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Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations

August 9, 2013

Now that I’ve been eliminated from the Rocky Mountain Amateur Piano Competition, I have time to post about the repertoire I prepared. What follows are my classroom notes on Copland’s Piano Variations, which I played for the preliminary round. As lecture notes, they’re sometimes cryptic, and there are many fragmentary thoughts that will repay your attention if you check the score, honest. Feel free to borrow any of this, including the chart, though of course credit the author …

Copland: Piano Variations

The young Aaron Copland tried out various compositional styles as he worked to find his voice. There’s a jazz-influenced piano concerto (One early critic remarked that the problem was that it was such bad jazz); there’s “Vitebsk,” a piano trio based on Jewish folk themes.

And there’s the Piano Variations, the spikiest piece in the composer’s early output.

“In 1930 Copland produced a bracing wake-up call, a new American sound: the eleven-minute Piano Variations. Its angular rhythms and dissonant tonal shards vibrated with the intensity and nervous energy of Copland’s New York. Versus the warm American roots exhumed by Dvorak, and the familiar Germanic models he applied, it was skyscraper music of steel and concrete. No previous American had achieved such concise freshness of style. … The vacant silences and widely spaced chords of the Variations hint at an urban night music.”

–Joseph Horowitz

The Variations are a watershed in Copland’s career. Its nervously energetic, irregular rhythms and disjunct melodic writing became foundations of his later work.

But it’s what didn’t make it into Copland’s later work – at least, not until several decades later, and never with such blunt insistence – that’s most striking about the the Variations. It’s arguably Copland’s most astringent, dissonant composition, dominated by the strident clash of minor 9ths and major 7ths.

It’s also the composer’s most formalistic, didactic piece. If you can capture the initial four-note cell in your mind – E-C-D#-C# – you’re a long way towards understanding the Variations. You’ll hear this cell in the context of C# minor, C major/minor, A major/minor, and B-flat minor. You’ll hear the notes in the original order, rearranged, or played as chords. You’ll hear them transposed, sometimes in more than one transposition at once. The theme’s five short phrases have a classic shape: Exposition, extension, departure, half cadence, full cadence.

Copland uses repetition to achieve structural coherence. Part of Variation 4 is repeated at the end of Variation 10, marking the rough mid-point of the piece. The coda pulls together elements of several variations, along with the opening harmonics.

Copland matches this thematic and harmonic vision with dry, spiky piano textures purged of all hints of Romantic lushness. The result is powerful, concise, evocative, awesome – and, in its own way, even beautiful.


• Didactic: More than any other Copland piece, this is a purely sonic exploration of the musical material. The theme is presented like a thesis. Four notes, then a five-note version. Last three notes of five-note version used as cadential figure.

• Sound world: Dominated by dissonances of M7, m9. These dissonances are not at all “emancipated” in Schoenberg’s sense: They retain their pungency because they are so clearly calling for resolution. (For example, the end of the first variation, where Copland leaves the leading tone left stranded deep in the bass.)

• Octave dislocation: Theatrically, you must perform these as Copland notated, even though in some cases it would be much easier to re-divide the hands. (Var. 7.)

• Irregular rhythms.

• Tonal analogues:

  1. Though there is nothing like functional harmony in this piece, there are obvious contrasts of tension and relaxation, often centered around the theme’s the E-major phrase.
  2. Modulations, as in Variation 6.
  3. Tonal puns: The opening four-note cell is used both to imply c# minor and C major-minor
  4. Harmonic rhythm: Variation 1 has only the four initial notes for four bars, before the F#.

• Almost predictable, in its unpredictable way. You’ll be able to hear right and wrong notes well before the end. By Variation 16, Copland is even able to use his theme as a basic shape instead of an exact series of intervals (D-natural instead of D-flat).

• The form is fluid. Despite the variation structure, there are repeats and recapitulations. Variation 10 is reprised later in the piece and in the coda. The same arpeggio appears in Vars. 6, 16 and the coda. Var. 17: left-hand note.

• The expansion and contraction of the theme isn’t always proportional. In Var. 2, for instance, the first four bars of the theme are reflected in the first four bars of the variation. But the next two bars of the theme are expanded into four bars. Then the variation returns to the thematic proportions in the three closing bars.

• Introducing additional notes: The theme includes notes that appear only harmonically, such as the A in bar 3, the D in bar  6, the G in bar 10.

• Other variations that reappear in the coda: 3 and 5.

• Note the very funky but correct orthography two bars before Var. 3: C and E-flat in the left hand, D# and B# in the right.

• Serial procedures: None, really, that I can find.

• On the other hand, lots of Stravinsky influence: Ideas spliced together; shifting meters.


(Click on the thumbnail for full-sized image.) Copland’s sketches are online at the Library of Congress.

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