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Length: c. 22 minutes

Orchestration: solo piano

About this Piece

The quintessential American composer, Aaron Copland worked with a wide range of techniques and styles in virtually every musical genre. He studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and benefitted from the championship of Serge Koussevitzky. Copland is best known for his trio of ballets on American folk motives – Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944) – but he also wrote symphonies and songs, operas and film scores (winning an Academy Award for his 1949 score for The Heiress), choral music, and chamber music.

He was also a talented pianist (he played the solo part in the West Coast premiere of his Piano Concerto at the Hollywood Bowl in 1928) and was precocious as a composer, starting around the age of 12. At 17, he began studying composition with Rubin Goldmark, and wrote a piano sonata for Goldmark as a sort of graduation piece in 1921.

Goldmark was on Copland’s mind again in 1939, when the playwright Clifford Odets commissioned a new piano sonata. “I always connect the Piano Sonata with my old teacher, Rubin Goldmark,” Copland wrote. “He thought of sonata form as music’s highest goal. It was what a composer aimed for, even more than the fugue. One thinks of the sonata as dramatic – a kind of play being acted out with plenty of time for self-expression. It seems to me that my Piano Sonata follows that idea. It is a serious piece that requires careful and repeated study. There is considerable dissonance in it, yet the work is predominantly consonant. Not as spare and bony as the Piano Variations, the themes in the Sonata are fuller and the chords more protracted than in the earlier piece. But every note was carefully chosen and none included for ornamental reasons.”

Copland did not finish this second sonata until 1941, however, and even then it was almost lost. As he was leaving to go to Tanglewood for the summer, he left two bags, one containing the manuscript for the almost completed sonata, unattended and they were stolen. The musical manuscripts were not recovered, but Copland was able to reconstruct the sonata with the aid of pianist John Kirkpatrick, who had been given previews of the work by the composer.

“The Sonata lies somewhere between the Variations and Our Town,” Copland wrote. “Its three movements follow a slow, fast, slow sequence and are separate in character, but with subtle relationships between them, so that each seems to grow from the preceding.

“The first movement is a regular sonata allegro form with two themes, a development section characterized by disjunct rhythms and a playful mood, and a clear recapitulation in which the opening idea is dramatically restated. The second movement scherzo is rhythmically American – I would never have thought of those rhythms if I had not been familiar with jazz…

“The third movement of the Sonata is free in form and further from the classic sonata than the previous movements. The British music historian Wilfrid Mellers, whose writings about American music I have long admired, pointed to the final movement of the Piano Sonata as ’the essential Copland… its relinquishment of the time sense… is a phenomenon of quite profound spiritual and cultural implication.‘ Mellers’ allusion to the sense of ’immobility’ in the Sonata seems to say in prose what I had in mind when composing the music. The Sonata does not end with the usual flash of virtuosic passages: instead, it is rather grand and massive.”