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Copland and Joe McCarthy on NPR – a “Surreal Experience”

“Aaron Copland and the Spirit of Labor Day” – the radio documentary I was delighted to produce for the enterprising NPR newsmagazine “1A” – is archived here.

I received a wonderfully bristling response from Steve Robinson, who for more than a decade ran WFMT/Chicago when it was (by far) the best classical-music radio station in the US. Steve writes:

“The Copland program was entertaining, informative and, if I can use a word that fell out of favor in public radio decades ago, educational.  Listening to this one-hour special on a nationally syndicated news program was a surreal experience and took me back to my early days in public radio (late ’60’s…) when stations weren’t afraid to air documentary programs about classical music that were challenging and thought provoking. I had thought those days were gone forever.” 

I share Steve’s admiration for Rupert Allman, who produces “1A” and proposed that the complex – and timely, and controversial – Copland odyssey be allocated a full 50-minute slot. 

The show narrates in considerable detail Copland’s adventures on the political left – and the price he paid: a 1953 interrogation by Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn, which we re-enacted.

I was expertly partnered by Peter Bogdanoff, with whom I have created six documentary films – including “Aaron Copland: American Populist” – that Naxos will release in November in tandem with my new book Dvorak’s Prophecy and the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music.

Here’s a listener’s guide to the radio show:


1:40: “Into the Streets May First,” Copland’s prize-winning 1934 workers’ song (a possible radio premiere)

4:30: Copland’s advice to “participants in revolutionary activity” interested in producing “a good mass song” as “a powerful weapon in the class struggle.”

5:33: Copland addresses a Communist picnic in Minnesota, talking to farmers as “one Red to another.”

8:00: Backlash: the Red Scare and “a resulting climate of fear and intolerance, of division and polarization, of futility of dialogue and informed discussion” – all “pertinent today.”


14:05: Copland’s Piano Variations (1930) – a modernist “wake-up call,” a “new American sound”

16:00: In Mexico, Copland finds himself “a little envious” of artists and musicians who inform the fate and identity of a nation, versus “working in a vacuum” in the US.

17:25: In search of “new musical audiences,” Copland fashions a style “for both us and them” – and takes it to Hollywood, where Erich Korngold’s musical upholsteries sound Viennese.

20:35: A trial run for Hollywood – Copland composes his best film score, today the most important Copland score we don’t know: The City (1939). It embodies a new American sound for the cinema – and also a manifesto on the left, propaganda for an activist government. We audition four excerpts, narrated and conducted by Angel Gil-Ordonez with PostClassical Ensemble.


34:07: Historian Joseph McCartin on the collision courses charted by Copland and McCarthy

35:50: Copland’s interrogation by Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn. Asked if he has ever been a “Communist sympathizer,” or has attended “a Communist meeting of any kind,” he wriggles as best he can.

40:15: Closing a circle, abandoning the “new audience” he once courted, Copland laboriously fashions a valedictory Piano Fantasy (1957) returning to the dissonant idiom of the Piano Variations he composed nearly three decades before. With commentary by pianist Benjamin Pasternack, who ultimately finds Copland the man inscrutable.

43:48: The Copland story as a parable about the fate of the artist in American culture and society – a “synthetic populist,” he’s both “iconic and marginal,” residing “both inside and outside the American experience.” I tell an eyewitness story about Copland being disrespected by the New York Philharmonic (1980) and contrast that with the manner in which Benjamin Britten was esteemed in Great Britain. Notwithstanding Copland’s influence and celebrity, his aspiration that he and his fellow American composers might shape the cultural affairs of a nation – as Carlos Chavez and Diego Rivera could in Mexico – remained unrealized.  

My parting shot (48:40): America’s artists have been allotted “an insufficient role.” My forthcoming Dvorak’s Prophecy and the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music argues a failure to identify a “usable past.” “We absolutely need to connect with our past. In general, as Americans, we have short memories. And right now if we cannot claim and refresh a common cultural inheritance, we’ll be in trouble as a nation.”


  1. This show was fabulous—a reminder of the importance of the arts in our lives.

  2. A very interesting program, complex and intellectually substantive, something all too rare on NPR these days. The lack of programs like this, and the marginalization of artists in the USA, are part of an American anti-intellectualism whose origins and causes are not fully understood.

    I’ve lived in Europe for 42 years and see daily how different societies are when they are not anti-intellectual and when the have a much wider political spectrum. The two characteristics are related. When people think more deeply about society, they are inclined to explore a wider range of political options. When I lived in Italy in 1979-80, the communist party was still a major political force. This allowed for discussions and analysis of society that were far more critical and wide-ranging than found in the USA. It went back to thinkers like the philosopher Antonio Gramsci who wrote extensively about how the ruling elite control societies through cultural hegemony, a process of promoting culture that reinforces their power and suppress culture that doesn’t.

    The correlations with McCarthyism are obvious, and were part of a broader effort to control American culture with other programs such as:
    + the Truman Loyalty Acts, a forerunner of HUAC
    + Project Mockingbird, the CIA’s efforts to control the media that were ultimately so successful that CIA official Frank Wisner called the operation his “mighty Wurlitzer” on which he could play any propaganda tune
    + The Congress for Cultural Freedom, a CIA program that used front organizations, foundations, and infiltration to reshape the direction of the arts in the USA and Europe.
    + COINTELPRO, an FBI program aimed at surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting domestic American political organizations.

    I think the ultimate question is how successful these programs in were truncating the American political landscape, and what the long term consequences have been. Even if some political ideas might be harmful, the act of forcefully removing them from society through violence, sabotage, persecution, or whatever means, generally does more harm than good. Through dialog we move toward truth. We learn which ideas work, which don’t, and why. When dialog is strangled, the ruling elite might maintain their hegemony, but we are left with a gap in our understanding and stunted social development.

    I think we now see the results in USA of truncating our political thought. We’ve lost a culture of political dialog and work in a political and cultural realm generally so narrow that we lack the intellectual resources to solve some of our most basic problems like militarism, decaying infrastructure, racism, classism, arts support, and the capacity to move forward through political dialog. With our stagnant, narrow, and ossified political system, we are reaping what we have long sown.

    Thank you for touching on these issues. We can only hope that similar broadcasts will become more common.

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