Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations:
A Study in Character
In an interview with Leo Smit at Harvard University in 1977, the composer Aaron Copland stated that his Piano Variations “somehow filled a special niche in my production. I think it was one of the first works where I felt that ‘This is me’ - that somebody else taking the same theme, would have definitely written something different. That’s only natural, but in my mind, the piece had a certain ‘rightness’ about it.” What was it about this piece that was so expressive of the composer’s self? Could the answer be found in its forceful, dramatic nature, in its tight organization, in the way he drew the last possible nuance out of every phrase, in the way that he used four notes as the building blocks for a complex work?
Copland saw that an answer to this question depended on his handling of a musical “idea.” In the same interview, when asked about his piano literature, he replied:
How you go about writing pieces like [the piano pieces] would be a legitimate question for anybody to ask. My answer is: you go about it by getting musical ideas that seem pregnant with possibilities for development....but an idea that seems to have within itself...the possibility for development, for being combined with other ideas that seem nuggets of expressivity - those you hold onto for dear life...
In Piano Variations, Copland found his ‘nugget of expressivity’ in a four-note motive, out of which he was able to draw a whole repertoire of possibilities.
Having won the RCA Victor Symphonic Award of $5000 for his Dance Symphony earlier in 1930, Copland had the financial security to concentrate on composing Piano Variations in Bedford, New York. He dedicated them to his friend, writer Gerald Sykes. On January 4, 1931, he premiered the piece at the Art Centre in New York. Despite people’s stomping out, and the unfavorable reviews that followed, others saw the work in a more positive light. Copland considered Paul Rosenfeld’s favorable reviews “very brave.” That year he gave several other public performances, including one at the First Yaddo Festival. In 1932, the renowned choreographer Martha Graham, drawn to the “wonderful, strange vitality” of the Variations, produced the ballet Dithyrambic, a “difficult solo dance, lasting about thirteen minutes.” Leonard Bernstein, who met the composer in 1937, was introduced to Copland’s work through their mutual friend Arthur Berger, who played the Piano Variations for him. It was a work that Bernstein was to love for the rest of his life, hauling it out whenever anyone wanted him to play. Joked Bernstein, “I could empty the room, guaranteed, in two minutes by playing this wonderful piece by Aaron Copland.”
The Variations, eleven minutes in length, and consisting of the theme statement, twenty variations and a coda, is a darkly-coloured, dramatic work using continuous variation form. Some debate has ensued on whether it can be considered atonal. Copland himself referred to it as displaying “twelve-tonism,” but his interpretation of that term is more liberal than the association it has currently with tonal serialism. A strong feeling of tonality pervades the piece, with a tonal centre most consistently around C#. An even more striking feature is that the variations are like characters in a play, each one delineated by prescriptive tempo and expressive markings, and each one unique through the use of extreme contrast in dynamics, texture, tempo, rhythmic value of the notes, and range (see Appendix A).
Like a prologue in a play, the theme introduces the raw material that Copland will develop in the variations. Its beginning is a serious matter, opening grave and deliberamente, at mm. ± = 48. Each note is to be struck sharply, as indicated in the expressive markings, as if to say, “Listen, we have something important to share with you”. The four-note motive, E C D# and C#, contains the basic building blocks for the whole work. Throughout the piece, the semitone, appearing frequently as a minor ninth, and its complement, the major seventh, are privileged, providing some pungent harmonies. But the motive affords other possibilities, as within it are also contained a major second and a minor and major third, raw material for harmonic forms.
Ex. 1: Aaron Copland, Piano Variations, mm. 1-11, Theme.
As can be seen above, the theme is structured from five short phrases, which for ease of reference have been labeled Sections I, II, III, IV and V. Separated by rests, together they present an arch-like structure. A simple statement of the motive in a low register, accompanied by a silently depressed C# (see Ex. 1), opens the theme. A chord consisting of three notes from the motive, C, E, and C#, along with an added A, punctuates the end of the phrase. After a fermata rest, this phrase is repeated with a slight alteration of an added E5, thus introducing the idea that shifts in register will play a significant role. The next phrase, made up of only three notes, stresses F#, which acts as a high point. It is particularly this section that is expanded in future variations. The C section plays octaves, and continues the registral movement, wide open intervals, and the introduction of G#, and B, as if the notes C#, D#, E, G#, B and B# are an amalgamation of V and i of C# minor. The theme statements ends with a kind of codetta, taking three of the notes of the motive, E D# and C#, which also connects the theme to the first variation. This five-part structural formula represents the architectural basis for many of the later variations, although a few use binary form.
