Music, School of


Date of this Version



Kleppinger, Stanley V. "The Structure and Genesis of Copland's Quiet City." twentieth-century music 7, no. 1 (2011): 29–59.



Copyright (c) 2011 Cambridge University Press. Used by permission.


Aaron Copland’s Quiet City (1940), a one-movement work for trumpet, cor anglais, and strings, derives from incidental music the composer wrote for an unsuccessful and now forgotten Irwin Shaw play. This essay explores in detail the pitch structure of the concert work, suggesting dramatic parallels between the music and Shaw’s play.

The opening of the piece hinges on an anhemitonic pentatonic collection, which becomes the source of significant pitch centres for the whole composition, in that the most prominent pitch classes of each section, when taken together, replicate the collection governing the music’s first and last bars. Both this principle and the exceptions to it suggest a correspondence to the internal struggles of Shaw’s protagonist, Gabriel Mellon.

In addition, Quiet City offers a distinctive opportunity to observe the composer’s assembly of a unified tonal structure. Sketch study makes it possible to observe the composer altering his original material in ways that reinforce tonal connections across the span of the piece.