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Appalachian Spring (Suite from the ballet)

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Aaron Copland

Upcoming Performances

Image from National Symphony Orchestra: <i>NEW MOVES: symphony + dance</i>: Thomas Wilkins, conductor; Jessica Lang Dance; with Leila Josefowicz, violin / From Adams to Copland National Symphony Orchestra: NEW MOVES: symphony + dance: Thomas Wilkins, conductor; Jessica Lang Dance; with Leila Josefowicz, violin / From Adams to Copland - May 16 - 17, 2014
Enjoy Adams's Violin Concerto featuring violinist Leila Josefowicz with original choreography by Jessica Lang performed by her company. Also: Copland's Appalachian Spring and more. 

Past Performances

Image unvailable for National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Gil Shaham, violin, performs Brahms National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Gil Shaham, violin, performs Brahms - Sep. 20 - 22, 2006

Image unvailable for NSO at Washington National Cathedral NSO at Washington National Cathedral - Fri., Jun. 22, 2007, 7:30 PM

About the Work

Aaron Copland
Quick Look Composer: Aaron Copland
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Gil Shaham, violin, performs Brahms Sep. 20 - 22, 2006
© Richard Freed

Copland composed Appalachian Spring under a commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation in 1944; the ballet was first performed in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress on October 30 of that year, with choreography by Martha Graham, who also danced the leading role. The concert suite, arranged by the composer shortly after the ballet's premiere, was introduced by the New York Philharmonic under Artur Rodzinski on October 4, 1945, and won both the Pulitzer Prize in Music and the New York Music Critics' Circle Award for that year. Howard Mitchell conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of the suite, on March 28, 1948, and a few years later recorded it with the orchestra for Westminster; the NSO's most recent performances of this work were conducted by Leonard Slatkin on September 27, 28 and 29, 2001.

The score calls for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, long drum, glockenspiel, triangle, wood block, xylophone, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, harp, piano, and strings. Duration, 25 minutes.

Appalachian Spring was the culmination of Copland's series of "Americana" in dance, having been preceded by Billy the Kid, with choreography by Eugene Loring (1938) and Rodeo, for Agnes de Mille (1942). In Appalachian Spring the composer struck a deeper, more poignant note than in the two "Westerns"; here the music is illumined by an inner glow of greater warmth than perhaps any of his earlier works. Copland himself noted that "the music of the ballet takes as its point of departure the personality of Martha Graham," and his score bears the affectionate subtitle "Ballet for Martha," which had been the working title until Graham herself found the felicitous phrase "Appalachian spring" in a poem by Hart Crane. The scenario, created well before she and Copland began their collaborative effort, was summarized by Edwin Denby (Copland's librettist for the 1937 high school opera The Second Hurricane), reporting the New York premiere in the Herald Tribune of May 15, 1945, as a pioneer celebration in spring around a newly built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills in the early part of the last century. The bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, their new domestic partnership invites. An older neighbor suggests now and then the rocky confidence of experience. A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end, the couple are left quiet and strong in their new house.
In place of the Western tunes he had used so effectively in the two earlier ballets, Copland introduced in this score a hymnlike Shaker song, or spiritual, that was to prove extraordinarily effective in creating precisely the atmosphere of simple wonder, humility and faith that is the essence of this work. The song, composed in or about 1875 by Elder Joseph Brackett (1797-1882), who is said to have sung and danced it himself "with his coat tails flying," is called "Simple Gifts":

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free;
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be;
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we sha'n't be asham'd
To turn, turn will be our delight,
'Til by turning, turning we come round right.

(In 1950 Copland made a vocal setting of "Simple Gifts" as part of his first set of Old American Songs; this setting, for baritone and piano, was subsequently orchestrated and also arranged for chorus. Eventually the composer arranged his original use of it in the ballet as a free-standing orchestral piece called Shaker Variations. The tune bears more than a passing resemblance to the Hungarian folk song quoted in the concluding section of Bartók's Rhapsody No. 1 for violin, composed in 1928.)

The original ballet score called for only 13 instruments (flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano and strings), in keeping with the restricted dimensions of the pit in the Coolidge Auditorium. The music has become far more widely known in the suite for full orchestra, which omits only about eight minutes of the ballet score. (Copland orchestrated the remainder of the material in the late 1960s.) The suite's eight sections, played without pause, were described as follows by the composer in his note for the 1945 premiere:

1. VERY SLOWLY. Introduction of the characters, one by one, in a suffused light.

2. FAST. Sudden burst of unison strings in A major arpeggios stars the action. A sentiment both elated and religious gives the keynote to this scene.

3. MODERATE. Duo for the Bride and her Intended--scene of tenderness and passion.

4. QUITE FAST. The Revivalist and his flock. Folksy feelings--suggestions of square dances and country fiddlers.

5. STILL FASTER. Solo dance of the Bride--presentiment of motherhood. Extremes of joy and fear and wonder.

6. VERY SLOWLY (as at first). Transition scenes reminiscent of the introduction.

7. CALM AND FLOWING. Scenes of daily activity for the Bride and her farmer-husband. There are five variations on a Shaker theme . . . sung by a solo clarinet . . .

8. MODERATE. CODA. The Bride takes her place among her neighbors. At the end the
couple are left "quiet and strong in their new house." Muted strings intone a
hushed, prayerlike passage. The close is reminiscent of the opening music.

Like the Britten opera from which the opening music in this week's concerts was drawn, Appalachian Spring was one of a number of significant musical works created toward the end of World War 2 under commissions from American organizations. Another directly contemporaneous one was Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by Koussevitzky, who also commissioned Peter Grimes, and in this case introduced under his direction at the end of 1944. In the context of these works and their respective origins--the Britten commissioned by Koussevitzky, the Copland ballet commissioned by Mrs. Coolidge and introduced at the Library of Congress, it is pertinent to note that in 1949 the original Koussevitzky Music Foundation, which had been founded in New York seven years earlier, established a second entity, the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress, specifically for the commissioning of new works and providing support for their performance.