My newspaper career began as a correspondent then a reporter for The Berkshire Courier weekly in Great Barrington.
Attending municipal meetings and taking notes on activities was interesting. I got to know elected officials and sometimes phoned for more information. But I didn’t like making cold phone calls. Or interviews. Shy from birth.
Nevertheless, I questioned magicians and stamp collectors, cartoonists and auto mechanics, naturists and naturalists, museum curators and mystery writers. But Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award-winning composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990)? What would I ask him?
Copland was in the Berkshires in July 1980 for his usual stint at Tanglewood. My publisher, Alan Copland, was a cousin of Aaron and arranged a lunch for the three of us at Wheatleigh in Stockbridge. I have no recollection of what we ate before we retired to a side room.
I was well aware of his “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Appalachian Spring.” But what could quiz him about that he hadn’t heard before? Do you eat Wheaties for breakfast? Ever driven a Lincoln Continental? Do your socks match? Written any hits lately?
He started talking — thank goodness — about his father, Harris Copland, who owned Copland’s Department Store on Washington Avenue in Brooklyn, N.Y. Copland and his wife, Sarah, Russian-born Jewish immigrants, raised their five children in quarters over the store.
How did you go from that Brooklyn background to wanting to compose serious music? I posed timidly.
“I can’t tell you why or how it happened,” he told me. “There was something about the sound of music that fascinated me. Our family was very large indeed and none of them went into the arts in any field.
“When I told my father I wanted to be a composer of concert music,” the maestro went on, “he said, ‘Where did you get such an idea?’ He was concerned whether I could make a living at it.”
Aaron learned piano from an older sister. He began formal study at the Juilliard School of Music, then sailed the Atlantic to France to study with Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979). Opportunity rapped on the door. He was commissioned to compose a piece for organ and orchestra for Mme. Boulanger. And he met Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951).
“Composers normally have a tough time becoming established,” Copland said. “I was enormously lucky to have met Koussevitzky in the 1920s. I don’t know what my career would have been like otherwise.”
How were the reviews when his first piece was performed in New York?
“Why, I was considered a wide-eyed modernist,” he replied. But his career choice was justified in his father’s eyes.
“Father said, ‘The New York Times pays these people for their opinions, they must know something.’”
Copland was in town for the 40th anniversary of the Berkshire Music Center, a school established by Koussevitzky at Tanglewood and of which Copland was faculty chairman for a quarter century.
“It’s a delight to see the whole thing bubbling with enthusiasm,” he said. “It was the result of Koussevitzky’s dream of ‘pass on to the young the experience of the old musicians.’
“Koussevitzky was a great guy,” Copland said of his mentor. “He was a frustrated composer, and he worked out his frustration by encouraging other composers. His foundation still does that.”
Knowing Copland would conduct five of his own works at the Shed that Saturday, I asked him if orchestras were intimidated by having a composer conduct as well.
“Musicians, on the contrary, like to have the composer also conduct,” he answered graciously (silly question!). “If they are confident he has enough experience. If you write it, you ought to know it.
“It’s a great pleasure for me. I listen for years to others conducting a piece, and I feel like getting up there just once and doing it myself. It might not be as good — but it gives me a profound satisfaction.”
In researching a few newspaper sources for this column, I came across a New York Times article about a loss Copland suffered in July 1941, just as he was preparing to leave Manhattan for an earlier trip to the Berkshires. He’d parked his convertible outside his studio at 113 West 63rd St. He was getting ready to drive to Lenox to teach composition at the Berkshire Music Center’s second session. It was 1:30 a.m. When he came back to the car an hour later, two valises were gone. One held clothing. The other contained musical themes and draft compositions. He reported the loss to police at the 20th Precinct. He alerted the sanitation department to watch for sheets of music floating in the streets. His friend Victor Kraft called on and questioned junk dealers. Missing manuscripts included the score for “Sorcery to Science,” performed at the World’s Fair, and Piano Sonata, commissioned by playwright Clifford Odets.
Some of the scores were retrieved from a rubbish can on West 97th St. The thief was never identified. The maestro reconstructed the piano sonata with the assistance of pianist John Kirkpatrick, who had heard a preview of the work fingered by the composer. It played it at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Chile in September 1941 and the official premiere was in October in Uruguay.
Anyway, I salvaged my bad interview for a passable story now buried in the bound volumes at Mason Library.