US composer, pianist, conductor, and writer. He was tireless in the cause of contemporary music and in creating an environment in which that music could flourish.
Born in New York to a family of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Copland was first taught the piano by his sister. Later he studied harmony and counterpoint with Rubin Goldmark (1872–1936), a conservative teacher, who provoked in him a reaction that led to a consuming interest in avant-garde music. There followed a visit to Paris (1921) and three years' study with Nadia Boulanger, first at the newly founded School for Americans at Fontainebleau, then privately. Copland returned to New York in 1924 with a commission from Boulanger for her forthcoming American tour. This Symphony for Organ and Orchestra he later reworked without the organ as his first symphony (1928); Music for Theater (1925) stems from the same period and is an amalgam of the Stravinskian neoclassicism learnt from Boulanger and jazz elements; the culmination of this phase of large-scale works was the Symphonic Ode (1929). The Piano Variations (1930), the Short Symphony (1933), and Statements (1935) for orchestra are on a smaller scale with considerably sparser texture.
At this period Copland became aware of the necessity of educating an audience to listen to the new music and of writing music specifically for this audience. Incorporating folk songs and cowboy songs, Quaker hymns, and Latin-American rhythms, he developed the style of some of his best known works: these include El Salón México (1936), Danzón Cubano (1942) for two pianos, and the ballet scores Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944). His film music includes scores for Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1939) and Henry James's The Heiress (1948). At the same time he did not neglect the more abstract forms. His other works in this period include the piano sonata (1941), sonata for violin and piano (1943), and concerto for clarinet and string orchestra (1948, commissioned by Benny Goodman). An opera, The Tender Land (1954), was less successful, as were his works of the late 1950s and 1960s composed using the twelve-tone system. He composed relatively little in the 1970s and 1980s, devoting his time to conducting and teaching composition at Harvard. He published two volumes of autobiography, Aaron Copland: 1900 through 1942 (1984) and Copland since 1943 (1989).