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ClassicsOnline Home » COPLAND: Works for Violin and Piano (Complete)
By Robert Moon
Aaron Copland (1900-1990) Music for Violin and Piano
Simply put, Aaron Copland is one of the most important composers of the twentieth century. He codified a concert music sound that was distinctly "American," and single-handedly created a generous path for composers in his native land, bringing to "the new world" what was mostly, up until that point, an imported and exclusively European art form. He lived a long and productive life, one that spanned almost the entire century, and worked not only as a composer, but as a conductor, pianist, teacher, author, concert promoter and generous friend to music.
His parents immigrated from Poland and Lithuania to New York City in their adolescence; Aaron was their fifth child, born in 1900. He was gifted at the piano, studying with Victor Wittgenstein and Clarence Adler. He took lessons in harmony and counterpoint with Goldmark, an old-fashioned teacher who was dedicated to Beethoven and Fux, and against whom Copland rebelled, as children do, becoming enamoured of Scriabin, Debussy and Ives (whom Goldmark called "dangerous"). Eventually, when he was twenty, the young composer-to-be set sail for Paris and the tutelage of Nadia Boulanger.
Under Boulanger Copland began to write his first full-fledged pieces, as well as keeping an involved notebook of musical ideas, an example of his legendary parsimonious nature, always thrifty with everything, especially notes. Using the new knowledge his teacher had imparted to him about Stravinsky, he also cultivated an interest in Jazz, mostly as seen through the eyes of the French, though he did have some knowledge of it from his time in New York. When he returned to America, it was with the score to a ballet called Grohg, along with sketches that would become the Symphonic Ode and Music for the Theatre in his satchel. He had begun to find his voice.
Coplands legendary compositional output changed it all; Americans no longer had to seek Teutonic refuge, trying to be Brahms. Works like the Third Symphony, with its Fanfare for the Common Man, Rodeo, Billy the Kid, Appalachian Spring, the Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson and El Salon Mexico showed American composers that it was possible to create a sound that was both nationalistic and musically sophisticated. He taught generations to draw influence from what was around, whether that happened to be Gershwin, Debussy, jazz, folk-tunes or hoedowns.
Yet Copland was more than a creator of wistful American nostalgia; he was a deeply sophisticated musician, aware of aesthetic trends of his time. Some of his works, like the early Piano Variations or the later Inscape, are truly modernist creations, not ignoring the influence of the Second Viennese School. His output was diverse, and even eclectic. He also wrote a great deal of chamber music, much of which is included here.
Copland seemed to have two separate sides, the populist and the aesthete. The Sonata for Violin and Piano seems to fall in between the two, being jaunty and full of good tunes, but also based on sophisticated harmonies and unorthodox musical schemes. The piece is dedicated to Lieutenant Harry H. Dunham, a close friend of Coplands who died in battle, and the date of its première (17th January 1944, with violinist Ruth Posselt and the composer at the piano) shows that war was probably very much on the pacifist Coplands mind. Cast in three movements with traditional titles (Andante, Lento and Allegretto giusto) this is truly a neo-classical work, but it is also pure Copland; as with everything, he took what he needed of the theoretical conceits, but ultimately composed to his instincts.
Two Pieces for violin and piano, which Copland wrote in the mid 1920s for himself and violinist Samuel Dushkin to play in a Boulanger-sponsored concert in Paris, is a chance to see Copland playing with new ideas, including a new fascination with jazz (this is also the period he was writing his heavily jazz-influenced Piano Concerto). Much of this music would be mined for later scores, but they do hold interest on their own. This is music that is bitonal (in more than one key at once), undoubtedly influenced by Darius Milhaud, whom Copland esteemed highly. In the Ukelele Serenade Copland is having a good time trying to make the fiddle sound like something it is not.
Coplands piano trio Vitebsk, one of his few "Jewish" works, is here arranged for violin and piano. It is a startling piece, full of wailing dissonances, even using microtones, notes which fall in between the cracks of piano keys, not of the "Western" well-tempered system. It is based on The Dybuk, a Jewish folk-tale, which also fascinated George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein, about spirits and doomed love in a small Hasidic community, and Copland hoped the music would, in his own words, "...reflect the harshness and drama of Jewish life in White Russia." It is, therefore, a lean, almost angry work, with many moods contained in its taut single movement.
Dipping even further into the well of Coplands juvenilia, Two Preludes for Violin and Piano are attempts to translate poetry into music, as Liszt had done in his tone poems. The poets in whom Copland found inspiration were Witter Bynner and Wallace Stevens, both contemporaneous and American. Here we see the seed of the Copland yet to come, the off-kilter rhythms, the stark harmonies, and the sparseness of texture. The titles offer their own explanations; these are musical moment pieces, composed to a single-focused and specific idea of mood.
Originally scored for flute and piano, Coplands Duo was re-scored by the composer in 1977 at the request of Robert Mann, the violinist for the Juilliard Quartet and Copland enthusiast. The "all-but" sonata was therefore transcribed into this version, which took a good deal less time than the composition - Copland worked for three years on the Duo, commissioned by William Kinkcaid. The famous flautist wanted something that would work "...like a sonata," and Copland certainly delivered the goods, offering a tightly formed work in three movements. The second movement in particular, the composition of which took most of the three years, evokes, in the composers own words "a certain mood that I connect with myself - a rather sad and wistful one, I suppose."
The ballet Rodeo was a divisive moment in Coplands career, a complete smash hit, and yet the piece that managed to alienate him from much of his community. Copland, they thought, had sold out. Copland even incorporates some memorable American folk-tunes. It is a cowboy romance, full of wranglers and cowgirls, and culminating in a hoedown. The choreography and scenario were by Agnes de Mille, who, on the strength of her work on Rodeo, was hired to choreograph a new musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein called Oklahoma!, and Copland composed dutifully to her vision, though he preferred his idea for a ballet about Ellis Island. The 1942 première at the Metropolitan Opera was an enormous success, with a standing ovation. The suite from the work is one of Coplands most recognizable achievements, with hundreds of performances and countless wonderful recordings.
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COPLAND: Works for Violin and Piano (Complete)