At Harvard University, Leonard Bernstein was the life of the party.
He was famous for being able to find a piano anywhere he went and monopolize it for the night, turning his fleet fingers to popular tunes, improvisations, and music that made his head spin — like Aaron Copland‘s Piano Variations, a piece (and a composer) that Bernstein revered.
So when the junior actually met Copland at a dance recital in New York City on November 14, 1937 (Aaron’s 37th birthday), he was starstruck. In Bernstein’s imagination, Copland was a great, towering figure of American music, most likely with a flowing white beard and a dignified, stolid bearing, not unlike a Brahms of the 20th century. But the real Copland was different: young, with a boyish grin, and overwhelmingly charming.
Hear Bernstein describe his first meeting with Copland [7:27]:
This was the beginning of a decades-long friendship that defined American music. Copland was father, mentor, and friend to Bernstein, and Bernstein championed Copland’s music long after the rest of the country had moved on. (It was also one of several important November 14ths in Bernstein’s life.)
The two musical icons kept up a correspondence that lasted the duration of their lives, and relied on one another for more than just advice; they also met in person most summers at Tanglewood, and Bernstein dedicated two of his televised Young People’s Concerts to Copland’s music.
Forty-three years later, Bernstein wrote Copland a poem describing their first meeting to commemorate his 80th birthday. He titled it “A.C. / (An Acrostical Sonnet, on his 80th Birthday)”.
(An Acrostical Sonnet, on his 80th Birthday)
Anna Sokolow, bless her golden soul,
At her dance debut, provided purest leaven,
Raising my lowly loaf to heights of heaven,
Overfilling my already brimming bowl–
November Fourteenth, in Nineteen-Thirty-Seven.
Copland, you were seated on my right–
Old Patriarch, as I’d dreamed you, beard and all.
Patriarch? Beard? No, quite another sight.
Lean, young, charming, Lincolnesquely tall,
At your birthday party, later, we Amen’d.
Now, decades later, you remain my Friend,
Daedalus, Master, Guide, til time shall end.
Let us thank God for our meeting, for He was so kind as to plan it,
But also thank Anna Sokolow, who actually began it.
~ Leonard Bernstein, November 1980
About this content
For his book on the private world of Leonard Bernstein, biographer John Gruen spent the 1967 summer vacationing in Italy with the Bernstein family, asking countless questions while becoming a part of their lives. The Bernstein Experience on Classical.org brings you, for the first time ever, the intimate recordings from these interviews. Enter the private world of Lenny…
Audio copyright: Estate of John Gruen. Excerpt from tape digitized by WGBH Educational Foundation. Used by permission, courtesy of Julia Gruen. All rights reserved.
Poems by Leonard Bernstein used by permission of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc. All rights reserved.
More Bernstein at 100
- Explore more poetry and letters by Bernstein
- Read Bernstein’s “Intimate Sketch” for Copland, 1970 (Library of Congress website)