AARON COPLAND by Howard Pollack


The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man
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A music historian’s (Univ. of Houston) biography of the man who, despite sectarian assaults from the academy, is still regarded as America’s greatest composer. Modern biographers appear to feel obliged to write works that weigh in at several pounds; but, length notwithstanding, Pollack’s book is remarkably taut and clear. Extensive musical analyses, though with minimal technical jargon, replace the meal inventories and party rosters that usually document life’s less dramatic stretches and, given the breadth and diversity of Copland’s (1900—90) work, prove both welcome and diverting. But more original is the narrative design. Rather than simply stringing together what he considers telling episodes, Pollack sounds a theme as it occurs chronologically—political affiliations, professional relationships, personal finances—and then offers a summary of its development and variation across a lifetime. The effect is of parallel expositions that create a superstructure only gradually filled in. New events enter into existing contexts, seeming to assume their prescribed places rather than accreting randomly. Pollack sketches character in the same way, presenting a series of sometimes conflicting accounts from friends and rivals, all meticulously footnoted, and then allowing the reader to judge new disclosures of fact accordingly. He appears to have no psychoanalytic theory about Copland—a leftist Brooklyn Jew who came to grips with his homosexuality in the 1920s—which is a welcome relief. Perhaps his even-handedness and circumspection derive from his subject, a paragon of self-control in an environment uniquely hospitable to self-indulgence. Still, such creditable objectivity, even in describing the aesthetic rigor that, combined with Copland’s compulsive honesty, could disgruntle colleagues, can—t help but stir affection for the man who did more than any other to build a uniquely American musical culture. Not only a success in its own right, but a valuable model of what biography can and probably should be.

Pub Date: March 9th, 1999
ISBN: 0-8050-4909-6
Page count: 632pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 1999


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