Copland’s Quiet City

A composition for trumpet, English Horn, and string orchestra, Aaron Copland’s “Quiet City” took the composer two years to write before it could be pronounced complete. Receiving its premiere on January 28, 1941, the piece was performed by conductor Daniel Saidenberg and his Saidenberg Little Symphony in New York City. However, this was not the official debut of “Quiet City” as a musical entity, nor was it the first iteration penned by Copland. The truth about this classic American composition would not surface for another seventy years.

In its original form, Copland’s “Quiet City” served as incidental music for playwright Irwin Shaw’s play of the same name. As the play was a besieged by incredible bad luck (it was regarded as a flop and consequently never ran past previews), Copland quietly buried his original score for trumpet, saxophone, clarinets and piano until he could resurrect it in a completely re-orchestrated form. It is speculated that Copland, trusting that his score had potential, wanted to distance his composition from being associated with the disastrous Shaw production. Copland had written a letter to a friend, the composer Virgil Thomson, around this time stating bleakly that “My career in the theater has been a flop.”

Aaron Copland, 1956 by Yousuf Karsh

Copland himself maintained in his autobiography that this original version of “Quiet City” was “an attempt to mirror the troubled main character of Irwin Shaw’s play”, who had chosen to reject his religious and artistic convictions by changing his name, vocation, and marrying for money. His conscience does not rest, however, and the man is plagued by the memory of his brother’s trumpet playing, a sonic recollection which refuses to silence itself as the man pursues a life of outward happiness and material wealth. Copland continues, remarking that “Quiet City seems to have become a musical entity, superseding the original reasons for its composition…”. Indeed, the modern listener does not require the original context of Shaw’s play to appreciate the richly textured night life of Copland’s musical New York.

But while Copland acknowledged the score’s original form and purpose, the existence of said original could not be proven to have existed without the discovery of a physical proof. That manuscript was unearthed by saxophonist and composer Christopher Brellochs in 2011, and he refused to rest until the original version of Copland’s Quiet City was recorded and debuted for the world. As he pursued his doctoral studies at Rutgers University, Brellochs had been searching for dissertation topics with an advisor, Paul Cohen. When Paul recalled that he had in his possession a copy of an old Copland score, one which had been given to him by an acquaintance at the Library of Congress, Brelloch knew precisely what topic his dissertation would cover. In Cohen’s words, the original score “had been collecting dust for years”, and it included new melodies which admirers of Copland’s music would never likely have heard had they not attended the handful of preview performances that Shaw’s play was able to withstand before folding entirely. 

The delicate pulsating tones of the trumpet and English Horn solos certainly paint a formidable picture of New York, with all its evening grandeur. Copland weaves what Brellochs refers to as “a goldmine of wonderful themes and melodies” throughout, a thoughtful musical commentary on the life of a city that is internationally renowned as never sleeping. While the original score may have explored the world of this failed play in greater detail, Copland more than makes up for lost context with a perfectly distilled masterpiece. In every painted street-corner, every dimly-lit lamppost, and every dusky skyscraper, Copland captured the heart of New York and enshrined it in his “Quiet City” for all time.

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