COPLAND: Piano Sonata / Piano Fantasy / Piano Variations
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Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
Piano Sonata Piano Fantasy
Other than for orchestra, solo piano music is themost extensive area in the output of Aaron Copland.
It also covers the largest timespan, from ScherzoHumoristique: The Cat and the Mouse of 1920,written towards the end of Copland's study withRubin Goldmark, to Proclamation, which, begunin 1973 and realised nine years later, was to remainhis last original composition. Although featuringnumerous occasional pieces and miniatures, threeworks occupy crucial positions in the context ofhis composing. Together they give a tellingoverview of the intensely serious side of a figurewhose more 'popular' music inevitably typifieshim to the wider public.
Having spent the latter 1920s pursuing a fusion ofjazz idioms with the neo-classical techniquesrefined during his period of study in Paris withNadia Boulanger, Copland changed tack at theend of the decade, adopting a formidably abstractand concentrated approach. Nowhere is thisbetter demonstrated than in the Piano Variations,composed during January-October 1930 and firstperformed by the composer, himself a fine pianist,at a League of Composers Concert in New York on4th January the following year. There the music'suncompromising austerity polarised the reactionsof critics and audience alike. Much of its rigour andconcision is determined by the theme, a five-notemotif first heard in the eleven-bar idea that opensthe work and which, as Copland pointed out, isactually the first variation. The twenty variationsfollow each other with minimal disruption, contrastsbetween them being absorbed into the musical flowas it follows an inevitable and intensifying trajectory.
Much is made of the differing emphasis on fourandfive-note figures, as also with the frequentchanges of time signature, while the massive chordswhich end the work ideally need the third, sustainingpedal if their impact is to be fully conveyed.
Copland's shift to a more populist and approachableidiom in the mid-1930s, in line with the moreinclusive social and cultural outlook adopted in theUnited States during that period, quickly led to hisbecoming the leading American composer of hisgeneration, typified by such pieces as the orchestralshowpiece El Salon Mexico (1936), the ballet Billythe Kid (1938) and the tone poem Quiet City (1939).
In 1939, however, he began a work which is verydifferent in its musical preoccupations, one whichtook him almost two years to complete, and whichstands appreciably apart from the music of thisperiod. First given by the composer in BuenosAires on 21st October 1941, and dedicated tothe playwright Clifford Odets, the Piano Sonatais among Copland's most inward and personalstatements.
The three movements of the sonata follow theslow-fast-slow format often favoured in the twentiethcentury. The Molto moderato first movementopens with two commanding 'motto' ideas - theinitial descending motif spawning a lyrical themewhich acts as the second subject in what isbasically a sonata-form design. The developmentsection adopts a livelier manner, before the musicregains its pensive initial mood. The Vivacesecond movement is a scherzo in which the jazzinfluences of Copland's earlier years are deployedin intricate and subtle ways. Its central trio stemsclosely from the opening bars and, for all its greaterinwardness, scarcely disrupts the prevailing motion.
The Andante sostenuto finale draws on ideas fromits predecessors in a sustained threnody of quietgrandeur, arriving at a coda which, audibly derivedfrom the opening of the first movement, crystalizesthe harmonic and rhythmic content of the work inan aura of transcendental calm.
The decade after the Piano Sonata saw theproduction of some of Copland's most successfulpieces, including the ballets Rodeo (1942) andAppalachian Spring (1944), the Clarinet Concerto(1948) and the two sets of Old American Songs(1952). The culmination of what might be termed hisAmerican idiom was the opera The Tender Land(1954). He then embarked on a series of works that,conflating serial technique with tonal procedure inimaginative and individual ways, confirmed hisawareness of the wider compositional picture.
Around this time, Copland planned a piano concertofor the young American virtuoso William Kapell,but the latter's death through a plane crash in 1953effectively put paid to the project. Existing sketchesinstead found their way into the Piano Fantasywhich, begun in 1955 and completed two yearslater, was dedicated to Kapell's memory.
At just over half-an-hour in duration, this is amongCopland's most ambitious works in any genre, andthe single-movement format places notabledemands on the performer's stamina as well as onthe listener's concentration. Serial procedures arefreely employed, such that the overall feel isdiscernibly, though far from 'classic-ally' tonal.
The opening features a ten-note scale (fourdescending and six ascending notes) that, alongwith the two omitted notes of the chromatic scalewhich act as a punctuating cadence, forms themotivic nucleus of the whole piece. The first partof what is effectively a three-part design continueswith a more lyrical section, then a fast toccata-likepassage which itself is rounded off by a tranquilpastorale. The second part is an extensive scherzo,of a rhythmic fluidity which recalls Copland'smusic of the early 1930s, and with a central triowhose playfulness disguises some exactinginterplay between the two hands. A varied recall ofthe scherzo music leads straight into the work'sdynamic and emotional apex, following which, thethird part returns to the material of the first in a farfrom literal reprise. A quiet coda then touches onaspects of the initial scale, before reaching a calmand fulfilled close.
All three works included here display an acuteawareness of classical precedent, together with anintellectual toughness which, though unlikely everto achieve widespread popularity, amply confirmsCopland's standing as among the most significantcreative figures of the twentieth century.Richard Whitehouse