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Norman Rockwell and Aaron Copland: Great American Artists Essay

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Illustrator Norman Rockwell along with composer and musician Aaron Copland were two well known American artists; each having an enormous impact on society with their art and music. Rockwell’s paintings and illustrations depicted the perfect and serene American way of life; a style for which scholars criticized him for. Copland was considered an outsider in many ways; he was the first American composer to give the United States and its people their own distinct musical language. Norman Rockwell and Aaron Copland each contributed a wonderfully unique and meaningful form of art and music, each are distinctly American in every sense of the word.

Norman Rockwell’s The Four Freedoms Norman Rockwell was one of the most well known American artists of the twentieth century. Rockwell’s style as an illustrator and painter was used purposely to portray a happy and carefree life that was full of American nostalgia; a clean and simple country lifestyle. As a young adult his goal was to land a cover on the Saturday Evening Post for which he eventually illustrated 321 covers in over 47 years.

As a proud American, Rockwell was a tremendous supporter of his country and the United States military.

When World War II arrived President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a speech to congress which defined the four essential freedoms for all Americans. Inspired by President Roosevelt’s words, Rockwell decided to illustrate the speech through four paintings called The Four Freedoms (Biography Today, 2010). Norman Rockwell’s works generally touched upon the simple country life without controversy, fear, anger or ugliness involved. However with the outbreak of World War II Rockwell felt compelled to do something for his country.

The Four Freedoms had both social and political effects on the war effort and brought Rockwell into a different realm from which people were used to. The Four Freedoms represented Freedom of Speech and expression throughout the world; Freedom from Fear in hoping for a reduction in armaments so that the world may live in peace; Freedom of Worship so that each person can worship their God in their own way; and Freedom from Want an economic understanding throughout the world that every nation will enjoy peace and security.

Freedom of Speech is a painting that is represented by a working class man standing up to speak publicly. While Freedom from Fear portrays a couple tucking their children into bed; the father is holding a newspaper with a headline speaking of the war. Freedom of Worship portrays many different people in individual prayer; and finally the most well known of the four, Freedom from Want is a painting of an elderly woman placing a roasted turkey before her happy family. Each painting eventually made its way into the Saturday Evening Post and was accompanied by an essay written by different authors.

Carlos Bulosan, a Filipino-American writer composed the essay for Freedom from Want and expressed so eloquently what he felt was the American ideal; “It is the dignity of the individual to live in a society of free men, where the spirit of understanding and belief exist; of understanding that all men are equal; that all men, whatever their color, race, religion or estate, should be given equal opportunity to serve themselves and each other according to their needs and abilities. ” (Janairo, 2011).

After the Saturday Evening Post published The Four Freedoms in their magazine the paintings began a tour around the United States in an effort to support the war eventually raising more than $133 million in war bonds and stamps. Stephanie Plunkett, the deputy director and chief curator of the Norman Rockwell Museum stated that Rockwell as an artist was known for giving more attention to life’s simple moments. However, with The Four Freedoms there was an opportunity for Rockwell to leave an enormous impact on Americans and their feelings for what was occurring in the world during that time.

Plunkett states that the images were of great inspiration to our nation at a time when it was needed. Today The Four Freedoms continue to resonate the importance of society and the world condition, carrying the same messages that Rockwell had intended when he painted them over 70 years ago (Janairo, 2010). Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring Aaron Copland was probably one of the best known and well respected American composers of the twentieth century.

While Copland studied composition overseas in France his desire was to make a unique American musical style; he accomplished this by incorporating traditional American music such as jazz and folk into his classical compositions. Copland set American classical music apart from all other styles and gave Americans a music to call our own. Due to his unique avant-garde style Copland was approached by American choreographer Martha Graham. Graham asked Copland to compose a ballet that would sum up the lives of people living through times of peace and struggle.

This resulted in Appalachian Spring, a 14 movement work depicting a Shaker wedding and the emotions and events associated with it (Scher, 2005). Copland worked under the title of Ballet for Martha which he used throughout his creative process. However, just days before the debut performance Graham decided to change the title to Appalachian Spring simply because she “just liked the name”. In fact, Graham was inspired by this phrase from poet Hart Crane; “O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge; Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends

And northward reaches in that violet wedge Of Adirondack! – wisped of azure wands…” Copland complied with the name, as well as with numerous plot revisions by Graham with no change to the music (Scher 2005). Following several performances audience members commented to Copland that they could imagine the Appalachians and feel spring, neither of which he had initially envisioned when composing the score (Kennard & Saffa, 2006). Aaron Copland’s social and political belief of the Shaker peoples was evident in the context of Appalachian Spring.

The Shakers as a group of people incorporated dance and music into their everyday lives, similar as to how the ballet portrays them. Appalachian Spring is an extended metaphor on peace and war. During the time that Copland was composing the piece there was much turbulence occurring within America and the world; World War II was reaching its climax, while America and Japan were on edge with one another. This is reflective as the ballet begins with an atmospheric almost ethereal sound, like little wisps of fog early in the morning.

Eventually it clears up and things give way to a wedding, which most of the ballet is compromised of. Following the wedding a demon-like creature made of fire and brimstone arrives to tell the just happily married couple that they will have to sacrifice something in order to remain happy together. When the creature departs, the couple reflects on their newfound knowledge and they live happily ever after; we are then reminded that with happiness and freedom there is a price one must pay (Kennard & Saffa, 2006). Copland and Graham were both modernists, determined to move their respective fields of art forward.

They first collaborated in 1931, when Graham did a solo dance to Copland’s controversial and extremely challenging Piano Variations (written in 1930) entitled Dithyrambic. Later, the two worked together on another dance project, entitled Lamentations. Appalachian Spring is the first ballet in which the two collaborated by featuring a full ensemble, there were multiple dancers and the music was easier to listen to. The original ensemble was to be made up of 12 musicians due to the fact that the ballet was short in length and the music and dance were both simply done.

However, Copland insisted on a group of 13 musicians; in later years the piece would eventually be arranged into a suite for full orchestra. The score consisted mainly of a sort of theme and variations on the old Shaker dance tune “Simple Gifts”, which arguably gives the piece its ultimate American feel. Copland scholar Howard Pollack stated that the piece Appalachian Spring made both Copland and Graham renowned artists (Scher, 2005). Norman Rockwell and Aaron Copland were both iconic American artists in their own rights. Each of these men brought a very specific “Americana” to their works touching upon the heart and soul of all Americans.

Rockwell expressed through his illustrations and paintings pure and simple American nostalgia. Copland on the other hand gave Americans a musical language that we could finally call our own. He possessed an ability that allowed for the listener to paint a picture of a great America in their mind when listening to his majestic compositions. Both Norman Rockwell and Aaron Copland were wonderful artists who have left a very specific and indelible mark on American culture and society; their artistic contributions will forever be woven into the fabric of the American dream.

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