Aaron Copland: Works for Piano 1926-1948Virgil Thomson once said, “The way to write American music is simple. All you have to do is to be an American and then write any kind of music you wish.” Like most aphorisms, this one propounds a course of deceptive simplicity, for it replaces one question with another: “What kind of music do you wish to write?” In this context, “American music” is hardly an admissible reply.
“I don't think I ever deliberately sat down to write something in a style that everybody could understand. In the first place you can't be sure that everybody will fall in love with your music even if it is written in such a language. There is no guarantee that the audience is going to want it any more than they would a dissonant piece. I think a more accessible style was brought on by the nature of the things I was asked to do: a ballet score implies that you are looking at something while you are listening to the music, so that you can't give your undivided attention to the music. This suggests a simpler style. The same is true of movie music.” (from Conversation with Aaron Copland)
To put it less modestly than the composer is willing to do, what makes these pieces valid is not the less dissonant material but the mastery and virtuosity of the compositional technique. An important aspect of writing “any kind of music you wish” is, simply, the ability to write any kind of music—the sheer craftsmanship, the know-how. When working with folk material (as in El Salón and Billy), Copland was able to pitch his style to precisely the tone of the pre-existent material, and the result therefore convinced in a way that earlier works, in which American vernacular materials had been uncomfortably wedded to European formal model, and instrumental textures, had not managed to do.
....The decisive impact of this notable career—as distinct from the enormous impact of the music itself—on American music has been in terms of professionalism. By his example and by his teaching (although he has shunned any regular post at a university, Copland was for many years head of the composition faculty at the Berkshire Music Center, established by his great patron Koussevitzky), he has urged standards and a communal effort among composers to improve their lot. It is in this sense, particularly, that he seems the indispensable figure in those crucial decades for American art music: before him, American composers were judged against European standards; after him, they could, indeed, write any kind of music they wished. To be a successful composer in America is still not easy—but at least it is no longer impossible.