Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Copland's Fifths and Their Structural Role in the Sonata for Violin and Piano

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Copland's Fifths and Their Structural Role in the Sonata for Violin and Piano

Article excerpt

"I remember in an early lesson my bristling when he said, 'How come you always use intervals like minor thirds and major sevenths? Why don't you ever use a perfect fifth?'"

-Jacob Druckman on Aaron Copland (Copland and Perlis 1989, 129)

Example 1. Four excerpts by Copland

(click to enlarge and see the rest)

[1.1] Example 1 illustrates a facet of Copland's music that is familiar to most students of it: emphasis on the perfect fifth (and its inversion to a perfect fourth) is a characteristic element of his mature musical language. Example 1a shows the opening of Billy the Kid, harmonized in parallel perfect fifths. Example 1b presents the famous polychord that introduces Appalachian Spring, which superimposes two major triads with roots separated by a perfect fifth. Example 1c is the first melody of the Third Symphony, saturated with melodic fourths and fifths. Even an excerpt from his serial Piano Fantasy is controlled by harmonies replete in interval class 5, as shown in 1d.

[1.2] One of our most ubiquitous music history textbooks summarizes Copland's "Americanist idiom" by citing his "transparent, widely spaced sonorities, empty octaves and fifths, and diatonic dissonances" (Burkholder et al. 2006, 888, emphasis added). As the excerpts of Example 1 demonstrate, this text-in reflection of many other summaries of Copland's style-likely intends Copland's "fifths" as a token for emphasis of the perfect fifth as well as its inversion, the perfect fourth. This essay begins with a brief exploration of the roles played by interval class 5 in selected works by Copland in the 1930s and 40s. This survey will show that, in addition to serving as a stylistic marker, ic 5 can have implications for large-scale tonal organization in Copland's music. His Sonata for Violin and Piano epitomizes the ways in which ic 5 can provide cohesion between musical surface and large-scale structure, and thus becomes the main analytic focus of this paper.

Example 2. Piano Sonata, conclusion

[1.3] In addition to simply characterizing the harmonic and melodic language of a cross-section of Copland's output (as illustrated in Example 1), the fifth can serve in his music as a stabilizing element. The quintessential example of this practice comes from the conclusion of his Piano Sonata, reproduced in Example 2. The two-chord motto of measures 165 and 169 is a transposition of the first movement's clangorous opening, now hushed and irresolute. This motto is answered by widely-spaced, diatonic counterpoint that comes to rest first on bleak Eoctaves and, ultimately, on an A-Eopen fifth. The sonata ends with a juxtaposition of the motto's ambiguous dissonance with this perfect consonance. The bare fifth serves as a harmonic pillar, gently lending tonal focus to this work's mournful conclusion.(1)

Example 3. "Nature, the gentlest mother," measures 1-8

[1.4] In contradistinction to the fifth's role as a stabilizing agent in the Piano Sonata, tonal ambiguity between ic-5 related pitch classes characterizes other contemporaneous Copland pieces. The first of his Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson, "Nature, the gentlest mother," opens as shown in Example 3 with much emphasis on B, using both traditional tonal elements (melodic Btriads, a two-voiced chorale that opens with the suggestion of B: V7-I, an open fifth on Bat measure 5) and simple stressing of this pitch class through sustained, unadorned tones as at measure 8. On the other hand, the three-flat collection implied by the key signature and the eventual motion to an inverted E-major harmony after the voice's entrance suggest that this music can also be conceived as centered on E. Wilfrid Mellers's perspective reflects this dilemma: "The song has a key-signature of three flats, though the tonality is ambiguously between E flat major and the Mixolydian mode on B flat" (Mellers 2000, 8).(2) Interval class 5, which is also prominent as a surface element in this Copland work, takes on additional significance as two ic-5 related pitch classes compete to become the focus (or are together the focus) of the song's opening bars. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.