The theme introduces a number of other elements that will be developed later: texture, in the accented playing of each note and the use of overtones in the silently depressed C# in mm. 2 and 5; intervallic leaps in m. 8; metric variations in mm. 6 and 7; and extreme dynamic contrast through the sforzandos in mm. 6, and 7, a piano in m. 9, followed by an explosive sforzando in m. 10. The rhythmic shape of the opening statement of the motive, a short note-value followed by a longer and then two shorter ones, foreshadows the development of this rhythmic relationship.
The overall structure of the Variations shows a mastery of organization. Not only does Copland link each variation with the previous one in some way, but each variation also draws on the four-note motive for its raw material. In addition, many variations use thematic elements from previous variations. Consistent throughout is the way he uses the motive as the raw material for his musical ideas. The result is a tightly woven fabric of music that is nevertheless rich in texture and variety.
Piano Variations was not composed in the consecutive order of its finished state. States Copland:
I am told that this is at odds with what I have written about the piece - that each variation is meant to develop organically from the previous one and all contribute to a carefully constructed whole. While this is so, it is also true that I worked on the variations individually, not knowing exactly where or how they would eventually fit together. I cannot explain this contradiction. One fine day when the time was right, the order of the variations fell into place.
Listening to the Variations confirms this statement. The whole piece falls into roughly two halves, each having its own climax and denouement, and separated from each other by the calm, sonorous eleventh variation. Each half subdivides into several smaller sections, each of which develops a particular aspect of the theme, and the entire work artfully unites into an organic whole through the reworkings of the four-note motive.
The following table gives an overview of this structure:
Table 1: Overall structure, Aaron Copland, Piano Variations.
The first group, made up of the first three variations, begins gently and slightly faster than the opening. The molto expressivo, the soft dynamics, and the decrescendos reveal the quiet nature of V. 1. It is an almost direct quote of the theme, except that it explores a wider expanse of the keyboard by first venturing down to the extreme bottom with a C#1 in m. 12, and then decorating the right hand with D5 and E5 in mm. 16-17. The F# introduced in the second statement of the theme gains greater prominence and helps extend section II from its brief original statement. Thus Copland continues the idea of elongation by the introduction of new tones and by shifts in register.
V. 2, which begins marcato, places Section I of the theme two octaves up in the first part of its binary construction. In m. 21, a decoration consisting of the four notes of the motive compressed harmonically a minor ninth apart highlights the melody (see Ex. 2). This wide interval pares open the aural space, and offers up pungent tidbits of sound. Instead of the four notes of the theme’s third section, Copland has inserted a seven-measure passage built on a thickened chordal texture, based on the motive and added black notes, which carry this variation to its conclusion. Structurally, then, this variation differs from the two surrounding it in having a two-part organization.
Ex. 2: Aaron Copland, Paino Variations, Variation 2, mm. 1-2.
V. 3, in simple, naive style, moves up the keyboard even farther, and states the motive in its original order in the right hand. The same notes are used in the left hand but in major seventh relationship to the right hand. In m. 32, B@ is added in both hands four octaves apart, and in mm.33-34, 36, and 39-40, delicate echoes in the extreme high register, doubled in the bass, punctuate the end of each of the phrases. A skipping motif consisting of a dotted eighth- sixteenth note, introduced in m.34, adds to the lighthearted mood. Throughout these three variations, the gradually increasing tempo and dynamic level drive the musical line forward.
V. 4 and 5 seem like twins that are hard to tell apart at first listen. Both variations are built on the three notes of the codetta, but in altered form. Both use a binary construction. Instead of a quarter-note E, as in m. 10, the opening note has been transformed into a thirty-second chord, a rhythmic diminution of the skipping figure of the previous variation. The chord is based on three notes from the motive.
