Copland: Piano Variations (with sheet music) 1930

Copland: Piano Variations (with sheet music) 1930

As already suggested, the Piano Variations constituted a turning point in Copland’s career. In Lipman’s words, they were short, dissonant, hard in sound, dry, and difficult. They shared certain features with Schoenbergian serialism, but where Schoenberg was passionately warm, Copland was passionately cold; where Schoenberg’s writing was willfully luxuriant, Copland’s was painfully lean.

Discussing the work as an example of variation form, Copland has pointed out that it reverses the usual procedure by putting the simplest version of the theme second, naming “theme” what is, properly speaking, a first variation.

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The idea was to present the listener with a more striking version of the theme first, which seemed more in keeping with the generally dramatic character of the composition as a whole.

In this “more striking version” the theme has five phrases, each punctuated by a sharp chord. It appears brutal and jagged, with abrupt leaps. In the next version—the actual theme—the leaps have been ironed out into a smooth line.

Characteristic intervals of major sevenths and minor ninths come more to the fore in Variation 2, with the theme dissonant harmonized against a permutation of its own pitches. In Variation 3, the register, heretofore predominantly in the piano’s throaty treble and deep bass, moves up toward the glassy top, and a dotted rhythm is introduced.

Variations 4 and 5 feature a strongly accented rhythmic motive, and move more slowly. But this tendency is contradicted in the sixth variation, a “clangorous” transformation that places the theme in the treble range with dissonant notes alternating above and below it, each phrase punctuated by a scurrying diminution in the bass. The hastening continues in Variations 8 and 9, piling up imitations and inversions to the exclamatory tenth variation, at the end of which the characteristic rhythm of Variation 4 returns.

Now there is a moment of repose, two-part counterpoint over soft chords in the bass, Lento. Variations 12-18 have a scherzando (playful) character, with jumpy rhythms and the theme’s notes scattered all over the keyboard. After a brief respite at the start of Variation 19, the forward momentum resumes, the final (twentieth) variation working up a frenzy of jerky rhythmic irregularity that rivals the “Danse Sacrale” of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

This eventually descends to the bottom of the keyboard and evaporates. In the first part of the Coda, that rhythm from Variation 4 returns once more,
and the peroration presents the theme in a stark but grandiose manner that recalls elements of the early variations. The Piano Variations were first performed on January 4, 1931, by the composer, at a League of Composers concert in New York. The tenor of the newspaper reviews may be gauged from this one, in the New York Herald Tribune:

Mr. Copland, always a composer of radical tendencies, has in these variations sardonically thumbed his nose at all of those esthetic attributes which have hitherto been considered essential to the creation of music.
But among musicians and such thoughtful critics as Paul Rosenfeld, the piece made a lasting impression—as indicated by its repetition in April 1932, at the First Festival of Contemporary American Music at Yaddo, and the following year at the International Society of Contemporary Music’s festival in Amsterdam. In 1932 Martha Graham based a 6 dance work,
Dithyrambic, on it.

The composer’s orchestral version was first performed in 1956 by the Louisville Orchestra, Robert Whitney conducting.

The decisive impact of his notable career—as distinct from the enormous impact of the music itself—on American music has been in terms of professionalism. By his example and by his teaching (although he has shunned any regular post at a university, Copland was for many years head of the composition faculty at the Berkshire Music Center, established by his great patron Koussevitzky), he has urged standards and a communal effort among composers to improve their lot.

Sheet Music download from our Library.

It is in this sense, particularly, that he seems the indispensable figure in those crucial decades for American art music: before him, American composers were judged against European standards; after him, they could, indeed, write any kind of music they wished. To be a successful composer in America is still not easy—but at least it is no longer impossible.

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