Skip to page content

“Inscape,” a word that throws off rich and mysterious resonances, is the lovely coinage of the nineteenth-century English poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. In a brief preface to the score, Copland writes that Hopkins invented the word “to suggest ‘a quasi-mystical illumination, a sudden perception of that deeper pattern, order, and unity which gives meaning to external forms.’ This description, it seems to me, applies more truly to the creation of music than to any of the other arts.” For Hopkins, the opposite of “inscape” was “instress,” which refers to perception as opposed to intrinsic, essential quality. Discussing Inscape, Copland’s biographer Howard Pollock writes that “the composer uses sounds as an ‘instress’ that communicates a deeper inner essence, an ‘inscape.’” Copland’s idea was to write music that “seemed to be moving inward upon itself.”

In the 1950s, some composers, including a few for whom no one would have thought it likely, discovered the possibilities of serial composition, Arnold Schoenberg’s innovations and their ramifications. Stravinsky was the greatest eminence among these, but Aaron Copland definitely belongs on this list. He wrote just four such compositions – the Piano Quartet (1950), the Piano Fantasy (1957), Connotations (1962), and Inscape (1967) – but they are a strong group indeed.

Serialism is a compositional technique. It is not a style, a manner, a tone of voice. To put it with perhaps dangerous brevity, what is involved in serial writing is the composer’s decision to relate his choices of pitches to a particular ordering of the twelve notes, the ordering being chosen specifically for the work in question. John Adams has aptly referred to this ordering as the genetic code of the piece.

In the twenties and thirties, however, that technique was so powerfully associated with the work of Arnold Schoenberg that Copland was not alone in finding that it had not occurred to him “to try to separate the method from the aesthetic.” The aesthetic made him uncomfortable. The technique or the method, on the other hand, Copland found interesting. “I was interested in the simple outlines of the theory and in adapting them to my own purposes,” he told Philip Ramey in the liner notes for the Columbia recording of Connotations. “As a result I began to hear chords I wouldn’t have heard otherwise; here was a new way of moving tones about that had a freshening effect on one’s technique and approach.”

Inscape and Connotations are often talked about together. They are Copland’s last two works for orchestra, both are representative of his late fascination with serialism, both were written for and introduced by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Inscape was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic in celebration of its 125th anniversary. Bernstein conducted the world premiere in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on September 13, 1967. But while Connotations is in Copland’s most dramatically hortatory mode, Inscape is lyric and meditative.

Inscape begins with an eleven-note chord, fortissimo, for almost the full orchestra. (I suspect a double tease in the eleven notes – one part is addressed to Copland’s old teacher Nadia Boulanger, who vociferously disliked twelve-tone music; the other part is aimed at some American colleagues who took their twelve-tone orthodoxy terribly seriously.) The opening chord, several times reiterated, leads to a more linear music for a few wind instruments, and if there is one over-arching feature to Inscape, it is the alternation of massive blocks of sound, sometimes harsh in their harmony, with quieter sonorities and more peaceable gestures. The music gathers speed and becomes more complex rhythmically and in texture, then it gradually reverts to its original andantino tempo and simplicity. The final chord is another made of eleven notes, but more transparently and luminously scored, held for a long time, and withdrawing into the world of piano/pianissimo.

Michael Steinberg is a contributing annotator for the San Francisco Symphony and author of The Symphony and The Concerto, published by Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2000 San Francisco Symphony.