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Aaron Copland: “One Red to Another”

“If they were a strange sight to me, I was no less of a one to them. It was the first time that many of them had seen an ‘intellectual.’ I was being gradually drawn, you see, into the political struggle with the peasantry! I wish you could have seen them – the true Third Estate, the very material that makes revolution. It’s one thing to think revolution, or talk about it to one’s friends, but to preach it from the streets — OUT LOUD – well, I made my speech and I’ll probably never be the same! Now, when we go to town, there are friendly nod from sympathizers, and farmers come up and talk as one red to another. I’ll be sorry to leave here with the thought of probably never seeing them again.” 

That’s Aaron Copland in 1934, reflecting upon addressing a Communist picnic in Minnesota – “one red to another.” Here he is on the topic of “workers’ songs”:

“Every participant in revolutionary activity knows from his own experience that a good mass song is a powerful weapon in the class struggle. It creates solidarity and inspires action.  Those of us who wish to see music play its part in the workers struggle for a new world order owe a vote of thanks to the Composers Collective for making an auspicious start in the right direction.”

You can hear Copland (vividly re-enacted by Frank Candelaria) talk about his experiences on the far left in PostClassical Ensemble’s latest More than Music film: “Aaron Copland – American Populist.” The film also includes a rare performance of Copland’s prize-winning workers’ song “Into the Streets, May First,” with its call “Up with the sickle and the hammer!”

And Candelaria and Edward Gero re-enact the 1953 fall-out from these activities: Copland’s grilling by Senator Joseph McCarthy, who says:  

“May I give you some advice. You have a lawyer here. There are witnesses who come before this committee and often indulge in the assumption that they can avoid giving us the facts.  Those who underestimate the work the staff has done in the past end up occasionally before a grand jury for perjury, so I  suggest when counsel questions you about these matters that you  tell the truth or take advantage of the Fifth Amendment.”

It’s all eerily pertinent today, this saga of an iconic American composer jostled by Populist currents on the far left, then the far right – and finally retreating from the fray. Our film includes the participation of a couple of distinguished American historians: Michael Kazin (on Populism) and Joseph McCartin (on the Red Scare). It also incorporates extensive excerpts from PCE’s Naxos DVD of The City(1939) – Copland’s highest achievement as a film composer, and the least known consequential music that he composed. 

Ultimately, I suggest, Copland somewhat resembles “a cork in a stream,” buffeted by political and social currents – a saga that raises many questions, including: What is the fate of the arts in the United States? 

Here’s an index to our 75-minute film, memorably “visualized” by Peter Bogdanoff:

10:14 – Copland on that Communist picnic

11:48 – Copland on workers’ songs

12:34 – “Into the Streets, May First” sung by Lisa Vroman and William Sharp

16:37 – Copland on Hollywood film music (with some Korngold to listen to)

20:00 – Excerpts from The City

39:20 – Joseph McCartin on the Red Scare

44:34 – Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn grill Copland

58:25 – Music historian Beth Levy on Copland’s quest for musical identity

1:04:32 – Michael Kazin on Copland and the Popular Front

1:06:30 – My summing up — a “cork in a stream” – with comparisons to Charles Ives and George Gershwin: composers with deeper roots

1:12:54 – The last word goes to pianist Benjamin Pasternack, recalling an illuminating meeting with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood. 

an ArtsJournal blog