Quiet City: A Reverie for New York in the Time of Covid-19 Print E-mail


(The Sembrich Online, September 11, 2020)

The gestation of Aaron Copland’s Quiet City was anything but quiet. In 1939, novelist Irwin Shaw—later praised for the TV serial, Rich Man, Poor Man—wrote a play with the same title. It was workshopped by Elia Kazan and the Group Theater, a communal ensemble from which the Actor’s Studio later took wing. The “experimental drama” follows a once-idealistic young man who leaves Judaism, changes his name, marries a socialite, and achieves wealth running a department store. His materialist dream, however, leaves him morally empty.

One night in haunted despair, wandering Central Park, the young man hears his trumpeter brother playing a melancholic set of notes, which lays bare the man’s fraught conscience. Madly asking passersby if they, too, can hear the plangent tune. Not his tune, per se, but darkly worried sounds of their own. Without recognition of his travail from others, he begins losing his mind.

Old friend Harold Clurman, head of the Group Theater, asked Copland to write a little night music, moody, even desolate, for a pit band of sax, clarinet, piano, and trumpet. A pro, Copland pitted the trumpet’s complaint against unresolving chords, Kazan squeezed what dramatic punch he could out of the dreary plot, and everyone, including the playwright, lost interest: It closed after two Sunday performances.

The music—fourteen minutes’ worth—languished in Copland’s piano bench, though he knew how special its sharply internalized unease was. The next year, the Brooklyn-born composer salvaged ten/eleven minutes of the score for a newly imagined piece (the remainder snuck into the film music for Our Town): He transferred the chordal structure from the piano to the sostenuto of a string orchestra and companioned the more piercing trumpet part beside the softer English horn. The contrast of brass and wind became a call-and-response dialogue, pungent and smooth, as they traded the same melody.

Voila! The composer’s telltale spatial harmony—Coplandesque is the sound of a human-diminished vastness, the canyons of Manhattan or of Monument Valley—and the three contrastive timbres convert the character’s desolation and crack-up from the play to a more complex emotional mix—the forlorn sharing a bench with meditative wonder.

Copland is a master craftsman of the elegiac. He states a phrase or a chord sequence and, instead, of shortening it, he lengthens it—as if to say: If you didn’t get it the first time; here it is again. He alternates a repeated-note trumpet figure with a long horn phrase, which the trumpet, to prove it’s aware, returns in kind. Another trick is to carpet a velvety undertow, a padded floor, when the violins double the English horn. Then, rising from the lushness, the plaintive trumpet restates its sad case.

By the middle of Quiet City, the tempo mark is “slower.” This is followed by a brief excursion, hurrying a bit to the climax, the sole double sforzando in the piece. And, as a comedown, we hear the trumpet stranded in the end, still “nervous, mysterious,” with which Copland marked the score, a taps-like finality. Throughout, the piece resists a pulse; there’s no clock ticking. It’s stillness in motion, time untocked.

In later comments about the work, Copland generalized about the sensibility he sought to represent. The play was “a realistic fantasy concerning the night-thoughts of many different kinds of people in a great city.” That individual/universal element was, coincidentally, key to Copland’s new, late 1930s style, leaving behind his Nadia Boulanger-stirred modernism. In its place, a music for—and of—the people. What’s more, the trumpet line, echoed by the English horn, not only “arouse[d] the conscience” of character and audience, he wrote, but the rueful tune also captured “the nostalgia and inner distress of a society profoundly aware of its own insecurity.”

This last bit about music expressing a society’s “insecurity” captures, I think, the Zeitgeist of 1939-1940 New York. The Nazi war on Eastern Europe was fully joined. Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact. The London Blitz began in September 1940. And America was still gripped by a stalled post-Depression economy. Apropos, Copland pairs “distress” with “nostalgia.” Having so far withstood these mortifying events, Copland’s countrymen ached for an Edenic period, the 1920s, perhaps, or a pre-industrial America. Quiet City suggests this call to rest is burdened by the obvious—there’s an underlying helplessness that no one’s going back.

And now, down to our time. Who among us cannot hear “insecurity” baked into this ghostly piece, decreeing that we, too, are floundering—economically, spiritually—in our current viral pandemic, the worst in one hundred years? Who does not feel that we, too, are alone in the Central Parks of our minds, hope slipping away that we might retrieve anything pre-Covid-19?

This idea of retrieval to the lost paradise is deep-set in Americans. By not straying far, by returning and referring to itself, music evokes nostalgia, longing while listening for the way we were. Darkly evocative, with a kind of disquieting quietude, Quiet City—like a stay-at-home order—asks us to linger more than progress, meditate more than stir, hunker down because there’s nowhere to go, certainly not back, until we find and trust some degree of control or stability.

Which is why Copland’s gem is a perfect reflection of a quieted America.

At first, last March, most of us abided by the lockdown; then, tiptoeing from our sanctuaries, the intrepid and the risky sought contact, haircut and massage, a masked return to the office, al fresco dining. Now, we occupy a near malaise, resigned and fearful and distant, unable to get huggably close to friends, grandkids, or likeminded concertgoers. Jobless and in debt, many are sinking. More will. Might Quiet City buoy us in this long hard slog?

Indeed, music does buoy us, offering comfort and solace. A boat of hope and repose, outfitted again and again by our attentiveness. Today, it may help us recall the familiar social purpose our lives had during the halcyon days of the 1980s or the tech-heady days of the 2010s. I think, despite worrying about the future, many of us feel that though our agency as individuals and as a society has been taken, that agency will return, we are sure, based on history, on experience.

Listen now, and settle into the contemplative energy Quiet City offers. Like J. S. Bach—a musical offering.