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."