I used to make a big difference between “Copland the modernist” – the composer of works like the Piano Sonata, Piano Variations and Piano Fantasy, the Orchestral Variations, Connotations or Inscapes for orchestra – and “Copland the populist”; the composer of the famous ballets, the “prairie-style” – and favored the former and rejected the latter. I assumed that Copland had turned, at some point in time and under the pressure of dwindling prospects for the modernists in the wake of the great depression, from a modernist to a populist, and I saw it as pandering to the public’s taste, relinquishing one’s compositional exigencies, the sign of a composer without integrity – like so many in the late 20th and early 21st century who abandonned their early modernist stylings to compose neo-romantic rehashes.
With better acquaintance with the music of Copland and especially his ballets, I realized that my views were doubly wrong. First, Copland didn’t evolve from a modernist to a populist: he always alternated between both styles. From the start he had been looking for a “vernacular” American style, trying his hand at a crossover of jazz and classical in the Piano Concerto from 1926 (a direction he then abandoned). His remarkable Piano Sonata is from 1941, and Rodeo from 1942. Second, there is no China Wall, or Doctor Jekyll / Mr Hyde cleft (whichever you wish to designated as Jekyll or Hyde) between both styles. Strains of the “easy” Copland can be heard in the modernist, and the modernist can be recognized in the ballets and other popular works.
So now I have the best of both worlds and can enjoy the music of Copland with very few reservations.
So far, from my Copland reviews posted on Amazon.com, I’ve imported only a couple, and none of the most significant:
His (easy-listening) Duo for Violin & Piano (a late piece, originated as a Duo for Flute & Piano in 1971 and rearranged by the composer in 1979), by Gregory Fulkerson and Robert Shannon, on “Cadenzas and Variations“, New World Records 80313-2 (1995, recordings from circa 1980), with works of Ornstein, Glass and Wernick.
His suprisingly impressionistic and Ravelian Nocturne for Violin & Piano from 1926, written for his teacher Nadia Boulanger, by Robert Davidovici and Steven de Groote on “Robert Davidovici, Violin”, New World Records 334-2, with works of Aitken, Piston, Schoenfield, Schuller