It's time to catch up on Copland

How well do we really know the works of America's keynote composer? This centenary year offers a chance for a re-evaluation

So who exactly was Aaron Copland? He was, of course, the Brooklyn-born youngest son of Russian-Jewish storekeeping immigrants, who aspired to create a classical all-American style and professional career-structure for himself and his fellow-composers and who, notwithstanding his left-wing leanings and homosexuality, succeeded so completely that in later years he was routinely hailed as the "Dean of American composers" or, as his protégé Leonard Bernstein put it, "the best we've got, you know".

And yet, and yet... surely there must have been more to it all: more professional scheming and in-fighting to account for his public rise; more vulnerability and angst over his race and sexuality than ever appear in the memoirs he compiled in later life? If Howard Pollack's new 690-page biography, Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man, reads at times less as an in-depth study than an efficient précis of an overwhelming mass of material, this is at least partly because Copland himself never seems to have thrown away the slightest scrap that might help to document his path as an exemplary American composer - evidence itself, it might be thought, of a less than prepossessing self-regard.

The trouble is that, delve as scholars may, Copland's undoubted greatness really does seem to have rested upon an exceptional decency and altruism. Straightforward in his ambitions, honest about his artistic strengths and limitations, frugal in his personal needs and determined on principle never to make unnecessary enemies, he simply acquired the training he knew he needed from three years hard study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger while courting such influential interpreters as Koussevitzky, and then, on returning home, placed these advantages at the service of his contemporaries: involving himself in concert-giving, publishing and copyright ventures, fostering younger talents and, in later years, conducting a gamut of American music besides his own.

Neither his public nor his private life was without its traumas. In 1953, when he was already regarded worldwide as a kind of ambassador for American music, his earlier left-wing affiliations got him hauled up before Senator McCarthy, though he defended himself and his associates with characteristic calm. Meanwhile, his intermittent life-partner, the photographer Victor Kraft, was beginning to show signs of mental instability that would sorely test, but never break, Copland's commitment in later years. But then, the integrity of personality so many came to rely on in Copland seems to have been founded upon a coming to terms with his sexuality unusually early for someone growing up in the puritan American 1910s.

But one is ultimately driven back to the music itself in order to plumb the hidden depths - though depths are precisely what some would deny in a music of such naked sound and structure as Copland's. Nor was his output of some 90 scores that vast, considering he was continually composing from around 1916 to the early 1970s, when the counterclaims of conducting, and then the onset of Alzheimer's cut off his creativity. Though he was capable of delivering a distinctive film score in a couple of weeks, he preferred to work slowly, taking breaks for reflection and getting things "right" as he went along rather than by revision.

Yet, almost 10 years since his death, his popularity continues to revolve around the merest fraction of what he wrote: essentially, the suites from his three folk-inspired ballets, Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1944), the grandiose Third Symphony (1946), incorporating his brazen Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), such character pieces as the lithe El salón México (1936) the serene Quiet City (1939), and the jazzy Clarinet Concerto (1948). Not only are all of these orchestral, but they all date from Copland's middle period when he sought to find a new freshness in "common" materials that in lesser hands would sound merely vulgar, sentimental or banal.

Yet it is precisely because the orchestra remained Copland's central concern, from the exciting rehearsal in January 1924 when, as he often recalled, "I first got a blast of my own orchestration", that such an early masterpiece as his Symphonic Ode (1929), with its Mahlerian rhetoric and exuberant dance riffs, or such late, abrasively serial yet still typical scores as Connotations (1962) or Inscape (1967), deserve to be programmed more often.

Again, of the three largest works he wrote for his own instrument, the piano, the tensely cumulative Piano Variations (1930) already disclosed a clangorous new keyboard idiom as personal in its way as the insinuating arabesques of Debussy or the percussive drive of Bartok; yet the equally fine Piano Sonata (1941) has been less often heard, despite its mesmeric final fade-out, and the grandly tragic Piano Fantasy (1957), a fully half-hour interplay of monumental processes ultimately yielding a stratospheric moment of transcendence, least of all.

Comparable pleas could be made for such rare chamber works as the wintry Piano Quartet (1950), with its steely linear textures and remote resonances, or the Nonet for Strings (1960), with its densely vibrant textures. And if Copland's vocal catalogue remained comparatively short, he still produced a classic of choral narration in In the Beginning (1947), and the loveliest of all American song-sequences in his 12 Poems of Emily Dickinson (1950), while his one attempt at a full-length opera, The Tender Land (1954), may be qualified by a humdrum libretto, but still contains some of his most heartfelt and poignant music. In short, this apparently limited composer managed to contribute something inimitably Coplandesque to all the standard genres.

With the centenary of his birth this coming November, we can expect at least some of these works to be taken up again, and his musical personality to come into fuller focus. There were limitations, of course. His melodic invention remained terse until his mid-career assimilation of folk idioms eased its flow, and with his background more Franco-Russian than Austro-German, he also seemed more at home in dance and variation techniques than in symphonic development. And certain characteristic forms tended to recur from first to last - the vernal pastoral, the extrovert dance-scherzo, the declamatory or hymn-like sublime - though continually varied by a harmonic practice that could range from the sweetly consonant to the plangently harsh.

And that harmonic practice ultimately depended upon the uniqueness of Copland's ear: his gift for spacing chords and colouring pitches that enabled him not only to convert the grossest note-clusters thrown up by serial technique into fascinatingly balanced sonorities, but also to hear the most traditional harmonies anew. Indeed it could be argued that, more than such clear-eared, spare-textured composers as Stravinsky, Shostakovich or even Britten, it was the way that Copland could set the very spaces, the very air between his notes vibrating with intimations of luminosity or distance, loneliness or joy, that comprised his most far-reaching contribution to Western music.

'Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man' by Howard Pollack, Faber (£30)