music For Movies. His score for the film adaptation of John Steinbeck‘s The Red Pony (1949) was given a suite of its own. This piece was one of Copland’s personal favorites.
It is difficult to overestimate the influence Copland has had on film music. Virtually every composer who scored for Westerns, particularly between 1940 -1970, was shaped by the style Copland developed.
Copland was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his orchestral suite Appalachian Spring. His scores for Our Town (1940), and The North Star (1943) received Oscar nominations.
Copland’s best-known piece of music is probably Fanfare For The Common Man (1942), a smart choice for my own entrances at social events, with its dramatic opening fanfare. It was made into a worldwide pop hit in the 1970s by the band Emerson Lake & Palmer. It is probably the most recognizable two-minute composition in history. The piece was a commission from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1942. It has since been used in advertising, films, as a theme for the Olympic Games and as a wake-up call for NASA astronauts. President Barack Obama chose it to kick-off his inaugural in 2009.
Music critic Paul Moor, one of Copland’s boyfriends in the 1950s wrote:
“By some miracle Aaron remained as free of neurosis as anyone I’ve ever known. He was one of the dearest, kindest, most thoughtful and fundamentally good human beings I’ve ever known.”
I have always been fascinated by Copland’s group of gay composers who all lived and worked and knew each other in New York City in the 20th century: Samuel Barber, Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, Paul Bowles, David Diamond, Ned Rorem and Virgil Thomson, all of them changed the complexion of American Music for the better.
Copland was tall, very thin, geeky, reserved and the very model of propriety. He was 32 when he had his first affair. The object of his affection was the stunningly handsome, muscular 17-year-old violinist Victor Kraft.
Copland had accepted an invitation from a fellow composer to travel to Mexico City for two months, so he called ahead to inform his host that he’d be bringing along a 17-year-old. The getaway was for Copland to have quiet so he could compose, but Kraft had other ideas. He insisted that Copland make it real holiday, and the pair spent their days at the beach with Copland photographing Kraft in the nude. Then they went clubbing until dawn.
This was a 180-degree turn in Copland’s life. The two behaved like honeymooners.
Their love had a major effect on Copland as a composer. His scores brought a fresh, simple kind of music, a reflection of the lifestyle he and Kraft had shared in Mexico. His suite El Salón México, resulted in something that Copland had never had before: rave reviews and enthusiastic audience. In gratitude for his young lover’s inspiration and influence, Copland dedicated El Salón México to Kraft.
Kraft moved into Copland’s Manhattan apartment and took over the household, planning and cooking for dinner parties. Kraft gave up his own career as a violinist to work as a photographer, with great success. He insisted that Copland clear his busy schedule several times a year so that they could have getaways as a couple. Kraft saw to it that Copland had a stress-free home life.
Film work meant that Copland was spending more and more time in California, while Kraft had to stay in NYC, where he was working full time as a photographer for Harper’s Bazaar. In Los Angles, Copland’s fame meant he had no difficulty attracting men into assignations. In an attempt at making Copland jealous, Kraft began an affair with Leonard Bernstein. When that failed, Kraft married a female writer in 1951. The marriage lasted a few months, and Kraft went back to Copland.
Kraft learned that he had to accept that Copland wanted to experience other men, but he remained the focus of Copland’s life. While they lived an open life as a couple, Copland never provided details of their relationship to the public. His stock comment was:
”I’m married to my music.”
Not really, Copland had many younger, talented young men as lovers, including artist Alvin Ross; dancer Erik Johns, librettist for Copland’s opera The Tender Land, and composer John Brodbin Kennedy.
By the late 1950s, the strain of Copland’s pursuit of young men took its toll on Kraft. He quit his job, got into fights with Copland’s younger lovers and indulged in crying fits. Under this emotional strain, Kraft married again. They had a son, Jeremy Aaron Kraft, who was born with brain damage. A bereft Kraft turned to drugs and became erratic and difficult.
Copland did not break off all communication. He made sure Kraft was kept from high profile events, such as when Copland received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Grammy Award ceremonies, yet Copland remembered Kraft’s influence on his music and life in their early years together. They continued to travel together and still had a sexual relationship. Kraft died of a heart attack while they were vacationing in Maine in 1976. He was 60 years old.
Copland was devastated and fell into a deep depression. He paid for Kraft’s son’s private school tuition. Copland went on to receive the Kennedy Center Honors in 1979 and the Medal of the Arts from Ronald Reagan in 1986, but Copland stopped composing. He also gave up his pursuit of young men, probably blaming his humiliating affairs for Kraft’s death.
Copland died in 1990, 14 years after Kraft. There were tributes and accolades in the press, but his obituaries made no mention of Victor Kraft. The media referred to Copland as a lifelong bachelor. Copland left $25,000 ($50,000 in 2019 dollars) to Jeremy Aaron’s mother, “to be used for the support and maintenance of my godson, Jeremy Aaron Kraft“.
I learned a bunch about the man from Aaron Copland: The Life And Work Of An Uncommon Man (1999) by Howard Pollack.