“On Hearing Aaron Copland’s Music” — an essay by Martha Patterson

May 5th, 2021

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The 1960 Living Stereo album of Aaron Copland conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra performing his compositions Appalachian Spring and The Tender Land

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On Hearing Aaron Copland’s Music

by Martha Patterson

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…..My mother’s ghost comes to me whenever I smoke one of my innumerable cigarettes, when I am re-reading one of her favorite books – like Jane Austen’s Emma – or even when I’m walking, careless and carefree, down the street.  And her ghost always arrives when I hear certain music.

…..I first heard Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, an orchestral suite originally released in 1944, and his The Tender Land, an opera recorded in the early 1950s, in the hospital, when my mother was dying.  She’d had a tumor on her optic nerve and didn’t recover from the surgery.  I’d been a patient myself in a hospital as a result of an anxiety disorder, and I remember while hearing the sweeping, grand notes of the compositions that I felt desolate and wondered what my life, and hers – my mother’s – had come to.

…..Later, after my mother died, I bought CDs of the recordings.  They never cease to remind me of her and of the grief I felt at the time, but they also remind me of a kind of faith and optimism in the continual renewal of life.  With a very American sound, the compositions carry me back to a time when I had seldom listened to classical music, but favored popular music instead – however, the magnificence of Copland’s music swept me off my feet, and filled me with feelings of love and grandeur, and calmed me during my distress.

…..One night after being discharged from the hospital, I went to a cafeteria for dinner.  A cute little guy with long, curly blonde hair who stood ahead of me in line at the counter smiled at me and I felt grateful for his attention – I’d been feeling abandoned by everyone in my life and was a bit lost.  He reminded me of Roger Daltrey, the singer for the rock band The Who.  I didn’t meet this guy, at least not to talk to, but his cheery grin comforted me and later I wondered if I should have engaged him in conversation, because I was lonely.

…..I spent a year doing needlepoint in my studio, supported by Disability income.  Out of touch with my family as I was, I remember this year as being rather peaceful and full of solitude – full of the kind of thoughts Thoreau must have had while writing Walden, a book I was reading at the time.  Living alone at the edge of a pond can’t have been that much different from the way I lived, without companions and reliant only upon my own thoughts, reflections, and memories.  I recall his essay on Economy – how Thoreau thought it was really better to “do without” and not invest in fancy living.

…..But I had the music of Copland to keep me company.  Today when I listen to the recordings, I still think of Mom – how probably she felt abandoned, too, in her near-comatose state.  The music has even now a big but quieting effect on me, and brings me a soothing joy.  My mother was constant in her love, dedicated to her family, and had keen artistic sensibilities.

…..Once I thought I heard my mother’s ghost say to me, “Dear, we are always here – me, your father, your family.”  Her voice was soft and I felt her hands embodied in my own, as I was lying on my bed, her gentle fingertips touching each other as I myself was clasping my fingers together in pensive stillness.  Her ghost is ever-present and benefits me in the sense of imparting confidence and a kind of constancy in my engagement with the past.

…..Copland died in 1990, when I was 34.  Known for his musical descriptiveness of American landscapes and the pioneer spirit, he remains one of my favorite of all composers, and I can’t forget my mother’s own adventurous and large spirit when I listen to his work.  My mother’s ghost has forever merged in my mind with his fluid, grand, and generous compositions.

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The author’s mother, Vicki Patterson, c. 1990

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Martha Patterson’s  collection of 27 short stories titled Small Acts of Magic will be published this year by Finishing Line Press.   Her work  has been published in more than 20 anthologies and journals  (The Sheepshead Review, Silver Birch Press, Applause Books, Smith & Kraus, Pioneer Drama Service, Syndrome Magazine, and others), and her plays have been produced in 21 states and eight countries.  She lives in Boston, Massachusetts,  and  loves being surrounded by her books, radio, and laptop. 

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Listen to Copland’s The Tender Land: Suite: Introduction and Love Music

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