Is This the One About the Pilot? Working Toward Copland’s Violin Sonata

Join us Thursday, November 16 at 7pm for our popular Sonata Series in the beautifully appointed Grand Gallery at RISD Museum. This concert features violinists Sebastian Ruth and David Rubin with guest pianist Eliko Akahori. Here, violinist David Rubin shares his notes on the piece he’ll perform at the event and his own process of discovery on the meaning and origin of Copland’s Sonata for Violin and Piano.

I heard about Aaron Copland’s Sonata for Violin and Piano years before I actually heard Aaron Copland’s Sonata for Violin and Piano. The initial encounter looms large in my memory and — come to think of it — stands in opposition to my current experience of the piece. Tension can often be generative, as we say at CMW, so perhaps this story will be of some interest for those folks planning to attend our Sonata Series performance at the RISD Museum (Thursday, November 16 at 7pm in the Grand Gallery).

In 2004, pianist Karl Paulnack gave a welcome address to the parents of incoming students at Boston Conservatory. Seeking to reassure a presumably anxious crowd about the viability of their children’s chosen career path (read: financial ruin?), Paulnack shared stories about music’s healing powers, its necessity in our society, and the potential nobility of a life spent in its service. One of those anecdotes centered around Paulnack’s own performance of – you guessed it – the Copland violin sonata. This story is better in Paulnack’s telling, but I’ll briefly summarize it here.

During this performance of the Copland (let’s set the stage, actually: during the elegiac slow movement, at a small-town nursing home) a World War II veteran in the audience was clearly overcome with emotion. Later in the concert, Paulnack shared more details about the piece, including the story of its dedication to Harry Dunham, a pilot killed in battle during World War II and a close friend of Copland’s. At this point, the veteran in the audience stood up and left. He later told Paulnack that he was in shock – Copland’s music had triggered a vivid remembrance of a near-identical experience from his own wartime service, a particular trauma he hadn’t thought of in years. The veteran wanted to know how this was possible. How could Copland’s music make him remember so vividly, even though he hadn’t known about that particular connection when he first listened to the piece?

Paulnack’s story is a beautiful testament to music’s communicative powers. It’s also some heavy interpretative baggage for a performer to assimilate. From then on, I remembered the Copland sonata as the World War II piece that, by virtue of its somber American-ness, went straight to the heart.

And I’m not alone. To quote a random YouTube commenter:

“Is this the one about the pilot shot down in WWII?”

Now, when I play this piece, I have more information to draw on, and it makes things more complicated for me as a performer. New perspectives nudge that simple origin story out of my head, or at least force it to share space. Here’s a taste of that stew.

The ink was dry – the piece was finished – when Copland learned of Lieutenant Harry H. Dunham’s death, at which point he added the dedication. We have no way of knowing what he was thinking about while he was writing the violin sonata. It is a wartime piece because it was written during the war, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that this is a piece about war, or a piece about Dunham. It’s entirely possible that Copland didn’t think about the war – or his friend – at all while he was committing these notes to paper.

We know only what (little) Copland chose to share about it, namely: “I had little desire to compose a dissonant or virtuosic work, or one that incorporated folk materials. Nevertheless, certain qualities of the American folk tune had become part of my natural style of composing, and they are echoed in the Sonata.” Nicely put, Aaron.

We also know that the premiere drew polarized responses from critics. One damned its “rearward vision” (ouch!), while another (Copland’s friend Virgil Thomson) praised its “calm elevation… irresistibly touching.” That’s more like it. Wouldn’t we all like to be praised for our “calm elevation?”

I also know what my teachers have shared about their experience with this piece, and what various smart people have written. My mentor in graduate school was fascinated by Copland’s habit of spreading common, everyday chords across wide spans on an instrument’s range (think of a pianist playing high and low notes at the same time) – the harmony might be utterly familiar, but its presentation is unearthly. It creates the illusion of space, of solitude… of frontiers. Stan Kleppinger, in the journal of the Society for Music Theory, suggests that this piece’s special sonorities can be explained as dualities, moments when two key areas exist simultaneously – the magic lies in the ambiguity. Other scholars hear past the melodic inflections in Copland’s writing (and the related, pesky question of American-ness, which seems to dominate all conversations of this composer’s music) toward a neoclassical reading, in which canons and miniature fugues dance in 20th-century dress. Bach in Hollywood in 1943.

