Aaron Copland’s patriotic American music comes with a history of partisan discomfort


The Details

American Portrait, featuring works by Copland, Ives, Barber and Bernstein
November 17, 8 p.m.
Smith Center, $46-$94, 749-2000

It appears that campaign season ire has yet to die down what with all the talk of secessions and apocalyptic days ahead.

Amid all of this, the Las Vegas Philharmonic presents a very timely concert at the Smith Center, An American Portrait —geared toward Thanksgiving, but oddly sitting among the election leftovers.

Featuring the American music of Copland, Bernstein, Ives and Barber, it should seem simple and serve to unite. But pull back the curtain a little and you'll find a reminder that partisan hostility is well steeped in our history.

For example: Aaron Copland.

So adored is Copland’s music that the triumphant, majestic and proud (almost nationalistic) brass-heavy melodies pop up at political rallies, military tributes and occasionally in even more ironic places—most notably Rick Perry’s anti-gay ad that ran during the primaries and featured Copland-esque music (sounding much like “Appalachian Spring.”) The ad has Perry lamenting the right of gays to serve in the military while vowing to put an end to the attack on religion.

What makes it interesting is that Copland was openly gay, Jewish, and known for his leftist leanings. He was thoughtful toward our soldiers, but critical of government's military action.

At the time Copland wrote “Fanfare for the Common Man,” America had long to go before legalizing homosexuality—it was, after all, the 1940s, and gays weren’t exactly dinner table conversation.

But nevertheless, gays were here and one of them was about to unleash a composition that would come to stir the patriotism beating in American hearts.

The fanfare was written at the request of Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony, as a tribute to WWII soldiers, and was intentionally previewed shortly before tax time. As Copland recalled: “… It was the common man, after all, who was doing all the dirty work in the war and the army. He deserved a fanfare.”

The right has a history of discomfort with the composer, who was called to testify that he was not a communist the very year that his “A Lincoln Portrait” was removed from President Eisenhower’s 1953 inaugural concert. (Just when we think we’re living in an insane political climate, we can look back to McCarthyism and the tensions the country lived with then.)

It’s unlikely that anyone will boycott the Philharmonic performance, at least not in the way that rock fans from the left would avoid seeing Ted Nugent in concert. But many audiences give little thought to classical composers, their often dramatic lives and their sometimes political, nationalistic sentiments that have made their way into musical compositions. Instead, we just sit back and enjoy the seemingly bipartisan experience of going to the symphony.

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Kristen Peterson

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