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

Published in: on September 3, 2013 at 10:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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If Thomas Edison were alive, what would he think of all the patent lawsuits being filed today. Would the threat of litigation stop him from inventing? Thomas Edison had 1,093 U.S. patents to his name, when he died eighty-one years ago, on October 18, 1931. And, he had several hundred more foreign patents from Great Britain, France, Germany, and other countries. But obtaining a patent is not so easy today.

In a recent New York Times article, “The Patent, Used as a Sword,” authors Charles Duhigg and Steve Lohr write,  “in the smartphone industry alone . . . as much as $20 billion was spent on patent litigation and patent purchases in the last two years—an amount equal to eight Mars rover missions.”

Duhigg told NPR’s Fresh Air host Terry Gross that widespread lawsuits are stifling inventors and innovation.  “It almost goes without saying that when you are a startup,” said Duhigg, “one of the first things you do is you start setting aside money to defend yourself against patent lawsuits, because any successful company, even moderately successful, is going to get hit by a patent lawsuit from someone who is just trying to look for a payout. ”

Edison was the Steve Jobs of his day. Roberta Baxter, author of Morgan Reynolds Illuminated Progress: The Story of Thomas Edison, writes,

 “Edison’s success was supported by his curiosity about the world, his resilience when experiments failed, his optimism, and his hard work. His attitudes can be summed up by two of his most famous quotes: ‘There is no substitute for hard work;’ ‘Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.’ ”

 In the past twenty years, there has been a huge increase in the number of patent applications worldwide, resulting in a large and growing backlog in unprocessed applications. By one estimate, more than 4 million applications are waiting to be processed in patent offices around the globe. In the U.S. alone, there are hundreds of thousands of outstanding patent applications.

 According to Duhigg and Lohr, patents were originally meant to encourage innovation. However, they write,

  “. . . what’s happened, particularly in the last 15 years . . . is that rather than patents becoming something that encourages innovation, patents have become essentially a barrier, a toll gate on the road of innovation because patents have become so broad, so amorphous that if someone can get a patent on kind of a completely commonplace technology, what they can do is they can say to everyone else: Listen, if you want to invent this widget that you’ve invented on your own, that hundreds of people have invented at this point, I own the intellectual property on that widget. So I can stop you from using or selling that widget, or I can force you to pay me for it. ”

Fortunately for Edison, he lived and invented in a less litigious atmosphere than that of today’s inventors. Baxter writes, “Part of Edison’s legacy can be seen in the fact that at his death, the lights could only be turned off for one minute. People had become too dependent on them to go longer than that. Edison’s work prompted many to call him ‘Inventor of the World.’ His development of electrical components such as fuses, switches, and light bulbs put him in the forefront of the electrical industry. His favorite invention, the phonograph, was the beginning of the multibillion dollar music industry. . . . Decades after his death, his work still illuminates the path of progress.”

Sharon F. Doorasamy

Managing Editor

For more information about the “Inventor of the World,” check out Roberta Baxter’s Illuminated Progress: The Story of Thomas Edison (ISBN: 978-1-59935-085-1).

Published in: on October 17, 2012 at 11:18 am  Comments (1)  
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Cesar Chavez, who led a movement to improve the living and working conditions of thousands of migrant farmworkers in the United States, will have his California home, which he affectionately called La Paz, or “The Peace,” added to the National Register of Historic Places this week. President Obama will establish the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in Keene, California, during a campaign swing through the state. “Chavez gave a voice to poor and disenfranchised workers everywhere,” the president said in a statement.

Chavez died on April 23, 1993. Jeff C. Young, author of Cesar Chavez, in the Morgan Reynolds series American Workers, writes that a year after his death President Bill Clinton honored Chavez with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our country’s highest civilian honor. Clinton said of Chavez, “The farmworkers who labored in the fields and yearned for respect and self-sufficiency pinned their hopes on this remarkable man, who, with faith and discipline, with soft-spoken humility and amazing inner strength, led a very courageous life. And in so doing, brought dignity to the lives of so many others, and provided for us inspiration for the rest of our nation’s history.”

 Chavez organized nonviolent boycotts against California’s powerful grape growers in the 1960s and 1970s, leading to new legislation for farmworkers nationwide. “He showed people that, if you work hard and never give up, you can make a difference,” said Chavez’s son Paul, the founder of the Chavez Foundation. “Fight the tough fight,” he added, “because you believe you can make a difference.”

 This year also marks the 50th anniversary of Chavez’s founding of the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the UFW. His home served as as national headquarters of the UFW, and Chavez is buried there. His gravesite will be part of the monument. By establishing the site at La Paz, short for Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz, or Our Lady Queen of Peace, President Obama said, “Chavez’ legacy will be preserved and shared to inspire generations to come.”

The National Chavez Center in Keene, California

 Sharon F. Doorasamy

Managing Editor

 To read more about Chavez and his achivements, check out Cesar Chavez by Jeff C. Young in the Morgan Reynolds series American Workers (ISBN: 978-1-59935-036-3).

Published in: on October 8, 2012 at 10:41 am  Leave a Comment  
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