Quiet City

Printer Friendly VersionSend by email


           If there ever was an American “composer laureate,” then Aaron Copland is surely he.   A native of Brooklyn, the son of Jewish immigrants of Lithuanian descent, he established what many call the “American Sound” in art music.  He had gone to Paris, like so many during the 1920s, to study advanced composition, and his musical style when he returned was accordingly advanced, some would say “academic.”   It certainly was often dissonant, and in no way exhibited the popular tunefulness that later made him the darling of mainstream America.  But then, like so many other artists during the depression, he then turned to a simpler, more accessible style, rooted in the populism of the time.  Thus we have such evergreen compositions as Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, Fanfare for the Common Man, and Billy the Kid.  Later, after the war, with the New Deal, the dust bowl, and the popularity of the communist party in America gone, he returned to the austere, more advanced musical style that previously had characterized his work.   Nevertheless, most audiences today think of his “depression era” musical style when his name is mentioned.

            Quiet City exemplifies Copland’s enormously popular compositions from those times.  Scored for trumpet, English horn, and strings, it owes its origin to the incidental music that Copland had written for a play of the same name in New York in 1939.   That music was scored for trumpet, saxophone, clarinet and piano.  The success of his music led to suggestions that he rework the material into a composition for orchestra.  In Copland’s words:  “ I borrowed the name, the trumpet and some of the themes from the original play.”   He finished the work in 1940 and it saw its première in January of 1941.

               The entire mood of the work stems from the eponymous play by Irwin Shaw, which is built around the evocation of the infinitude of personal and private thoughts by the many individuals of a metropolis.  Copland was called upon to provide music “evocative of the nostalgia and inner distress of a society profoundly aware of its own insecurity.”  The original incidental music featured a solo trumpet that served in some way as the playwright’s voice and that of the main character.  The latter apparently had apparently abandoned his Jewish faith, and had given up artistic aspirations for the life of material success as a businessman.  But, he was reminded of his sacrifice by the “haunting sound of his brother’s trumpet playing.”  The English horn plays an equal rôle as the other character, and the interactions between their respective points of view carry the drama.

            The poignant score is borne by the inimitable chords, voicing, and melodic style so familiar in all of those middle period words so beloved of Copland:  “open,” sparse harmonies that contrast with thick, chordal “crunches.”  Quiet City is informed by his disciplined economy of motifs, which appear in various guises, and a marvelous tonal ambiguity that avoids banal, superficial conclusions to ambiguous perspectives.  Withal, it’s as if Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question meets Copland’s Our Town. Cast into seven sections, the two more active, digressive interior ones are bookended by the thoughtful, but enigmatic, opening ones.  And at the end, no answers are there.  All in all, it’s a marvelous miniature masterpiece that packs more music and stimulating, existential questions than is largely the norm.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2023 William E. Runyan