In the first volume of his autobiography, Aaron Copland writes:
When I originally agreed to compose the Piano Sonata, I had asked [playwright Clifford] Odets (2 January 1939): “Is a dedication and a presentation of the manuscript worth $500 to you? It would take me about 2 months to write, I think.” Cliff agreed and promptly sent half the commission. One robbery, several interruptions, and almost three years later, the Sonata was ready.
The “robbery” referred to is explained as follows by Vivian Perlis, Copland’s collaborator for the autobiography:
One evening early in June 1941 Copland carried two suitcases down the four flights to his car parked outside the loft. When he returned after going back up for the rest of his luggage, the two valises were gone. One was filled with personal belongings; the other with music. Copland went directly to the 20th Precinct police station to report the theft. A reward was offered, and the Department of Sanitation was asked to be on the lookout for odd sheets of music paper… Before leaving for Lenox [Tanglewood], Copland listed his loss for the Great American Insurance Company: “Collected themes for Billy and The City in binding, Sorcery to Science – pencil, Piano Sonata – two movements in ink, 10 pages on thin paper…
Copland was forced to reconstruct the first two movements of the piece from memory, with the aid of pianist John Kirkpatrick, for whom he had played the piece. Although Copland began working intensively on the piece in 1939, the Sonata took even longer than three years, in that it utilized sketches going back to 1935. Copland himself gave the first performance while on a trip to South America in 1941.
In the autobiography, Copland refers to the first movement of the piece as
a regular sonata allegro form with two themes, a development section characterized by disjunct rhythms and a playful mood, and a clear recapitulation in which the opening idea is dramatically restated.
While the movement’s form may be “regular” in terms of thematic layout, the key scheme is not regular, with Copland writing key signatures that suggest b-flat minor and g minor for the first and second themes respectively. There is no use of the dominant to prepare the recapitulation; the latter arrives simply as a high contrast to the preceding scherzo-like and relatively diatonic music. In fact, the drama of the piece is more about the tensions inherent in the chromaticism of the harmony (the b-flat minor/major cross relations of the opening, for example) and the play of highly characterized gestures (for example, the clangor of bell sounds, followed by a plunging scale near the end of the first thematic section) than about the key scheme.
The second movement is a scherzo, at once playful and nervous, with constantly changing meters. A more lyrical section, referred to by most commentators as the contrasting trio section customary in the scherzo form, is a foreshadowing of melodic material that will play an important part in the last movement. Howard Pollack writes of how this finale, described as “free” in form by Copland, is built from this material and from a simple hymn-like tune, embedded in tolling bells at times mellifluous, at other moments strident. Throughout the entire Sonata, Copland deploys the various registers of the piano with great care, and the exquisite layering of bells and hymn is an exceptionally fine example of this. The opening of the first movement returns at a climactic moment of the last, and is all the more emotionally shattering for being an unexpected return to the opening’s major/minor tensions. The ending of the movement is extraordinary: a long passage of quietly ringing, widely spaced bells, marked “elegiac” in the score, framed by quiet recollections of the Sonata’s opening chords. The music passes into a great stillness, ever softer and slower. In his autobiography, Copland quotes with approval the British writer Wilfrid Mellers’s description of the Sonata’s final movement as “the essential Copland… its relinquishment of the time sense… is a phenomenon of quite profound spiritual and cultural implication.”
The American quality of Copland’s voice is best known through his western and urban landscapes. But this Sonata’s closing pages, with their combination of deep calm and heartbroken elegy, are an essential complement to those extroverted expressions, affording a contemplative vision that is no less a part of what it is to be American, indeed, what it is to be human.