Closer attention, however, reveals some interesting differences. V. 4 has a quieter character, beginning each phrase mezzo forte, and then subduing to piano. It begins with two voices built in thirds: the bass, constructed from a harmonic presentation of the motive, settles into an ostinato pattern, maintained throughout the whole variation; the upper voice recalls melodically the final phrase of the theme. In the somewhat louder, more extroverted second section, a third voice recalling the expanded second section of V. 2 is added on top of the texture.
The twin V. 5 announces itself more brazenly with a sforzando thirty-second note chord; but instead of the notes C D# E, this chord is made up of C, F# and G, the last two being pitches that were introduced in the theme as outsiders to the motive. Copland continues the idea of an ostinato pattern in the bass, the rhythmic diminution of the opening note, and the layering of the notes of the motive to form new chords. But here Copland opens up the chords to a major ninth interval in the ostinato pattern. The right hand overlays the notes F# and G on the pattern established in the previous variation, suggesting a transposition of the motive into D# E F# and G. In m. 49 all the notes of the two tonalities are present (See Ex. 3). This transposition adds a piquant tonal dimension to the variation techniques. Also, new notes are added on top of the texture as well as in the middle, giving prominence to G and A. The decorative B D figure in high register marks the end of the second section. A sixteenth note upward-sweeping pattern leads to an A C# E chord that ends the variation.
Ex. 3. Aaron Copland, Piano Variations, Variation 5, mm.1-2.
Although carefully prepared in the previous variation through the changing pitch level of the motive, the bold V. 6 is sharply different in character. It begins the third grouping with a loud clangorous melody that speaks sempre marcato in short phrases appearing in pairs, using the motive now transposed to E@ E F#G. The first of these paired phrases states its message in harsh quarter notes, but the E@ accents in high register add sparkle to the texture. The sixteenth note rhythmic motive, first presented at the end of the last variation, mutters a reply.
V. 7 continues using the transposed motive, but presents it in quarter note octaves which leap boldly across the keyboard in short five-octave utterances. This time each of the phrase endings is marked with a powerful sforzando chord. The movement is arch-like, in that in the first part of the variation the phrases stride upwards, then reach a kind of apex in the middle on an octave D, and then leap down again. The final phrase marches in tripled octaves down the whole length of the keyboard from the highest G to the lowest E. It ends in a strangely melodic sforzando E major chord.
V. 8 continues the use of quarter notes, but this time the motion is much more subdued. It seems to be at war with itself, the increased tempo in contradiction to the blurred texture and the lighter mezzo forte dynamics. The theme appears in a new guise: G A@ B@ B, but, in keeping with the more introverted nature of the variation, it sounds in a lower register, and is covered by chordal movement built on the E major chord borrowed from V. 7. At m. 85, the dropping of the pedal action, the subito piano and unexpected sforzandos mark a change in the character, foreshadowing the next variation.
V. 9, seemingly warmhearted and open, presents the motive cantabile in the original tonality in right-hand octaves. But underneath, in strident contrast, louder and offset rhythmically, the motive asserts itself as E F G G#. The effect is a binary separation or vertical construction. Then, although Copland has denied any reference to the earlier work, the left hand states G F A@ F#, in imitation of the BACH motive in Bach’s Art of the Fugue. The bass then alternates between these two ideas until the variation ambles into the next one.
Like its predecessor, V. 10 displays binary qualities, but this time in a more typical A B structure. The first part, played marcato at double forte in the first half, marks the climax of this grouping through its transparent octave melody, accented with marcato dotted half four-note chords in the bass. It reaches the apex of the first ten variations in m. 103 with the minor ninth interval consisting of a D@ octave in the left hand and an E octave in the right hand. The second part of this variation recalls the codetta idea of the theme, using the rhythmic formation of V. 4 and 5. Each of the three short phrases, which begin sforzando and gradually diminish in sound, bring the turmoil of the first half of the piece to a pianissimo end.
V. 11 presents a striking contrast to the variations that bracket it. Its mood is slow and serene, created through the restful chord in the left hand, which underlies the clearly stated motive in a new tonal configuration: D E@ F and F#. Between these two voices a third voice undulates at the beginning, chromatically exploring the minor third span between A and F#. Then it reaches tentatively downward to F, disappears into the left hand, and begins again in m 119. This time, however, it states the inverted theme, transposed into its farthest position from the opening tonality as G@ B@ G and A (See Ex. 4). Thus the motive, in the variation that acts as the break between the two almost symmetrical halves of the piece, is buried in the middle voice, in tritone relationship with the original.
