On Feb. 28 at 2 p.m., American history, politics and the music of composer Aaron Copland will come together in “Copland and the Cold War.” The event will be held at the Mondavi Center’s Vanderhoef Studio Theater.
This unique melding of music and history aims to delve deeply into the effect that the Red Scare and communism had on Copland’s music and point of view in the 1950s. The event will combine performances of some of Copland’s compositions by pianists and UC Davis’ Empyrean Ensemble with spoken commentary, film clips and a reenactment of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s interrogation of Copland.
“Copland and the Cold War” is part of the American Piano series, conceived and directed by American music consultant, teacher and author Joseph Horowitz. The program has toured all over the country, with performances at Georgetown and the University of Maryland.
“Copland is a composer who passes through a series of political changes,” Horowitz said. “He holds up a mirror to a series of social and political transformations, including the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II and the Red Scare.”
Copland is widely recognized as one of the great American composers of the 20th century. Active from around 1920 to 1970, he composed popular and accessible classical music for a variety of mediums, including ballet, piano, orchestral pieces and film scores.
However, Copland’s nationalist style changed as a result of events in the American political landscape and his evolving point of view is reflected in his music.
“In the ’20s, he was a modernist, schooled in France,” Horowitz said. “In the thirties, like so many intellectuals in the United States, he was pushed left by the Depression and became a socially conscious respondent to the conditions of poverty and need. He writes this Communist workers’ song, which we’re going to perform.”
After composing patriotic pieces during World War II, including the famous Fanfare for the Common Man, Copland was targeted by Senator Joseph McCarthy and accused of communism.
“He was grilled by McCarthy and Roy Cohn,” Horowitz said. “Essentially, he lied under oath, denying he ever knew any communists.”
At Sunday’s performance, actors Barry Melton and Ari Kellman will reenact Copland’s testimony to Senator McCarthy. Into the Streets May First from 1934 will be performed by members of the Department of Music and Karen Rosenak on piano as an audience sing-along. Excerpts from the 1939 film The City, scored by Copland, will also be shown.
Copland’s works The Cat and Mouse from 1920, Piano Variations from 1930 and Piano Quartet from 1950 will be performed by pianist Karen Rosenak and other members of the Empyrean Ensemble – a group of seven musicians that concentrates on contemporary American music.
Empyrean Ensemble director Mika Pelos said that Copland fits into the ensemble’s aesthetic of new American composers.
“Copland is classic but modern at the same time,” he said.
In addition, UC Davis professor of history Kathy Olmsted will discuss why artists like Copland were attracted to communism and persecuted in the 1950s.
“When [I was asked] to participate, I was thrilled, because it sounds like a fascinating way to make the history of the era come alive,” said Olmsted, who specializes in the history of the McCarthy era, in an e-mail interview.
Music department chair Christopher Reynolds is facilitating the American Piano Series here at UC Davis. He believes Copland’s music is still easily accessible and relevant to today’s audiences.
“If you spend any time in movie theaters, you’re hearing composers who are imitating Aaron Copland. He is the American voice,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds said he is looking forward to hearing Copland’s music performed on Sunday by the program’s talented musicians, giving the audience a chance to experience the power of Copland’s work.
Horowitz and Olmsted hope that the event sheds light onto this little-known aspect of Copland’s life and work.
“Very few people are aware that he was fingered by McCarthy, and very few people are aware of how traumatic and embittering this experience was,” Horowitz said. “He wound up, more or less, abandoning his aspirations as a populist.”
ROBIN MIGDOL can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.