Mr. Copland Goes to Washington

It was a chilly Friday afternoon when American composer Aaron Copland strode into the United States Capitol Building. Copland, a New Yorker born and raised, had traveled to Washington, DC from Ossining, the bucolic little Hudson River village to which he had located after many years of living in Manhattan. The date was January 30, 1953. Accompanied by his lawyer, Copland made his way to the hearing room of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, an arm of what was then called the Committee on Government Operations. The committee chairman asked Copland to stand and raise his right hand. “Do you solemnly swear the testimony you are about to give shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”

“I do,” Copland replied. He took his seat across from three senators, two lawyers, a State Department liaison officer, and the Senate’s chief clerk. The chairman, Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, began his questioning.

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Though born in Brooklyn to Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, raised above his family’s department store, and educated in Paris, many of Aaron Copland’s most enduringly popular works are associated with rural themes, and his distinctive style has often been imitated to represent America in music. There is a certain amount of irony in this—the city-slicker writing music that would be so associated with wide vistas and rustic tropes. (That the man nicknamed the “Dean of American Composers” would be hauled in front of the most famous witch-hunt since Salem to answer for his own deeply held beliefs also bears a certain level of irony.) Through his popular and influential style, Aaron Copland became one of America’s most beloved composers. Among his numerous honors are a Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Kennedy Center Honor, a Medal of the Arts, and a Congressional Gold Medal. Perhaps most importantly, his music has come to define the sound of American classical music for generations of listeners.

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The business that brought one of America’s most well-known composers to America’s seat of power was serious. This was the apex of the Red Scare, and anti-Communist fervor had overtaken members of both houses of Congress. Senator Joseph McCarthy was then at the height of his influence, wielding the power of his office to investigate such dangerous anti-American organizations as The Voice of America, the State Department’s overseas library program, and the United States Army. To modern readers these may seem like laughable attempts to ferret out literal red herrings, at best, or misguided assaults on the freedoms of thought and speech guaranteed by the Constitution, at worst, but at the time these were grave matters that often yielded dire consequences. Many Americans had their careers and livelihoods derailed, their very freedoms threatened by what we now refer to as McCarthyism. No, in January of 1953, Aaron Copland certainly did not want to run afoul of Joseph McCarthy.

Aaron Copland

Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin

Senator McCarthy and the committee’s legal counsel, Roy Cohn, began questioning Copland about a range of activities spanning over a decade. Had he signed letters to President Franklin Roosevelt defending the Communist Party or urging him to support the Soviet Union by declaring war on Finland? Had he supported communist guerillas during the Spanish Civil War, or lent his name to petitions on behalf of various leftist labor leaders? Had he publicly supported Hanns Eisler, an Austrian émigré composer who was blackballed by Hollywood and investigated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities? Eventually, McCarthy read into the record a list of 27 communist fronts, organizations or causes that were believed to be under Communist Party control, with which Copland was allegedly involved. When Copland expressed that he was “absolutely amazed at the number of entries in connection” with him, Roy Cohn ominously responded, “So were we.”

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Fanfare for the Common Man, one of Copland’s most well-known pieces, was commissioned in 1942 by conductor Eugene Goossens of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. America had just entered World War Two, and Goossens planned to open each concert of the 1942-1943 season with a fanfare to honor those involved in the war effort. He wrote to Copland in August of that year:

“It is my idea to make these fanfares stirring and significant contributions to the war effort, so I suggest you give your fanfare a title, as for instance, ‘A Fanfare for Soldiers, or for Airmen or Sailors.’ I am asking this favour (sic) in a spirit of friendly comradeship, and I ask you to do it for the cause we all have at heart. . . .”

The Cincinnati Symphony’s 1942-1943 season did not open with Copland’s fanfare for the simple reason that it wasn’t yet finished. Copland’s compositional pace was deliberate, and the work wasn’t completed until a month after its planned premiere. When Eugene Goossens finally received the work, he was puzzled—not by the music itself, but by the title.

The other pieces commissioned as part of his fanfare project had more overtly patriotic themes. Other concert openers from that season include Fanfare for the American Soldier and A Fanfare for the Fighting French. Copland’s title stood out, by comparison. During the compositional process, he had given thought to more militaristic titles like Fanfare for Our Heroes and Fanfare for the Paratroops. But he also considered calling the work Fanfare for Four Freedoms, a reference to Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 speech where he declared that all people should have freedom of speech and religion, as well as freedom from want and from fear.

Ultimately, though, his title derived inspiration from a different political speech altogether. In the spring of 1942, Henry A. Wallace, Roosevelt’s vice president at the time, declared:

“Some have spoken of the American Century. I say that the century upon which are entering, the century which will come out of this war, can be and must be the century of the common man.”

Goossens proposed that the fanfare receive its debut on March 15, 1953, right around the tax filing deadline at the time. “I was all for honoring the common man at income tax time,” Copland later humorously recalled.

