Cinema and Media Studies Aaron Copland
Gina Bombola
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0364


Aaron Copland (b. 1900–d. 1990) was an American composer active for much of the twentieth century. Known as the “Dean of American Composers,” Copland cultivated an accessible, modern sound at a time when musical experimentation was in vogue. His hallmark style (often referred to as “imposed simplicity”) consisted of simple melodies, mostly diatonic harmonies, sparse textures, and an abundance of open fourths and fifths. Copland initially turned to film in the 1930s as a potentially lucrative means for disseminating his music more widely and for ensuring his financial stability during a time of economic depression. He would score two documentaries and six feature films in total. His work on The City (1939), a documentary, put Copland on Hollywood’s radar and helped secure him a contract with Lewis Milestone for Of Mice and Men (1939). John Steinbeck’s moving tale of friendship and cash-strapped cowboys proved the perfect vehicle for Copland. Coupled with his speeches and writings on the best practices—and potential—for advances in film scoring, Copland’s Americana-infused score would earn him a reputation in Hollywood as a “mover and shaker”—at least for certain types of movies. Deviating from the late-Romantic predilections of his contemporaries, Copland presented a fresh alternative from the industry norm. His next score for Our Town (1940) helped solidify the connection between the composer’s “imposed simplicity” and notions of “America.” Copland resumed writing chiefly for the concert hall in the 1940s, producing many acclaimed works like A Lincoln Portrait (1942), Rodeo (1942) Appalachian Spring (1944), and the Third Symphony (1944–1946). Yet Copland did not abandon the movies completely. He returned to Hollywood to score The North Star (1943), a World War II propaganda film. Toward the end of the decade, Copland took on two film projects back to back. The Red Pony (1949), based on another Steinbeck novel, saw Copland returning to previously explored themes of cowboys and the western frontier. But The Heiress (1949) offered Copland the opportunity to move in a new direction, into the realm of period psychodrama. The story of a jilted heiress seeking revenge on her ex-lover necessitated a different kind of score than the ones Copland had experimented with earlier, and he won an Oscar. Copland would score one more film years later in 1961, the psychological drama Something Wild. Although Copland channeled much of his energy into composing for the concert hall during his lifetime, his legacy as a path-breaking film composer remains firmly ensconced in film music history. Generations of composers inspired by the broader oeuvre of “the Dean of American Composers” have since provided moviegoers echoes of the dean’s storied past.

Selected Research Guides

Deemed an American treasure during his lifetime, Aaron Copland continues to fascinate today. His life and career have been well documented, providing rich insight into various facets of the composer’s oeuvre. Research guides and bibliographies dedicated solely to Copland’s life and works are in short supply, however. Moreover, they tend to be outdated. Copland 1960, for example, is quite limited in scope, although it offers insight into Copland’s celebrated position in American musical society through 1960. When used together, Skowronski 1985 and Robinson and Armstrong 2001 feature a more comprehensive compendium. Although these guides provide excellent starting points for Copland research, much has been written about Copland since 2001.

  • Copland, Aaron. Aaron Copland: A Complete Catalogue of His Works. London: Boosey & Hawkes, 1960.

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    A catalogue of Copland’s works through 1960. A brief biography preceding the works list positions Copland as a dynamic American composer, lecturer, author, and advocate for music students. The catalogue offers a chronological works list (including date of composition, instrumentation, length of then-available recordings, publisher, and premiere information), a classification list (works written for specific instruments or ensembles), and an alphabetical index.

  • Robinson, Marta, and Robin Armstrong. Aaron Copland: A Guide to Research. New York: Routledge, 2001.

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    Designed to “complement” Skowronski’s bio-bibliography by adding information about the Copland Collection in the Library of Congress and works published since 1983. It is organized according to “bibliographic importance”: (1) general information about the composer, (2) a chronology of Copland’s life and works, (3) primary sources, (4) secondary sources, (5) topical studies, (6) tributes and obituaries, (7) foreign language sources, and (8) bibliographies and discographies. Primary sources include Copland’s writings and interviews, while secondary sources comprise two sections. The first encompasses general studies on the composer’s life and milieu (e.g., biographies, articles in dictionaries and catalogues, web sites, and videos etc.), while the second focuses on writings about Copland’s compositions. This guide is useful, if in need of an extended edition to include sources post-2001.

  • Skowronski, JoAnn. Aaron Copland: A Bio-bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985.

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    Published prior to Copland’s death, this bio-bibliography includes a biography (through 1985), a chronological list of works and performances (including dates of composition, commissions, dedications, premieres, publishers), a discography (376 commercially produced recordings), bibliographies both by and about Copland (1,192 annotated references, including foreign language sources), and two appendixes of the composers’ compositions arranged both alphabetically and by classification. A point of potential interest is the works list, which includes musical fragments and other unpublished works.

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