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Conscience vs. McCarthy: the political Aaron Copland
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Composer Aaron Copland and Senator Joseph McCarthy. (MPR photo illustration/Preston Wright)
Aaron Copland has been synonymous with American music for more than 60 years. But during the McCarthy era, not even the composer of Lincoln Portrait and Fanfare for the Common Man—two WWII morale boosters—was immune from Sen. Joseph McCarthy's questions about political affiliations in the thirties and forties. Classical musical host Bill Morelock traces the activities of Aaron Copland the composer and Copland the citizen leading up to a cancelled performance and an offical grilling in 1953.

St. Paul, Minn. — "When he touches on his magic theme, the 'Commies' or 'communism,' his voice darkens like that of a minister. He is like a plebeian Faustus who has been given a magic wand by an invisible Mephisto—as long as the menace is there, the wand will work. The question is at what point his power grab will collide with the power drive of his own party."
Aaron Copland on Senator Joseph McCarthy, May, 1953

Copland's impressions came from a face-to-face encounter. He wrote them down the day after appearing before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations on May 25. McCarthy chaired the committee. The lawyer Roy Cohn was at his side. Copland, it turned out, was prescient. A year later McCarthy would wave his magic wand over the United States Army, and the menace would dissolve. The wand would be revealed as a lifeless stick, a theater prop.

This Tuesday's Open Air concerns Aaron Copland and his troubles with the junior senator from Wisconsin. We'll begin with a work that was scheduled to be performed in conjunction with Dwight Eisenhower's first inaugural in 1953 until Illinois Representative Fred Busbey said, "Wait one minute. Isn't the composer of that piece a Communist?" The piece was Lincoln Portrait, and the performance (with actor Walter Pidgeon narrating) was cancelled. In May of the same year Copland was summoned before McCarthy's committee. Copland's performance was, in some respects, breathtaking. He was considered a friendly, but not particularly cooperative witness. He named no names, and managed to evade every line of questioning about his own political leanings throughout the 30s and 40s. An excerpt from the hearing's transcript, quoted in Howard Pollack's biography Aaron Copland:

COHN: Do you feel Communists should be allowed to teach in our schools?

COPLAND: I haven't given the matter such thought as to come up with answer.

COHN: In other words, as of today you don't have any firm thought?

COPLAND: I would be inclined to allow the faculty of the University to decide that.

McCARTHY: Let's say you are on the faculty and are making a designation, would you feel Communists should be allowed to teach?

COPLAND: I couldn't give you a blanket decision on that without knowing the case.

McCARTHY: Let's say the teacher is a Communist, period. Would you feel that is sufficient to bar that teacher from a job as a teacher?

COPLAND: I certainly think it would be sufficient if he were using his Communist membership to angle his teaching to further the purposes of the Communist Party.
Copland had only a few days' notice to prepare for the hearing, and then had to wait for a follow-up summons. In the meantime he and his lawyer, Oscar Cox, prepared written testimony. "The committee should recognize," Copland wrote, "that during the period under examination, roughly 1936-51, persons prominent in artistic and intellectual fields were bombarded almost daily—with a continual flow of letters—mostly in mimeographed form and of greatest urgency concerning matters of great interest to intellectuals and artists—matters of personal liberty, the right to be non-conformist, thought control, racial, religious, and political oppression."

The second hearing involved, inter alia, Copland's recollections of the World Peace Conference held in New York in March 1949. Life magazine's coverage of the event was astonishing at the time for those who participated, but turned out to be a taste of greater troubles later. The headline read "Red Visitors Cause Rumpus." It featured photographs of 50 well-known participants, including "Aaron Copeland" (sic), Leonard Bernstein, Charles Chaplin, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, and F.O. Matthiessen, a Harvard professor who killed himself after the story's publication. The magazine conceded that they were not the most dangerous figures, but ranged from "hard-working fellow-travelers to soft-headed do-gooders who have persistently lent their names to organizations labeled by the U.S. Attorney General as subversive."

