Observer, Volume 16, Number 18, Thursday May 25 1995


When Aaron Copland visited Oberlin

by Ellen Sayles

Aaron Copland first came to Oberlin in February 1955 on the occasion of the fifth annual Contemporary Music Festival. The list of composers celebrated at these festivals reads like a Who's Who of 20th-century composers: Elliot Carter, Ernst Krenek, Arnold Schoenberg, Max Riegger, Roger Sessions, Igor Stravinsky, Ben Weber, Milton Babbit, Luciano Berio, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, as well as Copland (who might now be considered one of the most "conservative" composers among them in terms of style).

During his three-day visit in 1955 Copland presented an assembly talk in Finney Chapel titled "The Contemporary Composer." The festival also featured a concert of chamber music, a recital of music for solo instruments and voice, and a concluding orchestra concert in which Copland conducted his own works. The Oberlin Alumni Magazine (April 1955) said the event was "by common consent the most successful of the Festivals to date," attributing the success to Copland. Although the composer seemed "a little dismayed at first at the number of women players in the orchestra," he was pleased with the way the orchestra performed, the magazine reported.

Picture of Aaron CoplandAaron Copland
Photo Credit: Oberlin College Archives

In a feature story the Oberlin Review reported that Copland thought federal subsidies for the arts would be desirable--an idea President Eisenhower was apparently considering. These comments are interesting now as we face the possible elimination of the national endowments for the arts and humanities.

'Final premiere' here

Later that year the opera theater program performed Copland's opera, The Tender Land--one of the earliest productions of that work after its premiere, as the program noted, and perhaps the first performance of the work in its present form. Copland refers to this May 1955 performance in his autobiography. The New York City Opera had premiered the work in 1954 to mixed reviews, and Copland himself said that he "considered that we had a flop on our hands." (Copland and Vivian Perlis, Copland: Since 1943, p. 221.) Following the premiere, he revised the opera several times. "The final revised version was presented by the Oberlin College opera workshop (20, 21 May 1955) under my supervision," he wrote. It is not clear to me from this statement whether Copland actually attended or conducted the performances, and I have not found any specifics in the archives. The picture of the production in the centennial booklet shows only the student cast.

It is appropriate that Oberlin students, rather than professionals, gave the work its "final premiere." Copland writes, "I was trying to give young American singers material that they do not often get in the opera house; that is, material that would be natural for them to sing and perform. I deliberately tried to combine the traditional operatic set pieces . . . with a natural language that would not be too complex for young singers at opera workshops throughout the country."

I found three letters in the archives referring to the 1955 visit. David Robertson, director of the conservatory at that time, wrote to Copland 20 August 1954: "I do not wish to mislead you--it is a student orchestra, but a good one." Four days later Emil Danenberg, then chair of the Contemporary Music Festival (and later president of the college), said that the opera workshop would very much like to produce The Tender Land as part of the festival and asked for a piano score for perusal. The third letter is from Paul Steg, assistant to the director, dated 25 February 1955 (10 days after Copland's visit). "Under separate cover I am forwarding your baton to you," it says. "It was picked up after the concert by an ardent student admirer who wants you to know he returned it only after 'great inner conflict!'"

Honorary degree

Copland next came to Oberlin in 1958, when he was one of five honorary-degree recipients at commencement. The program indicates that then-assistant professor Walter Aschaffenberg presented him as a candidate for the Doctor of Music degree. His fellow honorary-degree recipients were Ruth Ingram, Dale McMillen, Harry Ashmore, and Paul Sears.

In the years between Copland's first visit to Oberlin in 1955 and perhaps his last visit in 1967, he wrote two major orchestral works--Connotations and Inscape--and several works for dance, and he began to develop a career as a conductor. In 1957 he completed his third major keyboard work, Piano Fantasy, for the 50th anniversary of the Juilliard School. In the early 1960s Copland's compositions turned--or returned--to serial (12-tone) music.

Copland visited Oberlin on another occasion between 1958 and 1967--an occasion not recorded in his autobiography. According to Professor Willard Warch, the Cleveland Orchestra, performing in Oberlin's artist recital series, was playing a work of Copland's, and George Szell brought the composer to Oberlin in the maestro's own limousine. A very forthright student insisted that Warch go with the student to talk with Copland after the concert. When Warch later reminded Copland of this, Copland seemed not to be aware where he had been during that trip. For all Copland knew, they had gone to Akron!

