Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

Nationality: American
Born: November 14, 1900, Brooklyn Died: December 2, 1990, North Tarrytown (age 90)

Piano Quartet

(for violin, viola, cello and piano)
6:24 I. Adagio serio
7:54 II. Allegro giusto
6:57 III. Non troppo lento
Duration: 20 minutes (approximately)
Composed: 1950 (age 49-50)
4 recordings, 10 videos
autoopen autoplay
6:17
Boston Symphony Chamber Players
I. Adagio serio
7:55
Boston Symphony Chamber Players
II. Allegro giusto
6:27
Boston Symphony Chamber Players
III. Non troppo lento
21:13
Nicholas Kitchen, Hsin-Yun Huang, Wilhelmina Smith, Michael Boriskin
6:17
Music From Copland House
I. Adagio serio
7:59
Music From Copland House
II. Allegro giusto
6:55
Music From Copland House
III. Non troppo lento
6:39
Festival-Institute at Round Top
I. Adagio serio
7:49
Festival-Institute at Round Top
II. Allegro giusto
7:30
Festival-Institute at Round Top
III. Non troppo lento
From Kai Christiansen

Aaron Copland, 1900-1990

Piano Quartet, 1950

A recent pair of Copland recordings captured the duality of his music with one titled "Copland, the Populist", the other, "Copland, the Modernist." Many of Copland's scores are quintessential American favorites while others lay somewhat fallow, unknown, a bit forbidding. Instead of "Appalachian Spring" or "Rodeo", one finds music that is seemingly relentless in its modernism, spare on melody or even a consistent rhythmic groove. But it is Copland nonetheless, and closer inspection reveals wonderfully crafted and expressed music that is approachable with patience, attention and, perhaps, simply more familiarity. Indeed, Copland the familiar and popular American composer is a trustworthy guide for exploring the avant-garde.

Like most of the great 20th century composers, Copland eventually chose the dominant modern technique of "serialism" as a method of composing. The Piano Quartet of 1950 is a crystal clear example of the approach, almost a perfect introduction to this curious "method of composing with 12 tones" originating with the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg. What makes this a marvelous work is the combination of this conscious technical choice and Copland's steadfast ability to make sounds "musical." More than a mere intellectual exercise, the patterns speak to the heart as well as the mind.

With an explicit intention of avoiding the common scale patterns of our familiar major and minor keys and the implied "clichés" of ingrained phrases and cadences, serialism selects a synthetic scale with all 12 possible tones arranged in a new, specific order. This creates a sort of "melody" or "theme" that is used throughout the music as a fundamental reference generating a whole new "vocabulary" of music. The first movement is essentially a slow fugue on this primary scale creating a piece of music that echoes the meticulous, moody meditations of late Beethoven and Bach. The music lies in the dramatic narrative of the fugue's sectional development. It is modern, yet surprisingly classical and even Baroque in sure kind of neoclassicism. What makes his serialism almost seem "tonal" is that his series begins with a descending whole tone scale evoking both the old church modes and Debussy at the same time.

The middle movement is a lively scherzo influenced by jazz rhythms, in Copland's words. Copland the "modernist" is at his spiky best here. It dances with a kinetic motion to a kind of "rag" or "ragged" time summoning the sharp pointillism of Stravinsky and Shostakovich as well as Copland's brilliant music for ballet. The descending whole-tone series plays a vivid dramatic role, checking the motion and recalling the germinal theme of the trio like a slow déjà vu of church bells.

The finale is a gift for the listener who has patiently remained attentive. Here Copland the atmospheric populist shines vividly with gentle, burnished homophony like a mythical American hymn. Just as Bach and Beethoven did by abbreviating themes with signature motives, the first three notes of Copland's series feature as a brief "head motive" recognizably singing "Three Blind Mice." Serialism, like all music, is a kind of child's play, invoking the elemental sincerely and satirically, if not hauntingly. Cleverly deployed, a modern method accommodates the popular. Copland concludes with an evaporating coda in a special moment of color and mood, circling back to the inward pace of the start and its elemental music, now, a coded catechism.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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