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Quiet City

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

Quiet City

In January and February 1939 Aaron Copland composed music for an experimental play, Quiet City by Irwin Shaw, about a young trumpet player who imagined the nocturnal thoughts of various dwellers in a great city and played the trumpet to express his feelings about them. The play, somewhat contradictorily billed as a realist fantasy, did not outlive two Sunday evening trial performances in New York that April, and the producer later remembered that ‘all that remained of our hard work was a lovely score by Aaron Copland’.

The music was originally scored for trumpet, saxophone, clarinet and piano, but the following year the composer arranged it as a concert work for trumpet, cor anglais and string orchestra. In this version, which was first performed on 28 January 1941 in New York, Quiet City has proved to be one of Copland’s most effective short works.

Quiet the city might be at night, but it is then that nostalgia, melancholy and pangs of conscience may be most felt by those inhabitants who are keenly aware of the urban society’s ills and insecurity. Copland’s lonely trumpeter, seconded by the dark-toned cor anglais and supported by richly-harmonised strings which themselves contribute eloquently to the climax, gives haunting expression to such feelings. ‘My trumpet player’, Copland writes in his autobiography (Faber), ‘was simply an attempt to mirror the troubled main character of Irwin Shaw’s play. In fact one of my markings for the trumpeter is to play "nervously". But Quiet City seems to have become a musical entity, superseding the original reasons for its composition’.

Eric Mason


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