We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 3 The Apex
Richard Taruskin

The first movement of the Piano Quartet well exemplifies Copland's “mainstream” or “middle of the road” approach to twelve-tone composition. The row (Ex. 3-3) is used as a theme in the traditional sense, which means that it will be varied according to standard methods of thematic elaboration as well as according to specifically serial procedures. It is constructed on the principle of “whole-tone complementation”—that is, playing off the two mutually exclusive whole-tone scales against one another. Whole-tone scale segments, a familiar sound in music since before the turn of the century, are what the themes present most saliently to the listening ear, and what make them memorable.

“Mainstream” Dodecaphony

ex. 3-3a Aaron Copland, Piano Quartet, development of twelve-tone themes: complementary whole-tone scales

“Mainstream” Dodecaphony

ex. 3-3b Aaron Copland, Piano Quartet, development of twelve-tone themes: main theme of first movement

“Mainstream” Dodecaphony

ex. 3-3c Aaron Copland, Piano Quartet, development of twelve-tone themes: main theme as first heard

“Mainstream” Dodecaphony

ex. 3-3d Aaron Copland, Piano Quartet, development of twelve-tone themes: second theme (pitch content of Example 3-3c transposed and reversed)

“Mainstream” Dodecaphony

ex. 3-3e Aaron Copland, Piano Quartet, development of twelve-tone themes: opening of second movement (violin)

“Mainstream” Dodecaphony

ex. 3-3f Aaron Copland, Piano Quartet, development of twelve-tone themes: third movement, viola and cello in mm. 103-105

The structure of the theme already presents in microcosm the Quartet's chief form-generating procedure: the breaking and eventual completion of patterns. The initial whole-tone descent goes as far as the fifth degree out of six before being interrupted by the other whole-tone scale, ascending through four degrees. The withheld pitch from the first scale is then interpolated into the second, creating an intervallic sequence (perfect fourth followed by perfect fifth) suitable for a diatonic cadence. That traditional cadential resonance will of course be exploited in the music. But it raises a question: why go to the trouble of contriving special ingenious situations within a twelve-tone row only to achieve what would have been so much more easily obtainable using Copland's usual compositional techniques? The question confirms the impression that Copland's use of serial techniques may have been prompted less by the specific “purely musical” possibilities it offered than by the “purely abstract,” hence politically neutral and unquestionable, musical context it provided.

The breaking of the initial whole-tone pattern by the intrusion of its complement within the theme is projected onto the “macrostructure” of the first movement by withholding the last note of the row on every occurrence of the theme except the last. Example 3-3b, which shows the complete theme, is taken from the piano part at the very end. Example 3-3c, the violin part at the outset, shows the theme as it is heard every other time, with the last pitch replaced by a repetition of the first, as if the theme had been based on an eleven-note row. It is this eleven-note version that is reversed, in “orthodox” twelve-tone fashion (but at an equally “orthodox” tonal transposition to the lower fourth or “dominant”) to provide the second theme (ex. 3-3d).

The remainder of Ex. 3-3 is drawn from the second and third movements, to show how the thematic material of the whole quartet is drawn from the initial row (or at least its whole-tone complementation idea). The main theme of the second movement (Ex. 3-3e), close to a retrograde-inversion of Ex. 3-3c, is another eleven-tone melody with a redundant pitch, here at the beginning rather than the end. The withheld pitch (or “hidden pitch”—note câchée—as Nadia Boulanger's pupils tended to call it, it being an old idea of hers) does not make an appearance until the nineteenth measure. Ex. 3-3f, from the third movement's coda, shows how the two whole-tone scales are given a complementary summary in the inner parts to provide harmonic closure as the piece draws to its serene completion.

Returning to the first movement, the piano part midway (Ex. 3-4a), and the string parts at the very end (Ex. 3-4b), illustrate how Copland extracts harmonies, respectively, from the whole-tone and “diatonic” portions of his row-theme, and uses the contrast between them to regulate the harmony of the whole according to a traditional tension-and-release concept. Thus harmonic relations govern the emergent sense of the movement's form just as they had always done in “tonal” music. It was the kind of thing that drew fire from the “left” (that is, from Darmstadt) for representing “compromise” with tradition, and with the nonprofessional audience. It shows that Copland, despite his recourse to serial procedures, still regarded himself as a composer living in, and engaged with, a social network.

“Mainstream” Dodecaphony

ex. 3-4a Aaron Copland, Piano Quartet, I, mm. 55-61

But the Piano Quartet was only the beginning of Copland's serial odyssey. Over the rough quarter-century remaining to his creative career (which ended in the early seventies, although he lived until 1990), he maintained two compositional approaches, one diatonic and the other twelve-tone. He called them his “popular” and “difficult” styles; on occasion he referred to them as his “public” and “private” manners. And yet his largest, most public works of the 1950s and beyond, the kind for which he had originally developed his “Americanist” idiom, were cast more and more dependably in the “difficult” style, with a musical content that tended conspicuously toward the abstract, even the “formalist.” Except for the Third Symphony, Copland's lengthiest and in that sense most ambitious instrumental composition was the twelve-tone Piano Fantasy of 1957, cast in a single tightly woven movement that lasts over half an hour and makes a considerable demand on a listener's powers of concentration. The opening of the work (Ex. 3-5) lends striking support to Copland's slightly defensive contention that “twelve-tonism is nothing more than an angle of vision…. It is a method, not a style; and therefore it solves no problems of musical expressivity.”9 With its expansive intervallic leaps and its wide-open chord spacing, the music—to anyone who knows the composer's “Americanist” works—sounds palpably “Coplandesque.” But what had once been in part a function of subject matter was now entirely a matter of “autonomous” style.

