Music for Everyone

View of 113 West 63rd Street from south west.  Courtesy NYC Municipal Archive.

Music for Everyone

by Claudie Benjamin

In the early 1960s, Leonard Bernstein, then Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, commissioned Aaron Copeland to compose the opening concert for the new home of the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. This was the first of the Lincoln Center buildings. Copland’s Connotations premiered on September 23, 1962. [1] Sixty years later, following a two-year $550 Million renovation, the hall reopened on October 8, 2022.  Philharmonic Hall was renamed Avery Fisher Hall in 1973 and since 2014, it’s been David Geffen Hall.

Born and raised with four siblings above their parents’ small department store in Brooklyn, [2] Aaron Copland was an Upper West Sider for much of his life. He traveled widely and would return to modest quarters on the Upper West Side. His best-known residence was a studio on the 10th floor of the Hotel Empire on 63rd Street where he lived from 1936-47. [3] These are considered among his most productive years. “A selection of compositions completed while in residence at the Hotel Empire include Billy the Kid (1938), Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), Lincoln Portrait (1942), Rodeo (1942), Appalachian Spring (1944), and Symphony No. 3 (1944-46).” [4]

What is less well known is that beginning in 1938 he also rented a loft at 113 West 63rd Street. Asked about having two apartments at the same time, Copland later wrote, “It was a novelty before the time when composers and artists sought out lofts to live and work in,” [5] So, Copland was “cool” ahead of his time.  Then, For the last 30 years of his life, he lived at Rock Hill in Cortlandt Manor. Now Landmarked, it serves as Copland intended, as a foundation forwarding the careers of musicians focused on American music. [6]

Born in 1900, Copland lived to be 90. His life experiences included many honors and tributes including a Pulitzer Prize, two Academy Awards, and a Grammy. He was harassed by the House on Unamerican Activities Committee and served as a role model for many gays who admired his open lifestyle which was unusual for the era.

He was harassed by the House on Unamerican Activities Committee and served as a role model for many gays who admired his open lifestyle which was unusual for the era.

Among the innumerable events of his long life, one never to be forgotten incident is related to his 113 West 63rd Street address. Columnist Bernard A. Drew recalled his first important assignment for The Berkshire Eagle was on Copland. “I was researching a few newspaper sources for this column, I came across a New York Times article about a loss Copland suffered in July 1941, just as he was preparing to leave Manhattan for an earlier trip to the Berkshires. He’d parked his convertible outside his studio at 113 West 63rd St. He was getting ready to drive to Lenox to teach composition at the Berkshire Music Center’s second session. It was 1:30 a.m. When he came back to the car an hour later, two valises were gone. One held clothing. The other contained musical themes and draft compositions. He reported the loss to police at the 20th Precinct. He alerted the sanitation department to watch for sheets of music floating in the streets. His friend Victor Kraft called on and questioned junk dealers. Missing manuscripts included the score for “Sorcery to Science,” performed at the World’s Fair, and Piano Sonata, commissioned by playwright Clifford Odets. Some of the scores were retrieved from a rubbish can on West 97th St. The thief was never identified.” [7] 113 West 63rd did not survive the wrecking ball that razed the neighborhood for Lincoln Center.

Fast forward, the theme of the 2022 launch was San Juan Hill, a tribute acknowledging a diverse neighborhood, overcrowded with residents from many parts of the United States and the world seeking better lives. When the neighborhood was demolished, thousands of residents were displaced. Accordingly, the pay-what-you-wish, multi-media event commissioned by the NY Philharmonic for the opening featured a composition entitled San Juan Hill by Trinidadian trumpet player and composer Etienne Charles. The much-criticized acoustics of the early hall were reported to be considerably improved by the New York Times. [8]

Copeland and Bernstein

Image Courtesy Library of Congress, ca 1940. 

Kraft, Victor. Aaron Copland with Leonard Bernstein. , . Photograph.

9Copland meticulously chronicled his life and work, and cataloged programs, scores, and letters. Much was also written about Copland, not only about his innovative and enduring music, but about his appearance his personality, and his commitment to helping scores of younger composers. [9]  Known for composing music described as quintessentially American, modern, and free, Copland intended his music to be relatable to the general public even though his compositions at Carnegie Hall and at Lincoln Center were performed for an elitist crowd. Copland acknowledged a different but powerful musical communication when composing for radio and television. Significantly, he recognized “the impact of that the new electronic media were fostering a new audience for music, one distinct from the traditional concert audience. In his words, “it made no sense to ignore them and to continue writing as if they did not exist. I felt that it was worth the effort to see if I couldn’t say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms.” [10]

In San Juan Hill: A New York Story, Etienne Charles who joined the NY Philharmonic orchestra playing his trumpet for the world premiere of his piece, is engaged in storytelling. Aiming to gain the trust of those he interviewed for background and to earn the trust in the sincerity of his message, seems particularly relevant in these divisive times. Along with titles that appear on a large electronic screen as “chapter” heads, the audience is urged to acknowledge the difficult history of prejudice, wealth, poverty, and strife as they listen to the music which encompasses Jazz among different styles.

Considering Copland’s immersion in New York’s world of music, one advantage of Copland’s base(s) on 63rd Street was the proximity of Carnegie Hall just a few blocks away. Copland’s music not only was performed for decades at Carnegie Hall, but once he started composing for dance, he frequently worked with Martha Graham and Agnes de Mille at the Studio Towers they maintained above Carnegie Hall. [11]

“It made no sense to ignore them and to continue writing as if they did not exist.”

As Copland’s fame and fortune grew, the core of his message remained egalitarian, a perspective that rings true today. “Commenting on his choice to aim musical works at an audience, Copland said that “music that is born complex is not inherently better or worse than music that is born simple.” And by respecting the “common man” he won the trust of audiences for classical music, and modern music in particular, both by his compositions and by his prose writings that aimed to explain music to the average listener.” [12] This idea resonates with the title of the San Juan Hill playbill:  My Geffen Hall.














Claudie Benjamin is journalist who writes for LANDMARK WEST!

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