From the start, my first major piano piece, the Piano Variations, had a ‘rightness’ […] It was not composed in the consecutive order of its finished state. I am told that this is at odds with what I have written about the piece—that each variation is meant to develop organically from the previous one and all contribute to a carefully constructed whole. While this is so, it is also true that I worked on the variations individually, not knowing exactly where or how they would eventually fit together. I cannot explain this contradiction. One fine day when the time was right, the order of the variations fell into place. (Copland Vol. 1: 1900 through 1942; Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis. Faber & Faber, London 1984)
It was that summer at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, when Copland finally distilled his sixty-two pages of sketches into a concentrated, seventeen-page masterpiece which he eventually entitled Piano Variations. The title did not immediately fall into place either: other thoughts had been, Melodic Variations, Thematic Variations, Fantasie on an Original Theme, Chaconne, Declamations on a Serious Theme and so on. The chosen title not only enabled the composer to orchestrate the piece in 1957 and neatly call it Orchestral Variations, but its abstract flavour, its ‘modern’ sound, suited the mood of the music perfectly.
The first performance of the piece took place in a League of Composers concert in January 1931 with the composer as soloist. Copland had wanted Walter Gieseking to play it, but the latter declined in a candid letter from Berlin:
This composition is very interesting and most original, but I do not know an audience which would accept such crude dissonances without protesting […] a work of such severity of style is not possible among the normal type of concert-goers.
It is an intriguing thought that within a few years political forces in that same city would have prevented Gieseking from including the piece on his concert programmes, not just because of the racy originality of its harmonic language, but because of the racial origins of its composer.
The piece is constructed as a theme, twenty variations, and a coda, and Copland admits the influence of Schoenberg’s serialism in the use of a four-note cell on which the entire piece is built. He also cites as an influence the frugal socio-economic conditions of the time (it was begun only a couple of months after the Wall Street Crash). However, the more audible influences are Stravinsky and jazz, both of which he had discovered whilst studying in Paris in the early 1920s. The short theme is ostensibly in C sharp minor/E major (and reminiscent of the subject of Bach’s C sharp minor Fugue from Book 1 of the Well-tempered Clavier); but the B sharp—the note that would lead us to the tonic—has been enharmonically distorted to C natural, a foreign body to either key. This theme appears in the course of the work upside down, inside out, backwards, like a cube held up to the light from every possible angle—its ‘C’ natural a bump on its side preventing the music from settling into a comfortable place or pulse.
The opening statement of the theme is displaced over two octaves and punctuated by chordal stabs—punches leaving the sting of a harmonic hanging in the air. Variation 1 is the only time we hear the theme in its pure form, in the right hand, yet here the left hand tags along a bar behind like a shadow of discord. In the second variation the left hand has caught up with the right but, although they walk arm in arm, the left hand swivels the four-note cell around, replacing notes one and two with notes three and four—sharp elbows of dissonance. And so on … there is not room in this context to analyse each variation. Suffice to say that there is not a note in the piece which is not directly related to the thematic cell; it is VARIATIONS in capital letters.
from notes by Stephen Hough © 1998