By far the most utterly and essentially “public” composition of Copland's late career was an orchestral piece commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for a 193 gala concert, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, to inaugurate the orchestra's new home at New York City's Philharmonic (now Avery Fisher) Hall, the first building to be completed in the immense complex of performance spaces known as the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. The concert, attended by a long list of public figures headed by Jacqueline Kennedy, the first lady of the United States, was televised live and broadcast to a nationwide audience of millions.

“Mainstream” Dodecaphony

ex. 3-4b Aaron Copland, Piano Quartet, I, mm. 98-end

“Mainstream” Dodecaphony

ex. 3-5 Aaron Copland, Piano Fantasy, mm. 1-22

“Mainstream” Dodecaphony

fig. 3-3 Philharmonic (later Avery Fisher) Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, inaugurated in 1961.

The honor of receiving such a commission was not only a testimonial to Copland's incontestable stature as a creative figure, but also a recognition of his special relationship to the American public. Perhaps needless to say, Copland's virtually unique status among “serious” composers as a household name derived from his Americanist works of the 1930s and 1940s; and yet the work he produced for this most publicized moment of his career was an especially severe exercise in abstraction. Its very title, Connotations, suggested that its tight motivic “argument”—that is to say, its formal procedure—was tantamount to its content; and in the introductory remarks that preceded the broadcast performance, Copland emphasized the strictness with which the entire twenty-minute composition was derived from the “three harsh chords” (Ex. 3-6a) that opened the work (each containing four notes of the governing twelve-tone row). The ending was a series of strident “aggregates”—that is, twelve-note chords that the audience found perplexing, if not downright distasteful (Ex. 3-6b). The immediate reaction was embarrassing: “a confused near silence,”10 as Copland recollected it.

“Mainstream” Dodecaphony

ex. 3-6a Aaron Copland, Connotations, opening (“three harsh chords” and their immediate consequences)

“Mainstream” Dodecaphony

ex. 3-6b Aaron Copland, Connotations, ending

The dramatic fashion in which Copland had sacrificed his hard-won, well-nigh unique public appeal for the sake of what seemed (at least in the context of a glittering public gala) an “alienated” modernist stance, seemed to give credence to the idea that the triumph of twelve-tone music was the result of an inevitable and irresistible historical process. Copland himself accounted for his change of style, in a modest comment to Bernstein, by saying that he “needed more chords”11 —implying, if not the “exhaustion of tonality” that more pretentious commentators had been proclaiming for decades, at least that his own technical or stylistic resources had needed renewal.

There is no reason to expect a composer to look beyond his conscious musical appetites for the sources of his musical behavior. But the corollary, that such appetites are stimulated only spontaneously (“from within”), is contradicted—at least in the present case—by the fact that the idiom Copland had adopted in search of new chords was not his alone, but part of an emergent “period style.” It opened him up to charges, in the words of one disapproving critic in the Lincoln Center audience, of having “yielded to conformism.”12 Stated in such an unflattering way, the remark is hostile. But one can put the matter in a less invidious light by quoting a perceptive remark by Copland himself.

It was part of a lecture that Copland gave in 1952 at Harvard University, where he was occupying the same “chair of poetry” that had given Stravinsky a forum in 1939. The title of the lecture, “Tradition and Innovation in Recent European Music,” may have been a deliberate attempt to deflect attention away from his own present creative concerns, or those of other American composers. But its contents were nevertheless pertinent to those concerns. “The twelve-tone composer,” Copland declared (not letting on that he had lately become one himself), “is no longer writing music to satisfy himself; whether he likes it or not, he is writing it against a vocal and militant opposition.”13 The opposition Copland had in mind, of course, was the Communist (or Zhdanovite) opposition, which many former Soviet sympathizers now saw as a deadly threat. But the virtues that twelve-tone music seemed, in its wholly formal purity, to possess in contrast to the mandated political content of Stalinist art were no less attractive as a refuge from attempts to control art in the name of anti-Communism. “New chords” could come from many sources. That special sense of refuge in the discipline of one's art was something only twelve-tone music then seemed to guarantee so reliably.


(9) Aaron Copland, “Fantasy for Piano,” New York Times, 20 October 1957; quoted in Pollack, Aaron Copland, p. 446.

(10) Copland since 1943, p. 339.

(11) Leonard Bernstein, “Aaron Copland: An Intimate Sketch,” High Fidelity, November 1970; quoted in Pollack, Aaron Copland, p. 448.

(12) Paul Henry Lang, quoted in Pollack, Aaron Copland, p. 501.

(13) Aaron Copland, Music and the Imagination: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures 1951–1952 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952), p. 75.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 The Apex." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 2 Aug. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-003002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 The Apex. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 2 Aug. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-003002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 The Apex." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 2 Aug. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-003002.xml