The Kennedy Center

Selections from Old American Songs

About the Work

Aaron Copland Composer: Aaron Copland
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Soon after he completed the imposing song cycle Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson in March 1950, Copland turned his creative attention to some lighter fare by newly arranging a set of five traditional 19th-century American songs for voice and piano on a commission from English composer Benjamin Britten and tenor Peter Pears for performance at the Aldeburgh Festival. A second group of five followed in 1952, and Copland orchestrated Set I in 1954 and Set II three years later. In her study of Copland's music, Julia Smith suggested that the Old American Songs form "a kind of vocal suite, the accompaniments, practical but exceedingly attractive, offer moods by turns nostalgic, energetic, sentimental, devotional and humorous." The most familiar melody among these songs is Simple Gifts, the evergreen Shaker tune (also known with an original text by British poet and folk singer Sydney Carter as The Lord of the Dance) that Copland had earlier used with such excellent effect in Appalachian Spring. Like the other songs, it taps a deep, quintessentially American sentiment in its sturdy simplicity and its plain words, qualities that Copland captured perfectly in his colorful, atmospheric settings.

The following notes in the orchestral score give the sources for the Old American Songs:

"Simple Gifts. A favorite melody of the Shaker sect, from the period 1837-1847. The melody and words were quoted by Edward D. Andrews in his book of Shaker rituals, songs and dances, entitled The Gift To Be Simple.

"The Little Horses. A children's lullaby, originating in the Southern States, the date of this song is unknown. The adaptation is founded in part on John A. and Alan Lomax's version in Folk Song U.S.A.

"At the River. The words and melody of this hymn are by the Rev. Robert Lowry, and it dates from 1865.

"Ching-a-ring-chaw. The words of this minstrel song have been adapted from the original in the Harris Collection at Brown University."