Aaron Copland, Orchestral Variations

by Richard Wilson

Written for the concert American Variations: Perle at 100, performed on May 29, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born November 14, 1900, in Brooklyn
Died December 2, 1990, in North Tarrytown, NY
Composed as Piano Variations from January to October 1930; arranged for orchestra in 1957 on commission from the Louisville Symphony Orchestra
Premiered March 5, 1958, in Louisville, KY, by the Louisville Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Whitney
Performance Time: Approximately 12 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 2 piccolos, 1 oboe, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (cowbell, tenor drum, bass drum, glockenspiel, B-flat antique cymbal, snare drum, cymbals, bongos, conga, xylophone, cymbals, woodblock, chimes), 1 harp, 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, and 6 double basses

In conversation with Edward T. Cone, Aaron Copland reflected on his Piano Variations and works such as Organ Symphony and Symphonic Ode written about the same time: “I had also a—shall we say Hebraic—idea of the grandiose, of the dramatic, and the tragic….” That conception is surely enhanced by the orchestration the composer made in 1957 of his landmark piano work from 1930. A large ensemble, including thirteen percussion instruments in addition to timpani, gives voice to the stentorian opening, to be followed by contrasting sections that are hymn-like, pointillistic, fearsome, balletic, or majestic. The theme consists of four adjacent pitches upon which twenty connected variations and a coda are crafted. These notes are employed horizontally, vertically, widely-spaced over several octaves, crunched together within one octave, in many different tempos and styles of articulation. Rather than being “twelve-tone,” Piano Variations—and its reincarnation on the present program—might be considered a “four-tone” work. Schoenberg’s influence is palpable as Copland manipulates the notes of the motto. The resulting multum in parvo aspect has been a source of fascination to music theorists and fellow composers for more than eighty years. Even Pierre Boulez, distant from Copland in style and outlook, praised Piano Variations—though for its “violence” rather than its structure—and chose to conduct the orchestrated version during his time with the New York Philharmonic.

Copland’s approach to orchestration, honed during a long association with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony, consisted of first making a complete piano version, with as many details of pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and articulation as possible in place. Only then would he imagine the orchestral coloration. Thus this transformation of Piano Variations fit closely with his customary procedure. The secret of his scoring method was, he liked to say, “keeping the instruments out of each other’s way.”

Richard Wilson is ASO’s Composer in Residence and the Mary Conover Mellon Professor of Music at Vassar College.