And even though the dedication was added after the piece’s completion, I can’t help but also wonder about this man, this Harry Dunham. It turns out that we know a bit about him, too, largely thanks to the work of Copland-scholar Howard Pollack.

We know that Dunham was incredibly handsome (in composer David Diamond’s words: “the most adorable, good-looking boy”), the darling of a New York arts community that starred Copland, Virgil Thomson, Paul Bowles, John Latouche, and other familiar figures. We know that he came from money, that he graduated from Princeton, that he made films. We know he was, to some degree, a leftist. We know that he married a woman, Marian Chase, but we also know that he was romantically involved with several men in the artistic circles he moved in. We know that Dunham, Bowles, and Copland traveled together in Morocco. We know that he died in battle in 1943, and that Aaron Copland dedicated this stunning piece of music to his memory.

I wasn’t expecting Dunham’s story to be so rich. The anonymous “pilot” from my initial encounter with the Copland violin sonata has a lot in common with me, and with people I’ve known. His sexuality, his artistic and political leanings, his social circles – they all run contrary to the military stereotype that I conjured up upon first hearing. This speaks to my prejudices, but it also speaks to the simple fact that people are complicated. In fact, Dunham’s surprises form a nice parallel with the rich ironies of Copland’s own story. Copland, the man whose music was appropriated for “Beef! It’s What’s for Dinner!” or Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America!” was, in Alex Ross’ words, “a gay leftist of Russian-Jewish extraction.” The man who created an American identity in concert music wasn’t always particularly welcome in his own country. Chew on that for a moment. These are not new ironies, but they never cease to amaze.


So, in the end, what should a performer make of these accumulated, sometimes contradictory meanings and associations? Perhaps it’s a cop-out, but here’s an attempt. I’m not a historian and I’m not a theorist and I’m not a veteran, but I do know what this piece makes me feel. Now, as I type this, I think of the piece’s opening, and its particular magic: a series of plain-spoken piano chords; hanging in the air, unresolved, still. Just the thought of those chords makes me verklempt. They’re 100% Copland, and they just break your heart.

I imagine Copland’s dedication to Dunham as a monument to an individual life, yes, but also a way of life: a group of friends, and a particular moment in time and space. In the composer’s words:

“By reflecting the time in which one lives, the creative artist gives substance and meaning to life as we live it. Life seems so transitory! It is very attractive to set down some sort of permanent statement about the way we feel, so that when it’s all gone, people will be able to go to our art works to see what it was like to be alive in our time and place — twentieth-century America.”

I love that little word: our. You get the sense that Copland’s our was broad as can be. “Our” twentieth-century America was gay and Jewish and left, just as much as it was the opposite of those things.


For me, this is the fun of performing. You live inside of a piece, soak up its contradictions and cliches, and try to make sense of it – both the thing itself (whatever that means, God help us) – and your relationship to it. Each realization of a piece, each usage in a different context, is a fleeting act – but over time it forms a discourse, a discussion across decades. It’s a beautiful mess, but that’s where the meaning is. A generative tension.

In any case. I hope you’ll join Eliko, Sebastian and I for Thursday’s program at the RISD Museum. It’ll be a pleasure to explore this piece, in all of its contradictions. In so doing, I hope we’ll celebrate Aaron Copland’s life — Harry Dunham’s, too.

-David Rubin, Violin Fellow

Further reading & works quoted above

Howard Pollack, Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man. Henry Holt, 1999.
Karl Paulnack, welcome address at The Boston Conservatory, 2004. Accessible here.
Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.
Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis, Copland Since 1943. St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
Gail Levin and Judith Tick, Aaron Copland’s America. Watson-Guptill Publications, 2000.