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Though it makes for a cute story, Copland’s statement buries the lede a bit. Even a cursory glance at Copland’s life and political beliefs are enough to show that he cared deeply for the people—the “common man”—and not just at tax time. Scholars have long recognized the importance of Copland’s socialist beliefs, beliefs he and others like him forged during the Great Depression, and it is no wonder that in his fanfare he would draw inspiration from ideas like the “freedom from want” or the “century of the common man.”

More recently, scholars have argued that Copland’s political activism has been historically underplayed, especially as it concerns his musical style. Writing in 1934 for New Masses, an American Marxist magazine popular at the time among activists of the political Left, Copland argued that political mass songs were a “powerful weapon in the class struggle.” Music had the ability, he wrote, to “[create] solidarity and [inspire] action.” But Copland firmly believed that in this process the focus should always remain on the people: “Composers will want to raise the musical level of the masses, but they must also be ready to learn from them what species of song is most apposite to the revolutionary task.”

Vice President Henry A. Wallace

He carried these populist beliefs over into his own music. After an early period writing modernist music—and at a time when many of his colleagues focused on new and difficult musical trends—Copland sought to radically simplify his style. “I began to feel an increasing dissatisfaction with the relations of the music-loving public and the living composer,” he would later recall. “I felt that it was worth the effort to see if I couldn’t say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms.” His new style, inspired by popular idioms and geared toward the people, is what became the Copland style, the sound that for so many came to represent America. This was the style of Appalachian Spring, of Billy the Kid and Rodeo; it was the style of Fanfare for the Common Man.

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In 1953, Copland’s political beliefs had become a liability. The Depression was over, the New Deal had passed, and the Cold War was on. Sitting in front of America’s Grand Inquisitor, its witch-hunter-in-chief, all of his past activism was open to questioning—his membership in certain organizations, his support of socialist and labor leaders, his article in New Masses, all of it.

Aside from the general communist-hunting nature of the committee, Copland’s appearance seems to have been driven in large part by a sense of shock among its members that someone with so many possible red flags by their name could have so frequently been chosen to represent American interests abroad. During the 1940s, Copland had traveled to South America on numerous occasions, serving as an official cultural ambassador on behalf of the United States government. McCarthy and the committee members repeated continually that while there was nothing illegal about Copland’s involvement with any of the 27 activities they’d listed, they could not fathom “why a man of this tremendous activity in Communist fronts would be selected” to represent American interests.

For his part, Copland deftly feigned ignorance, naivety, and downright stupidity in an effort to obfuscate any line of questioning:

[Sen. MCCARTHY]. You have been a lecturer representing the United States in other nations. One of the reasons why we appropriate the money to pay lecturers is to enlighten people as to the American way of life and do something towards combating communism. Is it your testimony that you know nothing about the Communist movement or are you fairly well acquainted with the Communist movement?
Mr. COPLAND. It was my understanding that my lectureship was purely a musical assignment.
[Sen. MCCARTHY]. Answer my question. Do you know anything about the Communist movement?
Mr. COPLAND. I know what I read in the newspapers.

Copland was a man of principles, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew well that the stakes were high. In fact, the trouble that had brought him to Congress on this day had already taken another victim in the form of the cancellation of a performance of his work Lincoln Portrait, which had been planned for Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration ceremonies. Although he asserted at several points his freedom as an American to live according to his conscience, he was aware of the potential for dire consequences. His carefully calculated know-nothing act, repeated time and time again throughout his testimony, worked. He admitted nothing, implicated no one, and moved on with his life and career.

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Fanfare for the Common Man is a work that was born in a moment of great patriotism, and it is a work that over the course of its 77-year history has remained tied to that idea of patriotism. It has been used at both patriotic celebrations and solemn national occasions; in the 1990s it formed the musical backdrop for a U.S. Navy recruitment commercial.

Fanfare for the Common Man is a patriotic work, although the ideals it represents are more complicated than star-spangled razzle-dazzle. And Copland was a patriot. He was a first-generation American who spoke to and on behalf of the people, who believed in and agitated for reform. Aaron Copland argued that music could “[create] solidarity and [inspire] action,” and he sought to embody those ideas in his own creative output. This piece is as timely now as it ever was. Copland believed in America, in the freedoms it represented. In front of McCarthy’s committee, he never wavered in asserting that he as an American had a right to believe whatever he liked. And what he believed was that America would be at its best when it took care of the least fortunate, the forgotten, and the marginalized, those doing what he called “the dirty work.” Fanfare for the Common Man is a work dedicated to them.

– Henry Michaels
Resonance editor, Audience Services and Community Access Manager, Music Academy of the West


Sources: 

J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca, A History of Western Music (2014)

Aaron Copland, “Workers Sing!” in New Masses (1934)

Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis, Copland: 1900 through 1942 (1984)

Elizabeth B. Crist, “Aaron Copland and the Popular Front,” in The Journal of the American Musicological Society (2003)

“Executive Sessions of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations, Eighty-Third Congress, First Session” (1953, pub. 2003)

Fanfare for the Common Man, Library of Congress, Washington, DC (2002)

Howard Pollack, “Copland, Aaron,” in Grove Music Online