'So much publicity'

In 1966-67 the Conservatory of Music celebrated its centennary. Preparations began as early as 29 December 1964, when Dean Norman Lloyd wrote to director of public relations Walter Reeves suggesting some special events for the centennial year. "Rather than commission new works, it would seem more appropriate to call attention to the past hundred years in American music," Lloyd wrote (after a curious opening sentence: "I have hesitated to advance plans or ideas for the centennial since the Conservatory has received so much publicity--which we all appreciate"). Lloyd suggests forming a committee (that much has not changed at Oberlin!) consisting of professors Thomas Cramer, Richard Murphy, Emil Danenberg, Robert Fountain, and a few other conservatory faculty members.

Fountain became dean a short time later, and during the 1965-66 school year corresponded extensively with Copland. Fountain met Copland in Cleveland sometime during that year and invited him to the centennial celebration's concluding weekend. In November 1965 Fountain wrote to President Robert K. Carr, "The 'Patriarch' of American music, the renowned Aaron Copland, has consented to be the central figure of the Convocation. His words to us and the performance of his music will add immeasurably to the desired impact upon the campus community and the invited guests."

Another guest that weekend was Harold Schonberg, chief music critic of the New York Times. Anticipating the weekend, Copland wrote to Professor Robert Melcher, who was arranging the details of the visit, "It isn't often that the Composer gets a chance to stare at his Critic straight in the eye! However, don't get worried; I doubt whether there will be any fireworks."

The schedule for the centennial celebration included on-campus recitals, concerts, and master classes by soprano Judith Raskin; the Cleveland Orchestra with Robert Shaw conducting; the Moscow Chamber Orchestra; pianists Emil Gilels and Alfred Brendel; baritone Gerard Souzay; the Borodin Quartet; cellist Mstislav Rostropovich; violinist Itzhak Perlman; and the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam with Bernard Haitink conducting. Flutist Marcel Moyse, organist Arthur Poister, and violinist Ivan Galamian gave master classes, and the music education department sponsored a secondary-school music symposium. In an Oberlin concert series in New York City the Oberlin Orchestra and Oberlin College Choir performed along with several faculty members, including professors Richard Miller and Emil Danenberg. Professor Warch wrote a wonderful centennial commemorative booklet.

Copland himself described the centennial convocation (10 to 13 May 1967) in his autobiography: "I spent four days on the Oberlin campus for the celebration of the conservatory's one hundreth anniversary, conducting, attending recitals, listening to student composers, and speaking informally, in addition to delivering the convocation address. I enjoyed spending time with the students. By this time, I had talked about twentieth-century music so often, I could do it blindfolded! For the serious presentations, I did as other speakers do in similar situation--adapted notes and outlines from my files." (Copland and Perlis, p. 357.)

'Right for the first time'

Whatever his preparation method, press clippings indicate that Copland's visit was a success. The Plain Dealer, reviewing the final concert, said: "The evening was a triumph for all concerned, and not least for Copland, who received a demonstration of real warmth and affection from the capacity crowd. . . . The Oberlin Orchestra sounded as usual like a million dollars. Indeed it was rather a relief to note some inexact string playing in the . . . clarinet concerto for this reminded us that these musicians are actually students." The Lorain Journal quotes Copland saying, "I am delighted with the student orchestra here at Oberlin, it is a great pleasure to have written a piece 30 years ago and hear it played right for the first time."

Perhaps the most insightful article written about Copland's visit was in the Oberlin Review. Charles Roxin '68 wrote: "Copland is significant. It does not matter that we do not analyze his music in theory class. There will always be a conductor who will see the worth in his 'americana' and will perform it. And it again will reach out to the audience and say something new that we musical professionals have missed. This is new music. It has a feeling of freshness. Listen to it."

Assistant dean of the conservatory Ellen Sayles (whose mother sang in a Northwestern University performance of The Tender Land that Copland conducted in 1958) talked to Kendal at Oberlin residents about Copland 16 March. Were the Observer a multimedia publication, it would include the performance that followed the talk: Copland's Duo for Flute and Piano played by Sayles and Allison D'Amato, former conservatory student now studying piano at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

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