When asked at his second hearing on June 5, 1953, to name others who attended the World Peace Conference, Copland sidestepped, referring the committee to coverage by The New York Times and an official report by the U.S. Congress. He said, "I do not personally remember having seen anyone at the conference who is not listed by those published sources."

He was not required to testify again, but FBI probes continued for another two and a half years, uncovering an informant's testimony that Copland had been a member of the Communist Party. He came close to being charged with perjury and fraud. Like other McCarthy targets (most famously Paul Robeson, but also the less politically active Leonard Bernstein), Copland had trouble getting a passport. The ordeal was stressful, time-consuming, expensive, but in November 1955, the State Department said there was "insufficient evidence to warrant prosecution."

Copland's skillful parrying of McCarthy and Co.'s attempts to skewer him was all the more impressive because, by the standards of the Senate committee, he had a great deal to evade. He'd been particularly active up in Northern Minnesota in the summer of 1934, speaking in solidarity with the Communist farmers near Bemidji, and sharing a podium with the Minnesota Communist candidate for governor, S.K. Davis. In 1936, he supported Communist presidential candidate Earl Browder. Copland wrote of the farmers in Lavinia, Minnesota, "It's one thing to think revolution, or talk about it to one's friends, but to preach it in the streets—OUT LOUD—I'll probably never be the same. Now . . . there are friendly nods from sympathizers, and farmers come up and talk as one red to another. . . . What struck me particularly was that there was no "type-communist" among them, such as we see on 14 th St. They look like any other of the farmers around here, all of them individuals, clearly etched in my mind. And desperately poor."

Whether Copland was or was not a Communist is still hard to determine. He never joined any political party. His sympathies lay with the socialist ideals dramatized in the novels of Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair and Frank Norris. Copland's more militant involvement corresponded, as was common, with the rise of Nazism. In 1934 he entered a song-writing contest to set the words of a poem called "Into the Streets May First." (The poet was Alfred Hayes, lyricist of the song "Joe Hill.") Copland's setting won. He referred to it in a letter as "my communist song," then abandoned it, never including it in his official catalogue of works. In the early 50s he called it "the silliest thing I ever did." It was a point of pride, he said, to show that he "could write a better mass song than the next fellow."

During Open Air we'll listen to some of the music Copland wrote in the 30s (familiar and not so; unfortunately, "Into the Streets May First" is not available). The Piano Concerto from 1926 is relevant because in those days, in some minds, the use of jazz (and later folk traditions) in concert music automatically identified an artist as leftist or worse. The orchestral suite Statements (1935) is one of Copland's most overtly political compositions. During the Second World War Copland scored a movie called North Star, a very bad bit of propaganda in support of the Soviet Union struggling against the Nazis. It was deplored on both the right and the left, and in the late 50s it was re-edited and, bizarrely, turned into an equally bad anti-Soviet Cold War screed. Moving up into the McCarthy era, we'll conclude with "The Promise of Living" from Copland's opera The Tender Land, inspired by a 1930's story of American hardship on the land. It premiered about the time McCarthy's "magic wand" was losing its potency.

It's a fascinating story for several reasons: Aaron Copland was always miscast as the avuncular and benign Dean of American Music, the way he is generally portrayed today. And, his experience was typical of artists and intellectuals who were at all engaged politically in the 30s. At a time when one-third of the American work force was unemployed, people of conscience questioned a status quo that could tolerate such suffering. Many championed or supported organizations they would later disown, or be forced to disown. Finally, Copland was luckier than most whose lives and livelihoods were destroyed during the era. It's rather astounding how Copland's official reputation survived and thrived: his music graced the second inaugural of McCarthy colleague and cold warrior Richard Nixon; Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan gave him presidential awards and citations; and the House of Representatives, which called him "un-American" in 1953, gave him the Congressional Gold Medal, its highest civilian honor, in 1986.

You can hear Open Air Tuesday night at 8, on the Classical Music Stations of Minnesota Public Radio.

Source: Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man (University of Illinois Press, 2000), by Howard Pollack.