By Eric Bromberger | From the January-February 2024 issue of Strings Magazine
The year 1943 found Aaron Copland in an unexpected place—Hollywood. He spent much of that year working on the score to the film The North Star, a piece of wartime propaganda that has been completely forgotten. But while he was in Hollywood, Copland completed two other works—the chamber-ballet Appalachian Spring and the Sonata for Violin and Piano. They are among his finest compositions: Appalachian Spring won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1945, and the Violin Sonata may well be the greatest by an American composer.
The two scores are cut from the same cloth. They may have been written in the middle of World War II, but rather than reflecting the tension or martial spirit one might expect from wartime compositions, both are peaceful and—for the most part—serene. Appalachian Spring celebrates young love and life on the American frontier, but the Violin Sonatais more abstract. Critics have spoken of its “calm elevation” and referred to it as “hymn-like” and “pastoral”; Copland himself called it one of his “most accessible” works. Yet beneath this music’s seemingly simple surface runs a darker vein, touched with moments of emotion and pain. The score is dedicated to one of Copland’s friends who had been shot down and killed that year in the South Pacific, and those who set out to perform this sonata must find a way to balance the light and the darkness that are both part of this sonata.
On the surface, the structure of Copland’s Violin Sonata is straightforward: a sonata-form first movement gives way to a singing slow movement, which is followed without pause by a vigorous finale. The first movement’s slow introduction, aptly marked andante semplice, offers a dialogue between the piano’s quiet chords and the violin’s five-note responses. Gradually the violin’s theme-shape accelerates to become an allegro, and the movement is built around the contrast between these two tempos. At the movement’s center comes a peaceful interlude in which the pianist answers the violinist’s singing phrases with quiet cadences; one astute critic has noted that these cadences seem—both emotionally and rhythmically—to say “amen.” The movement eventually slows to its opening tempo and concludes quietly.
The lento, in modified ternary form, is even simpler than the first movement. Here, very slow outer sections frame a gentle interior episode marked “tenderly”; along the way come brief reminiscences of the first movement’s germinal theme-shape. Out of the quiet close, the finalebursts to life with a fiercely energetic violin cadenza. This alternates with more lyric material until the end, where music from the sonata’s very beginning is recalled. The violin’s opening theme-shape now returns over fragmentary accompaniment, and the music fades into silence on sustained chords. These are built on extremely wide intervals, and the effect at the close is of great space—and great calm.
On the page, the Copland Violin Sonatadoes not “look” particularly difficult. To be sure, there are some fast and high passages in the outer movements, but the sonata presents no unusual problems of rhythm or ensemble. Not a string player himself, Copland consulted with violin-playing friends while composing this sonata, and for the most part it sits sensibly under the hand.
The most challenging issue is of interpretation. The Violin Sonatatakes performers and audiences across a wide span of moods. In the finale, the brilliant violin part offers the pleasing vitality of an old-fashioned barn dance, but such extroversion is far from the sonata’s many elegiac passages, which are quiet and intimate. This can be elusive music, and performers will want to consider the specific character they wish to project. Does the real nature of Copland’s Violin Sonatareside in the loneliness, the sense of great space that we feel at the very beginning and very ending? Or does it lie in the buoyant optimism of much of its outer movements, which ring with vitality and confidence in the time of war?
This sonata offers both of these moods and offers them convincingly. But interpretation here will be a matter of emphasis, and it is up to the performers to consider the mood (or moods) they wish to project.
Copland sets out to help his performers. Both outer movements depend for much of their effect on subtle changes in tempo, and Copland notates these evolutions carefully, supplying metronome markings for each change of tempo. He is also liberal with what might be called “subjective” performance markings—the score is full of such admonitions as freely singing, with repose, tenderly, with sentiment, eloquently, with humor, and so on. Performers will interpret those instructions in their own way, just as they will manage the tempo changes in their own way.
The fact that there are no unusual technical issues in this sonata does not mean that it is easy. The last movement, marked allegretto giusto, opens with what is in effect a cadenza for the violin alone. Copland specifies that he wants this played with bite, and it demands both very strong playing and absolute rhythmic precision. Copland’s writing for both instruments is quite clear throughout the sonata—this music “sounds” with a pleasing clarity—but that clarity is the product only of very precise playing. The outer movements often develop canonically, and all those voices need to be projected clearly.
Everyone who writes about this sonata notes the particular challenges posed by its ending. Copland said that he wanted to create the sense of great “space” in this music, and he does that by giving both instruments unusually wide intervals. The violinist sustains a 12th, while the pianist is asked to project a tenth. Copland suggests ways for the pianist to manage that interval, but the important thing is that the conclusion’s sense of space and calm be preserved by playing all these notes cleanly and firmly from the moment they first sound.
Copland’s Violin Sonatais wonderful music; it is no surprise that over the last eighty years it has had many performances and recordings. But the duo that sets out to perform this sonata should not take it lightly. This is music written in wartime, music that remembers a friend killed in that war, and if Copland’s Violin Sonatarings with strength and optimism, it is at its core expressive—and heartfelt—music.