Appalachian Spring

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

Aaron Copland created an American classic with Appalachian Spring, a piece which helped define him as a populist composer. The wide open spaces, the enduring pioneer spirit; these iconic symbols of American identity are expressed quite deliberately in his work. The desire to reflect the lives of the public he wished to reach drove him throughout his career to incorporate elements from many American subcultures into his signature bright and direct style—but it is the pastoral idiom for which he is perhaps best known. Interestingly, Copland found his American voice by way of a path that began in Paris, where he studied with Nadia Boulanger in his twenties. While there he was fascinated by the Russian, decidedly non-Romantic musical trends that were prominent in Europe at the time; in particular, the harmonies of Stravinsky would show their influence in Copland’s work throughout the rest of his career. Upon his return to the United States, however, he had a growing awareness of a widening gap between audience and composer. He later wrote, “During the mid-‘30s, I began to feel an increasing dissatisfaction with the relations of the music-loving public and the living composer…It seemed to me that we composers were in danger of working in a vacuum.”

Copland adopted a more tonal approach that would bridge that gap and directly appeal to this public. His early attempts, which incorporated jazz elements, did not meet with success, but he found the effect he was looking for by borrowing familiar folk tunes instead. When the war years arrived, they intensified the need to find a national voice—not just for Copland, but for composers of all countries who sought a nationalist response to the surge of fascism that threatened the globe. Copland’s contribution to the repertoire of the war years produced overtly patriotic works such as A Lincoln Portrait (1942), which honors the American president, and Fanfare for the Common Man (1943), which celebrates the everyday citizen. It was during this time that he began to be regarded as a populist composer.

Appalachian Spring, written in 1943-44, was Copland’s third ballet after Billy the Kid (1938) and Rodeo (1942). While his previous ballets were Westerns tales, Appalachian Spring stands apart in its more poignant depiction of rural Americana, and for its famous quotation of “Simple Gifts”—a very different choice from the cowboy tunes that featured in his earlier ballets. The work was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge as a collaboration between Copland and choreographer Martha Graham—another major figure who helped shape an American identity for the arts. It was a fitting pair: of Graham’s choreography Copland said, “Her dance style is seemingly—but only seemingly—simple and extremely direct,” and much the same could be said of his own work. Copland said his music for the ballet “takes as its point of departure the personality of Martha Graham”—it was influenced as much by her as by American consciousness.

The original music was scored for thirteen instruments, mainly due to spatial constrictions of the orchestra pit. It is better known as the orchestral suite that Copland arranged in 1945—a condensed concert version of the ballet, the main omission being of the more choreographic material before the final variation of “Simple Gifts.” Even with the chamber version, however, Copland’s sense for when to exercise restraint and when to employ the full color of the instruments produces the effect of a larger ensemble.

The ballet premiered on October 30, 1944 at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. with Martha Graham dancing the role of the bride, and set design by Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Copland’s working title for the piece was simply “Ballet for Martha”, until Graham suggested “Appalachian Spring” from a line she read in a Hart Crane poem shortly before the premiere. The title was chosen only because she liked it; the ballet itself has no connection to the Appalachians, despite any evocation listeners may impose upon it, and spring in this case refers to a water source. The story of the ballet was originally summarized 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.”

The opening rising notes on the clarinet signal an awakening, the dawn of a new day as well as a new life together on the frontier. The music is slow and solemn, with spare texture, and its expansiveness is suggestive of the open landscape. The key is A major, though the clarinet outlines a C major chord in an example of Stravinsky’s polytonal influence.

This slow and dignified beginning is interrupted by a sudden brisk and bright passage on the strings, who usher in a new section: fast, with shorter note values, and an entirely new mood. The phrases are straightforward—mostly runs of eighth notes—but they are fragmented, remixed, layered, and dipped in and out of varying textures. Herein lies the secret to Copland’s genius: such simple phrases are masterfully arranged and used as building blocks to create the ebb and flow of the music, the seamless blend of dense and spare texture. The sudden changes in mood throughout the piece seem so organic that they belie the subtly crafted framework that holds everything together. As Copland once said of his own process: “I don’t compose; I assemble materials.”

The piece moves through the various scenes of the newlyweds’ life: among them, we hear the revivalists celebrating with a folksy square dance tune, and the bride expressing joy and apprehension at impending motherhood with jarring rhythms that give way to a nervous variation of the earlier brisk theme. Every so often between scenes, the opening sonorities are heard and offer a grounding and reassuring presence. When the melody of “Simple Gifts” appears and grows through its variations, we have arrived at a place of joy and humble gratitude that the song expresses. As we land upon the final, soaring, variation, we are elevated to a state of wonder as the pioneer spirit takes on a new dignity. This is Copland again finding nobility in the everyday.

By the time the piece ends, and the couple have taken their place in their new surroundings, Copland’s final stroke of genius lands the music in C major—a different key from where the piece began, but again feeling entirely natural, and fittingly ending the piece in the “simplest” of all key signatures. Once more, the opening phrase is heard in the clarinet. The newlyweds have arrived at a point of strength and certainty.

© Pamela Feo