Copland’s Piano Concerto

The music of American composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is no stranger to the concert hall (Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, and Fanfare for the Common Man are all played quite frequently), but some of his pieces are rarely brought out into the open. A good portion of this somewhat unfamiliar repertoire belongs to the early part of Copland’s career. In the early 1920s, Copland studied in Paris with the renowned pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, who taught a stunning array of other twentieth-century musicians. Boulanger encouraged Copland to cultivate his unique musical voice, and Copland followed suit with a style that embraced elements of modernism – dissonant tone clusters and jagged rhythms – as well as elements inspired by popular music, such as jazz. (The Spotify playlist below features an album of some of his “modernist” works, all brilliantly played by the San Francisco Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas.)

Aaron Copland enjoying an ice cream cone at Interlochen in 1970. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

One product of Copland’s early style was his Piano Concerto, which was completed in 1926 and first performed in 1927, with Copland as the soloist. The first movement opens boldly, with a brass call-and-response before a soaring, cinematic melody is presented in the horns and strings. In a surprising turn, the piano is introduced by itself and softly, seemingly caught in an introspective moment. The music gradually builds in confidence – with help from the opening brass material – but is also full of conflict, becoming increasingly saturated with dissonant chords.

After fading to near silence, a jagged cadenza suddenly jerks us into the second movement. Here, the orchestra takes on the role of a dance hall band, accompanying the soloist in a brazen, toe-tapping dance. (Copland’s influence from jazz is on full display in this movement – the orchestra includes parts for alto and tenor saxophones.) Various musical episodes come and go, including a laid-back, bluesy section, before a second cadenza spurs a return of the grand opening gesture from the first movement. However, in the coda, the pianist insists upon returning to the jazzy dance, and the work comes to a breathtaking, crashing conclusion.

Sadly, the piece was not well-received at its premiere. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue had been written only two years prior, so perhaps some saw the jazz-inspired concerto as a lesser cousin to Gershwin’s. Copland’s piece was later championed by Leonard Bernstein, even appearing in an episode of his Young People’s Concerts in 1964 (see the performance below), but the piece still hasn’t earned a regular place in concert halls. Which is a shame, because it’s a whole lot of fun.

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