I have to admit that the section at 7:40 used to be a ringtone of mine. I'm sure this was what Copland was ultimately hoping for with this piece. Some nerd to excerpt it and for everyone around him to look puzzled every time he gets a new text message.
For the longest time this sat atop this Top Whatever list. Only in the last few years was it dethroned for another 20th century masterwork. But, from the first time I ever heard this piece (which was from a CD I ripped from the BGSU music library - before I even knew how to rip a cd: I hooked up my discman to my tiny portable mp3 player via 1/8 cable and had to play the track on my discman and hit record on the mp3 player - HIGH TECH!) I loved it. I've analyzed and presented on it several times in various courses I've taken. I've also made it required listening whenever I teach a general music course. It wasn't the Copland I grew up with (Rodeo, Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, etc). This was Copland that I'd never heard before. The rhythms were the same but the harmonies were something completely new to my ears.
While the populist era works refer to a certain idealized time in America and certainly American myths, heroes, etc., the Piano Variations are of Copland's own time and place. Copland lived in Brooklyn and had no ties to the Wild West he was writing about later in his career other than the books he and nearly every other American boy read at that time. He lived in a noisy city among skyscrapers and constant traffic. This piece was written during the depression. Copland was able to capture his time and place perfectly. That was America at the time or at least America in the big city. He didn't need folk tunes or open sonorities to capture the reality of America.
I'm not knocking those pieces at all. I've always had a fondness for Rodeo. But, for me, Piano Variations is a piece that is trying to speak directly to the American listening to it in 1930. It doesn't reference anything but its own reality. I've seldom heard music that is capable of this feat.
Part of being in love with Copland was being in love with his definitive biography by Howard Pollack. I read it while I was in undergrad.
I moved to Houston in August of 2009 without Kate. She was planning to stay in Tucson to complete some projects with the Tucson Botanical Gardens. I was moving an apartment's worth of stuff by myself. I emailed composers at Rice to see if anyone would be willing to help me move the larger items into the apartment. Ken Stewart volunteered. After we were done moving in he asked 1) would I help him move out of his apartment in 2 days to which I said yes 2) did I want to come to a going away party for him at his friend's house the next night? Sure. I don't know anyone in town but this sounds fun. Who was his friend? Howard.
Not really sure who Howard was I wasn't really expecting anything. Maybe a grad student apartment with some beers and music. Later that night, out for pizza with Ken and Kurt Stallmann after moving, Ken mentioned something about Howard's book.
Me: Howard's written a book? What about?
Ken: Aaron Copland
Me: Wait...Copland? Do you mean Howard Pollack? We are going to Howard Pollack's house?
Needless to say, after I got home, I called my parents and told them, "Yeah, I am going to meet Howard Pollack tomorrow...no big deal." But, I was totally geeking out. We went. We had a great time. I met Howard. Howard and I became friends. I've spent many nights over at his house with drinks, in his pool during the summer, listening to Ben Krause, Joey Love, and Kurt Stallmann improvise on his piano, and on one special occasion, thrown a fully clothed Ken Stewart into his pool. Howard is a good friend that I am so glad to have spent time with after getting to know him through his pages on Copland and his take on this fantastic piece of music.