Ex. 4: Aaron Copland, Piano Variations, Variation 11, mm. 5-12.
The second half of the Variations cannot be so easily subdivided as the first. Its movement is more consistent and continuous, from the lighthearted V. 12 to the intense V. 19.
Subito allegro, V. 12 dances playfully in the upper terrain of the keyboard. A grace-note figure using the pitches of V.11's motive embellishes the scherzando sixteenth notes. Again the texture is transparent with the use of octaves in the right hand, and the wide open space between the intervals. This time, the light texture of the right hand is offset with a full dotted half-note in the bass, which completes the four-note motive, in the transposition of V. 11, that is, G@ B@ G and A . The structure and presentation of this variation is as close to the original statement of the theme as we have been since V. 1.
But just as the atmosphere seemed to lighten, V. 13, muttering its threats in even more spare phrases than V. 12, eliminates all vertical presentation of the motive. Instead it keeps the short notes of V. 12 as well as its transposition, and combines it with the ornamental figure of V. 6 transformed into a swirling melody. Each of the four phrases is punctuated by an ominous E@ at the bottom of the keyboard.
This swooping melody is reconfigured into the ornament that leads to the statement of the motive in its original tones and quarter-note time value in the fiery V. 14. But V. 14 adds an innovation that gives it a unique alternation between the statement of the motive in highly accented quarter notes in middle register, preceded by the ornamental figure borrowed from V.13, and marcato and meno forte eighth-notes stating the motive in lower register. Each phrase crashes to an end with the lowest C on the keyboard. The rapid con brio tempo and breathless alternation between the two ways of stating the theme set the pulse racing. The variation takes a breath at the powerfully accented quarter-note F#6, E@5, and C1 at its end, and then plunges on into the next variation.
Keeping the same pattern of oscillating between two musical ideas, V. 15 appropriates the eighth-note iteration of the theme as its first idea, this time in heavy staccato articulation. This is offset by a swirling pattern, reminiscent of the ornament of V. 14, but purified to a repeating E C pattern, underlain with a trichord. As in the previous variation, these two patterns alternate rapidly. The swirling triplet motif brings the variation to a forte close.
In non legato style, V. 16 continues the same fast-paced alternation between musical ideas, but in short, nervous two-bar phrases that begin mezzo forte and end sforzando. It is as if the more integrated variations are disintegrating, for pieces of previous variations are pasted together in random order. Triplets, quarter notes, dotted quarter notes, melodic motive statements, octaves and chords follow each other in rapid succession. The one constant is that the pitches of the original theme are present, though randomly.
V. 17 has a sharp, precise character, and maintains the same tempo sempre fortissimo, but clear organization resembling the structure of the theme begins to assert itself. The first two phrases state the motive notes, first in harsh minor ninth eighth notes, and then in a swirling sixteenth-note pattern that recalls the ornamental pattern of V. 12 and 13. The third phrase consists of two patterns from the previous variation, triplet groups in the bass, and chords in the treble. The final phrase repeats the style of the first phrases, creating a lopsided arch. Jaunty jazz rhythms and the sharp attack make this variation dash along into the lighter V. 18.
With its subito pianissimo and scherzando, V. 18 offers a striking contrast to the previous variation. Its breathless pace and light eighth-note texture recalls the playfulness of V. 12. It differs from that variation in that legato phrases are balanced by wide-open staccato motive notes (see Ex. 6). Throughout this variation, the mood gradually quietens and the pace slows down, as if gathering its resources for the final onslaught of sound.
Ex. 5: Aaron Copland, Piano Variations, Variation 18, mm. 1-2.
V. 19, a brief interlude before the dramatic ending, begins with a greatly slowed down, piano statement of the motive in thickly chordal half notes. Then it launches into a subito allegro presentation of the motive in eighth-note chords. Syncopated rhythms consisting of various configurations of the motive drive the variation forward, as the dynamics increase with each phrase to fortissimo.
