Orchestral Variantions (1957)

By Kyle Gann

Written for the concert Nadia Boulager: Teacher of the Century, performed on May 13, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

If Nadia Boulanger became famous for teaching American composers, one of her first remained her most famous: Aaron Copland (1900-1990). Copland, who sailed to France to study with her in 1921, said of her later, “Nadia Boulanger knew everything there was to know about music, pre-Bach and post-Stravinsky, and knew it cold.”

In hindsight, it could be said that there are two Aaron Coplands. One, of course, is the composer of Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, and Billy the Kid, the most popular composer in American history and for many the very symbol of an American classical symphonic music. The other is a modernist composer of thorny, somewhat atonal and dissonant works that span his entire career, from his shocking Piano Concerto of the 1920s to flirtations with European twelve-tone technique such as Connotations and Inscape. The second Copland is almost unknown to general audiences, as obscure as Roger Sessions, Stefan Wolpe, and many another craftsman better known within academia than to the public. The exception to this, however, may be Copland’s Piano Variations of 1930, which, despite their rigor and austerity, have nevertheless enjoyed a reputation as one of the first great works in the American piano repertoire.

This may be why, in 1957, after Copland had left his accessible Americana style behind and was working within a more challenging and European-influenced idiom, he returned to the Piano Variations he had written twenty-seven years earlier and orchestrated them as the Orchestra Variations of the present concert. In certain respects the decision was an odd one, for the Piano Variations were striking for their idiomatic pianism. The piece’s opening gesture relies on an effect almost unknown in previous piano music: a low C sharp is held silently, and other notes are struck sharply to make the C sharp ring via sympathetic vibrations. In the Orchestra Variations, that C sharp is held softly by a horn after a clangor of brass and percussion. And yet the orchestration possesses its own idiomatic pleasures, and no commentator on the Orchestra Variations has failed to note how well the new work achieves its own personality.

Formally, the orchestral work sticks closely to the original; only in a few places are extra contrapuntal lines added, and complex meters rebarred for easier ensemble performance. There are twenty variations, and although Copland later stated that they were meant to be cumulative in effect, he also admitted that he wrote them without knowing what order he would eventually place them in. Every one of them spins off from a four-note motive: E C E-flat C-sharp. After a flute and oboe duet in Variation XI, Variation XII begins the build to the closing climax, the final variation breaking into a kind of Stravinskian ragtime that is part of the Boulanger legacy.