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Appalachian Spring (Suite from the ballet)

About the Work

Aaron Copland
Quick Look Composer: Aaron Copland
Program note originally written for the following performance:
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
© Thomas May

Aaron Copland (1900-1989) has long held a secure position in the cultural pantheon of America. Yet it took him some time to arrive at the style of directness and simplicity that sounds so "right"-as if he'd started out writing that way without having to struggle toward it. One of Copland's most inspiring quotes speaks to a belief in the resilient power of art that many have discovered in his own music: "So long as the human spirit thrives on this planet, music in some living form will accompany and sustain it and give it expressive meaning."

Copland composed Appalachian Spring as a ballet for Martha Graham's company in 1943-44; in 1945 he arranged and reorchestrated the score into the familiar concert suite we hear. The full ballet was first performed on October 30, 1944 at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., while the orchestral suite was premiered on October 4, 1945 by the New York Philharmonic.

Appalachian Spring marked an important turning point not only in the composer's career but in the history of American music and has retained its bracing freshness despite close to seven decades of familiarity. This music conveys an unselfconscious beauty, as if Copland were merely transcribing something already there-"a home-spun musical idiom," as the composer himself termed it. Yet Copland also pointed out that this idiom represents "a kind of musical naturalness that we have badly needed"-an idiom that, in other words, had to be crafted afresh.

Appalachian Spring has come to epitomize Copland (even if it represents only one stage in a long career); it has even come to epitomize the "American voice" in classical music. In fact Copland, who was the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, had tried out several styles before deciding to cultivate a more straightforwardly popular language. He had previously spent time studying in Paris and experimented with modernist ideas that he never entirely discarded. After the premiere of his Organ Symphony in 1925 caused a stir, writes Copland's biographer Howard Pollack, the conductor Walter Damrosch melodramatically turned to the audience and declared: "Ladies and gentlemen, when the gifted young American who wrote this symphony can compose, at the age of twenty-three, a work like this one, it seems evident that in five years more he will be ready to commit murder!"

But the Great Depression sharpened Copland's desire to communicate with a wider audience. During the 1930s he began to gain greater prominence through his music for ballet, theater, and film. In 1943, he was commissioned by the eminent art patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge to create a ballet on American themes for choreographer and dancer Martha Graham (1894-1991), a trailblazer in modern dance. The familiar title came later; Copland's working title was "Ballet for Martha" (now the subtitle), and he composed the music without any particular notions of Appalachia or springtime in mind. It was actually Graham who chose the title, derived from a section of Hart Crane's epic poem The Bridge. It's also worth noting that Copland composed this undiluted, classic evocation of a simple, folk-like America while living in Hollywood and Mexico.

Copland originally scored the ballet for a small chamber ensemble of 13 instruments. For the concert suite he cut out some of the original material, reducing the story to eight numbers. At the same time, Copland rescored the music for a fuller orchestra. "The larger palette," observes Pollack, "provided a new grandeur and brilliance to the work," while "some of the episodes...acquired a whole new richness with full strings and brass."

Copland immediately establishes the pastoral scene in his idyllic, dreamy opening, expanding a simple three-note idea. (A more-assertive variant of this theme appears in the contemporaneous Fanfare for the Common Man.) That simplicity, though, is deceptive, and Copland unfurls a striking range of emotions from his basic material. As each of the characters is introduced, the music layers into bright, warm chords, like a dawn mist that slowly evaporates. The promise here of a fresh beginning is as bright and enveloping as the sunny textures of a Georgia O'Keefe canvas.

The action then begins with a sudden charge of energy. Copland indicates that "a sentiment both elated and religious gives the keynote to this scene." A gentle duo dance for the Bride and her Groom follows, and the tempo then quickens-with "suggestions of square dances and country fiddlers"-for the scene with the Revivalist preacher and his flock. The Bride's solo introduces even faster music and exciting rhythmic accents to reflect the "extremes of joy and fear and wonder" as she thinks of future motherhood.

A brief transition recalling the introductory music leads to the ballet's best-known sequence: a set of five variations on a Shaker melody which had been published in a mid-nineteenth-century collection under the title "Simple Gifts." Interestingly, this tune-first heard on solo clarinet, with decorative comments from the woodwinds-is the only pre-existing folk melody used in the score. Other sections of the music which sound folk-like only emphasize the composer's skill in fashioning an aura of spontaneity through his music. The ballet concludes with a moving coda beginning with muted strings: the music of the opening now rendered as a quiet, inward hymn. Copland distills his material to an even more lucid simplicity that is indeed, in his words, "quiet and strong.".