The murderous Mr. Copland

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Thursday, January 11, 2018

It has to rank among the top ten “notorious modern composer anecdotes” and it happened on today’s date in 1925.

The occasion was a concert by the New York Symphony at Aeolian Hall. On the program was the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra by the then still-young American composer Aaron Copland. The eminent (and elderly) German-born American composer and conductor Walter Damrosch had just finished conducting the new piece, and, turning to face the auditorium proclaimed, “Ladies and gentlemen, I am sure you will agree that if a gifted young man can write a symphony like this at twenty-three, within five years he will be ready to commit murder.”

That got a laugh, naturally, but backstage Damrosch apologized to Copland for the glib remark. But Copland had taken no offense.

“It was a joke, of course,” said Copland, “and I laughed along with the rest of the audience. It was just Damrosch’s way of smoothing the ruffled feathers of his conservative Sunday afternoon ladies faced with modern American music.”

Whatever Damrosch’s intention might have been, his comment made headlines and alerted opinion-makers to the originality of the young composer who was just then breaking on to the scene. One literal-minded newspaper went so far as to run its review of the Copland premiere under the headline, “Young Composer to Commit Murder!”