How Scotland Made Aaron Copland 1

Rehearsals for our December Concert begin next week making this a good time to delve into the background and origins of the music and composers who will feature in our autumn/winter programme. Aaron Copland, sometimes referred to as ‘the Dean of American Composers’ makes a good starting point.  Somewhat surprisingly,  ‘Copland’ was Scottish.  Well, in a manner of speaking.

Aaron-CoplandBorn in 1900, the youngest of five children of Lithuanian Jewish parents, Aaron Copland’s  works include ballet scores ‘Billy the Kid’, ‘Rodeo’ and Appalachian Spring’ as well as his ‘Old American Songs’, archetypal American music.

Copland, like all his siblings, was born in New York, where in 1885 his parents had married and established the department store, above which the family home was to be found.  Both his father Harris Morris Copland, and mother Sarah, had been born in Lithuania and emigrated to the USA.

Encouraged by their mother, Aaron’s eldest brother Ralph became an accomplished violinist and it was his sister Laurine who taught Aaron to play piano. By the age of 15, he had chosen his career as composer and took lessons in harmony, theory and composition in New York before travelling to Paris in 1921 to study with, among others, Nadia Boulanger.  On his return to New York in 1925 his compositions reflected the intellectual modernist style of the period and it was not until a decade or more later that Copland produced the more populist works mentioned earlier.  In 1939 he completed his first film scores for ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘Our Town’, and continued to compose a variety of work.  The American Song Book,  which will feature in the Strathaven Choral Society’s upcoming concert dates to 1952.

And what of Scotland, you might ask?  Harris Morris Copland did not travel directly from the Baltic to New York. In fact Harris Morris Copland  did not set out from Lithuania at all.  As a young man, Aaron Copland’s  father left Lithuania for Scotland where he lived for two to three years before travelling on to New York.

Born around 1860, sources suggest that Harris M lived in Scotland from around 1880 until 1883. On uncovering this nugget, I set about researching this Scottish Connection, confident of establishing his place of residence and perhaps a good deal more.  After all the estimated number of Jewish people living in Scotland in 1883 was around 300 and in 1881, there were only 225 Russians (Lithuanians would be included in this number) among the Scottish population.  I truly expected at this point to be directing readers to a plaque in Crown Street or Ballater Street, Gorbals, home to so many immigrants. Popping the name into a search of the 1881 census would reveal all.  However, the Harris Morris who left Lithuania was a Kaplan, not Copland, a fact which Aaron would learn only as an adult.  It was during his time in Scotland that Harris M changed his name to Copland. So, as has been said, Scotland made Copland. Interviewed in 1968 for the journal ‘Perspectives in New Music’ Aaron Copland did not seem to consider that his father may have wished  to conceal his origins:

‘In 1964 when I was conducting in Glasgow, I noticed that there were more Coplands in the telephone book spelt without an e than with an e.  One of the reasons, it seemed to me, was that an o in Scotland is pronounced like a u. They don’t say Scotland, they say  Scutland.  And they would say Cupland, not Copland. ….Now if you pronounce the name Kaplan in a Jewish or Russian way, you get almost exactly the same sound and I suspect the transliteration was made there in Scotland and that my father simply took the spelling that they gave him.

Undaunted, though aware that ‘Harris Morris’ might well be corruptions of Lithuanian names, a search of the census for Kaplan, or Copland H; male, ensued. No Kaplans and only a handful of Coplands resulted – none of which proved to be our Harris Morris.

My thoughts turned to the Scottish Jewish Archives but any possibility that these might shed light on the family were quashed on reading Peter Dickinson’s ‘Copland Connotations: Studies and Interviews’. Dickinson had also sought information on Copland’s Scottish links only to discover that the Archive holds no information on the family.

So, the dream that Aaron Copland was a Scottish composer remains just that.  The ballets ‘Campsie Fell Autumn’, ‘Robert the Bruce’ and ‘Highland Games’ never saw the light of day.  Maybe we should be grateful for that.

Sources (Click on Title for Link): WikipediaConversation with Aaron Copland; Copland Connotations: Studies and Interviews; The Jewish Community in Scotland;

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