Program Notes

These pages contain program notes written for Redwood Symphony. You are free to use the information in your own program notes. If you quote me directly, please attribute it. Thanks!

These notes were edited, amended, and otherwise improved by Eric Kujawsky, Peter Stahl, and Doug Wyatt.

Barbara Heninger

Aaron Copland
Orchestral Variations

Aaron Copland wrote that he had four distinct styles as a composer: his early, jazzy phase (1925-1929), an avant-garde period (1930-1936), a populist phase (1936-1949), and a final dalliance with serialism. Audiences familiar with more lighthearted works from the composer's populist period may be surprised to know that after conducting Copland's jazz-influenced Symphony for Organ and Orchestra in 1925, Walter Damrosch declared to the audience 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!"

Five years later, Copland indeed had composed something that New York critics received in a manner akin to a murder -- a musical murder, at least. Copland's Piano Variations, variously described as "craggy" and "granitic," opened in January 1931 to a severe drubbing by the press. "Mr. Copland, always a composer of radical tendencies, has ... thumbed his nose at all those aesthetic attributes which have hitherto been considered essential to the creation of music," wrote Jerome Bohm in the New York Herald Tribune. Copland himself felt the piece was inspired:

" From the start, my first major piano piece, the Piano Variations, had a "rightness." The piece flowed naturally and never seemed to get "stuck"... [The piece] consists of twenty variations and a coda. It was not composed in the consecutive order of its finished state. ...[While] each variation is meant to develop organically from the previous one and all contribute to a carefully constructed whole ... it is also true that I worked on the variations individually, not knowing exactly where or how they would eventually fit together. I cannot explain this contradiction. One fine day when the time was right, the order of the variations fell into place."

Copland reduced sixty-two pages of sketches to a seventeen-page final score. But he could not find a soloist to perform at the premiere. One pianist refused, writing, "A work of such severity of style is not possible among the normal type of concert-goers." Copland was undeterred, and premiered the piece with himself as pianist.

" I was pleased to be playing the piece myself. The Variations filled a special niche as the first of my works where I felt very sure of myself... The work has been called dissonant, moody, nervous, bare, stark, lonely, concise and austere. But I was utterly convinced about it, and I was not going to be upset by early unfavorable reactions...

The Variations incorporates a four-note motive on which the entire piece is based. Almost every note and chord in the piece relates back to these four notes... I have no doubt that the construction of the piece shows [Schoenberg's] influence. We were all at that time influenced by both Stravinsky and Schoenberg ..."

In 1957, nearly thirty years after he wrote the Piano Variations, Copland rewrote the work in response to a commission from the Louisville Orchestra. "The idea of transcribing the Piano Variations for orchestra was a recurrent one... My purpose was not to recreate orchestra sounds reminiscent of the quality of the piano, but rather to re-think the sonorous possibilities of the composition itself in terms of orchestral color. I could not have done this when the Variations was new, but with the perspective of twenty-seven years, it was not difficult." Copland scored the new work for orchestra with a large percussion battery that includes snare and tenor drums, bass drum, bongos, conga drum, cymbals, tom-toms, tam-tam, wood block, glockenspiel, xylophone, tubular bells, antique cymbals, cowbell, and timpani.

The theme for both the original work and the Orchestral Variations is based on four notes: E, C, D-sharp, and C-sharp. Tight, astringent harmonies are formed from this close-knit cluster. Copland presents the theme and twenty variations in an unbroken chain, without interruption. In his book What to Listen for in Music (1939), Copland pointed out that the traditional roles of the introduction and the first variation are reversed in this piece: rather than being restated more forcefully in the variation, the theme is sounded out strongly from the beginning, in this case with ominous brass and heavy percussion, while the first variation supplies a more subdued version.

The first eleven variations are straightforward and continue the somber mood of the opening. This mood is broken in the center of the piece by a slow and quiet version of the motif sounded by the woodwinds. Quick, darting notes lead to an ever-expanding set of rhythmic changes in variations twelve through nineteen. The enlarged percussion section provides vigorous enhancement to both the rhythms and color, while typically spare yet evocative orchestral combinations demonstrate Copland's self-described gift for "keeping instruments out of each other's way." The piece builds through the energy of the last two variations into a tremendous, crashing coda -- a stormy ending blasted with the force of the entire orchestra, bringing to an end what Dr. Kujawsky calls "possibly Copland's greatest work."

February, 2002