The musical history of New York City is filled with the stories of Jewish immigrants. The enormous influx of Eastern European Jews to New York through Ellis Island is one of the defining cultural migrations of the city. While the traditional music of Eastern Europe was important to those immigrants, it was their children that blazed new, uniquely American paths.
Aaron Copland was born in the currently trendy Brooklyn neighborhood of Prospect Heights. His parents were Lithuanian Jews who immigrated from Russia and owned a neighborhood department store on Washington Avenue. Copland discovered an interest in music as a child and by 15 had determined to become a composer.
His work would trace the path of many of his Jewish contemporaries. Jewish-Americans felt the conflict of the old world values of their parents and the new music, politics, and culture of America. Many would find balance between those values in left-wing politics, writing, art, or music. Copland, like many of his working-class Jewish contemporaries did not view their music as something too enlightened for the masses, but rather as art that should be accessible to and uplift regular citizens. The values of American democracy and American character were important parts of Copland's work all through his career. In the 1930s, Copland worked closely with a New York theater community called the Group Theater. It was an early incubator of talent like Clifford Odets, Elia Kazan, and Irwin Shaw. The Group Theater matched Copland's ideas about glorifying and promoting the American experience. In 1939, Shawn wrote a play called Quiet City. The production was an experimental piece that dealt with two Jewish brothers, one who Americanized and became successful in business and another who remained true to his art and politics. The artistic brother's trumpet haunts the more business-minded brother throughout the play. Copland composed music to go with the play and Kazan was tapped to direct. But after only two preview performances, it was clear the show was a failed experiment and the curtain came down. But the themes of Jewish culture, art, politics, and life in America and in New York City clearly resonated with Copland and he converted the music into a short horn suite.
Quiet City is the most introspective of Copland's work. His more famous ballets and symphonies exude grand landscapes, bombastic parades, and traditional American songs. But Quiet City is a more personal work. The conflicts of immigrant identity and often lonely urban life is in shown the play with the businessman brother hallucinating his artistic brother's trumpet as he walks through Central Park. Copland's music captures that mystical loneliness that can creep into life in the city. Listen to the piece and you can see the mist shrouded park lamps, rain-soaked streets late at night, and the hollow rumble of an empty overnight subway. Interestingly, the original 1939 score to the play has recently been discovered and is now performed in addition to the reworking Copland premiered in 1940. You can hear both here at NPR. For a great performance by New York's most eminent trumpeter, check out this 1989 recording featuring a younger Wynton Marsalis.