V. 20 is like the finale of a drama. It recalls, in style as well as note configuration, many of the preceding variations. Highly complex, it has a rounded binary form, as indicated by the expressive markings. The first section, marked “well articulated,” uses several rhythmic motifs, which alternate, as in V.14-16. Recalling V. 12 and 13, the first rhythm is lightly articulated with short, spare sixteenth- and thirty-second note values. The second is a partial diminution of the rhythm of V. 4. The uneven rhythm hearkens back to the jazzy patterns of V. 17. The short middle section sets off at a brisk pace, marked brillante, allegro vivo, and triple forte. The ostinato pattern in the bass, built on F G A@, a transposed version of the main motive, adds excitement. The final section, poco accellerando ancora, increases the tempo to a pulse-racing mm. 208 to the quarter note. It consists of the spare rhythmic figure of the first section of this variation, and continues in it for 18 measures. In a sputtering gesture, comes to a hesitating end.
But as if to say this is no way to end a dramatic piece like this, the coda begins at first tentatively, subito lento moderato, with a pattern borrowed from V. 4, then broadens out into longer chords, and, like V. 3, 5 and 6, adds echoes in top and bottom registers. Everything is built on the notes of the motive. In a grand final statement of the motive, the piu largamente ancora brakes the tempo even further to the speed of the opening. It takes a final bow on a double sforzando conflated V- i chord ( G# B#, and C#E G#), sustained with a C#, which rings from the bottom of the keyboard (see Ex. 6).
Ex. 6: Aaron Copland, Piano Variations, Coda, final measure.
It is hard to imagine that four notes could present a composer with such possibilities.
Using the motive presented in the first three bars as raw material, he has transformed these four notes harmonically, melodically, transpositionally, and rhythmically into new material. He has used it as an ornament, as the basis for a pedal point chord in the bass, and as a means of transition between variations. By combining it with other musical tools, registral shifts, dynamic contrast, layering of the texture, tempo changes, and by endowing it with character, Copland has created a masterpiece full of rich musical ideas. These ideas were developed in later compositions for the keyboard, Piano Sonata (1941) and Piano Fantasy (1955-57). The movement entitled ‘Dogmatic’ in Statements (1935) quotes extensively from the Variations. In 1957 he completed an orchestral transcription of the work.
Clearly, he held onto that germ of an idea, the seed for Piano Variations, “for dear life.”
Berger, Arthur. Aaron Copland. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1953.
Butterworth, Neil. The Music of Aaron Copland. Toccata Press, 1985.
Copland, Aaron. Piano Variations. New York: Boosey and Hawkes, 1932.
Copland, Aaron. Piano Variations. David Lively, pianist. Etcetera Records B.V., 1988.
Copland, Aaron, and Vivian Perlis. Copland: 1900 through 1942. New York: St. Martin’s/ Marek, 1984.
Peter Dickinson, Editor. Copland Connotations: Studies and Interviews. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2002.
Dobrin, Arnold. Aaron Copland: His Life and Times. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1962.
Kostelanetz, Richard, ed. Aaron Copland: A Reader. Selected Writings 1923 - 1972. New York: Routledge, 2004.
http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/p/pollack‑copland.html. Accessed November 4, 2005.
Richard Kostelanetz, Aaron Copland: A Reader. Selected Writings 1923 - 1972 (New York: Routledge, 2004), 352. About Rosenfeld’s review, Copland said, “V didn’t get good criticisms from the press in general; it seemed from the standpoint of idiom and expressive character very odd and strange, and hard as nails.”
Arnold Dobrin, Aaron Copland: His Life and Times (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1962), 116.
Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis, Copland: 1900 through 1942 (New York: St. Martin’s/ Marek, 1984), 337.
Kostelanetz, 266. Copland described “twelve-tonism” as “nothing more than an angle of vision” that should be seen as a method, not a style. “As a method it seems nowadays to be pointing in two opposite directions: toward the extreme of ‘total organization’ with its concomitant electronic applications, and toward a gradual absorption into what has become a very freely interpreted tonalism.” It seems to be the latter branch of twelve-tonism that Copland pursues in Piano Variations.
Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis, Copland: 1900 through 1942 (New York: St. Martin’s/ Marek, 1984), 174.