Bernstein and Copland: A Lasting Friendship

Leonard and Bernstein and Aaron Copland

Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland

(Editor’s Note: Today we proudly present a guest blog from author Catherine Reef, examining the friendship between Leonard Bernstein–the subject of her new book, Leonard Bernstein and American Music–and Aaron Copland.)

On November 14, 1937, when he was a junior at Harvard, Leonard Bernstein attended a modern-dance concert in New York City. To his right sat “an odd-looking man in his thirties,” Bernstein noticed, with “a pair of glasses resting on his great hooked nose and a mouth filled with teeth flashing a wide grin.” During the intermission, when he and the stranger were introduced, “I almost fell out of the balcony,” Bernstein recalled. He had just met Aaron Copland.

Bernstein, at nineteen, was already a gifted pianist and a dynamic performer, but beyond the Harvard campus he was unknown. Copland, who happened to be celebrating his thirty-seventh birthday, was a respected American composer. Later that night, during a party at Copland’s Manhattan apartment, Bernstein sat down at the keyboard and tore into his host’s Piano Variations, a clanging, discordant piece he loved to play, and a friendship was born.

For me, one of the perks of writing biographies is spending time with my subjects and their friends. John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, George Gershwin and his brother Ira, Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King . . .  enduring friendships like these are among the closest bonds in life. With their dearest friends my subjects felt a freedom to be themselves that may have been impossible in their other relationships. The friends accepted each other as they were; each brought out the best in the other.

Because of the eighteen-year age difference, the friendship of Copland and Bernstein had qualities of a mentor / protégé connection, at least in the early years. A recommendation from Copland carried weight when Bernstein applied to study conducting at the Curtis School of Music, in Philadelphia. A word from Copland helped secure Bernstein a place in the conducting program at Tanglewood, thus beginning Bernstein’s lifelong affiliation with the summer music school in the Berkshires, first as a student and later as an instructor. Copland was in the audience when Bernstein received his diploma from Curtis, in 1941. And when Bernstein was feeling frustrated as a young conductor trying to get his start in New York, he turned to Copland for advice. His older, wiser friend counseled patience. “Don’t expect miracles and don’t get depressed if nothing happens for awhile,” Copland wrote. Success would require hard work and time.

Leonard Bernstein achieved success and found fame, of course, and he remained grateful for all Copland had done. In 1979, when Copland was a Kennedy Center honoree, Bernstein spoke to the distinguished audience about his friend’s commitment to finding and nurturing new talent. “He has always had time for everyone, especially the young, and that’s the mark of a great man,” Bernstein said. “I know, because I was one of them.” In a letter Copland thanked Bernstein for the “splendiferous” tribute.

This letter is one of many that have survived. The two men carried on a lively, affectionate correspondence throughout their years of friendship. Bernstein might have address Copland irreverently as “Dear Venerable Giggling Dean,” or simply as “Aa,” for Aaron. Copland called Bernstein “Lensk,” or just plain “Lenny.” The letters tended to be playful in tone, but they could also be heartfelt. “There can never be one closer to me than you are,” Bernstein admitted in 1942. Even with a bosom friend, it can be easier to open one’s heart on a page than in person.

Collaborators and friends

Collaborators and friends

Copland’s musical path was straight and clear. He was a composer, first and foremost.

In contrast, Bernstein’s exuberant talent drew him in diverging directions: performing, conducting, and composing. In composition, too, Copland generously offered guidance. He advised the young Bernstein to cut from his work any passages that revealed the influence of other composers. “You’ve got to get that out of your head and start fresh,” he might say about a particular musical phrase. He urged Bernstein to find his own voice, to sound like no other composer but himself. “I want to hear about your writing a song that has no Copland, no Hindemith, no Stravinsky, no Bloch, no Milhaud and no Bartok in it,” Copland instructed. “Then I’ll talk to you.”

When Bernstein did find his voice, he produced works for the concert hall and the musical theater. He wrote symphonies, ballets, song cycles, Broadway shows, and a Mass that married a classical form with popular styles, such as folk. If Bernstein was determined to write music, then Copland preferred to see him compose serious pieces and leave the show tunes to others. But privately Copland wished that Bernstein would focus on conducting and performing, which he considered the younger man’s strengths, and leave composition to others. He said, rather tellingly, when asked about Bernstein’s music in 1982, “One has the impression that it isn’t always entirely necessary.”

Bernstein adored Copland’s music, however, and he championed it at every opportunity. For example, early in his career he composed a piano arrangement of El Salón México, Copland’s musical impression of a Mexico City dance hall, and proudly performed it. In a project that began in 1958, the year he became musical director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and continued for more than a decade, he recorded Copland’s orchestral music for Columbia Records. In 1962, he commissioned Copland to write a piece for the opening of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, in New York City. The result was Connotations, for orchestra.

In 1989, Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic in a concert devoted to Copland’s music. The program was something of a retrospective, featuring, among other compositions, the early Music for the Theatre (1925) and Connotations. The concert closed with the orchestral version of El Salón México, and with the maestro’s jubilant, laughing leap from the podium. At least one person present, the critic Tim Page, understood that he was witnessing musical history. “Someday, and not too long from now, the idea of a Copland concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein will tantalize our grandchildren,” Page noted.

Aaron Copland was too frail and old to attend. Declining health also kept him away from Bernstein’s funeral, on October 16, 1990. A lifelong heavy smoker, Bernstein succumbed to his habit at seventy-two. Copland made it to the golden age of ninety, but he died just two months after his friend.

To learn more about life of Leonard Bernstein and his contributions to the music of the twentieth century, please check out Leonard Bernstein and American Music by Catherine Reef  (ISBN# 978-1-59935-125-4) from your local library or purchase it from Morgan Reynolds Publishing.

Lifelong friends

Lifelong friends

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Published in: on September 3, 2013 at 10:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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