Personal Anecdotes About the Founders of the American Music Center Samuel Adler, Composer; Professor Emeritus, Eastman School of Music; Professor of Composition, The Juilliard School
Samuel Adler photo by Katherine Cumming Courtesy of Samuel Adler In a 1926 speech, Aaron Copland said of Howard Hanson: “Hanson and Sowerby’s sympathies and natural proclivities make them heirs of older men such as Hadley and Shepherd. Their facility in writing and their eclectic style produce a kind of palatable music that cannot be… Read more »
In a 1926 speech, Aaron Copland said of Howard Hanson:
“Hanson and Sowerby’s sympathies and natural proclivities make them heirs of older men such as Hadley and Shepherd. Their facility in writing and their eclectic style produce a kind of palatable music that cannot be expected to arouse the enthusiasm of the ‘elite’, but does serve to fill the role of ‘American music’ for broad masses of people.”
In the same context, he praised Hanson for his important American Music Festival in Rochester, but thought that it was quite insular in its outlook, promoting mostly the ‘safe’ or conservative composers rather than the more exciting avant-garde of the time. The latter remark was rather unfortunate and not really true to fact, since Hanson, especially in the early years of the Festival, did perform works by all kinds of composers whether he liked the music or not.
The remark and the general tone of the sentiment angered Hanson and he wrote a letter to the forum at which Copland had spoken and attacked these remarks by saying: “No matter what one does, one can never satisfy the “elite New York establishment.” This ‘dig’ was interpreted quite harshly, and might have even been perceived as an anti–Semitic slur. However one may interpret it, the relations between Copland and Hanson, never very warm, cooled considerably, and though they collaborated on several projects during the years, they remained friendly adversaries from that incident on.
In 1975 I was chair of the composition department at the Eastman School, and suggested to our then director Robert Freeman that we give an honorary degree to Aaron Copland on the occasion of his 75th birthday. He immediately agreed with that suggestion, and Copland accepted our invitation. The date was set, and I felt it would be important that Howard Hanson, for so many years the ‘spirit’ as well as the director of the School, invest Copland himself. This would certainly add great meaning to the event and also possibly ‘break the ice.’ I wrote a letter to Hanson asking him to officiate, and he immediately called me and enthusiastically accepted the task.
Three weeks later, I received a lengthy letter from Hanson with all kinds of documentation stating that he cannot make it on that particular date because he was being given an honorary doctorate on the same day. However in the letter he enclosed a sealed envelope which he asked me to present to Copland before the actual ceremony on that Sunday afternoon. In his note to me, Hanson said how truly sorry he was about this and that he hoped I would understand. I did understand of course and the honor bestowed on Hanson on the same date was an important one.
Well the actual day arrived, and in the robing room, I handed Hanson’s letter to Copland who opened it immediately. His face brightened, and yet there were tears in his eyes as he read the letter. He was so moved by the content, which by the way he never shared with me, that he asked that we delay the start of the convocation so that he could sit down and write a letter answering Hanson. Of course we delayed the ceremony a few minutes and Copland handed me a letter which I later transmitted to Hanson.
The ceremony was a beautiful affair, and the highlight was when Copland accepted the degree which read that he was the Dean of American composers. His speech began:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I may be the Dean of American composers in other places, but not here at Eastman, where my friend and colleague Howard Hanson has established this most important school which has served American music perhaps better than any other institution of its kind. I gladly take second place to him.”
From what I learned later, this convocation and the letter exchange smoothed the way to bring the two great composers together again for the few years that both were alive, and I was happy to have aided in helping to repair the breech.