Copland: Appalachian Spring

Appalachian Spring 

AARON COPLAND
BORN:  November 14, 1900. Brooklyn, NY 
DIED:  December 2, 1990. Peekskill

COMPOSED: 1943-44, for Martha Graham and her dance company. The score carries a dedication to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge

WORLD PREMIERE:  October 30, 1944, Library of Congress, with Martha Graham as the Bride, Erick Hawkins the Groom, Merce Cunningham the Preacher, and May O’Donnell the Neighbor. Louis Horst conducted. Copland’s concert suite for full orchestra was introduced by Artur RodziƄski and the New York Philharmonic-Symphony on October 4, 1945

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—The Suite from Appalachian Spring was first heard in December 1945, with Pierre Monteux conducting. The first SFS performances of the complete ballet music were in June 1996. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted. MOST RECENT—May 1999. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION:  2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, and trombones; timpani, xylophone, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tabor (long drum), wood block, claves, glockenspiel, triangle, piano, harp, and strings

PERFORMANCE TIME:  35 minutes

THE BACKSTORY Few nights in the history of the arts in America can rival October 30, 1944, when the ballet Appalachian Spring received its first performance, at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. That the music was by Aaron Copland and the choreography was by Martha Graham speaks for the consummate level of creativity that was put before the audience. By the time Appalachian Spring appeared, Copland had already won his place in the hearts of balletomanes through his scores for Billy the Kid (1938) and Rodeo (1942), and Graham’s name had become synonymous with the new direction of modern dance. But others who were involved in the project were as eminent in their own ways. Erick Hawkins and Merce Cunningham, both of whom would go on to lead their own dance companies to renown, shared the stage with Graham in the performance, and the acclaimed artist Isamu Noguchi designed the set. The “nuts and bolts” side of the production was starry, too, involving, principally, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, doyenne of Washington's cultural patrons who commissioned the ballet, and Dr. Harold Spivacke, head of the Music Division of the Library of Congress, who patiently coached the masterpiece through its extended labor.

Copland and Graham had flirted with the idea of collaborating as early as 1941, when Graham was envisioning a ballet that might be described as Medea set in New England. When Copland didn’t evince much enthusiasm, Graham turned her thoughts instead to something that would reflect the sort of gentle spirit that had made such an impact in Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play Our Town. This would be the emotional heart of Appalachian Spring. According to Copland, the first script he received from Graham began: “This is a legend of American living. It is like the bone structure, the inner frame that holds together a people.” Such an approach was not atypical of Graham’s method, and, although it understandably vexed many of the composers with whom she worked, it appears not to have rattled Copland, who diplomatically called his score-in-progress simply Ballet for Martha and wisely allowed the project to develop considerably in Graham’s imagination before he invested much time in actually committing music to the page. As it developed, Graham’s scenario seemed a conflation of many strands of American social history, all intersecting around the time of the Civil War in some generalized place in the American heartland. Eventually the setting coalesced in rural western Pennsylvania, a region well known to Graham, who spent her childhood in the town of Allegheny, not far from Pittsburgh.

Since the action of the ballet takes place in the springtime, nearly everybody assumes, not unreasonably, that the “spring” of Appalachian Spring refers to the season. In fact, the title was attached to the piece only a few weeks before the premiere, when Graham stumbled across those words in a poem by Hart Crane. In the poem the Appalachian spring is unquestionably a stream of water trickling through the hills, rather than a season. Graham seems to have been taken with the words in a relatively abstract sense, and since no babbling brook appears in the setting of her ballet, it seems likely that she herself meant the title to refer to the season rather than to the stream. That’s certainly the implication in the brief scenario she supplied for the ballet’s premiere:

Part and parcel of our lives is that moment of Pennsylvania spring when there was “a garden eastward of Eden.”

Spring was celebrated by a man and woman building a house with joy and love and prayer; by a revivalist and his followers in their shouts of exaltation; by a pioneering woman with her dreams of the Promised Land.

In the end, the ballet’s plot was straightforward. A bride and bridegroom get to know one another, somewhat shyly and nervously, and members of their community, including a revivalist preacher, express their own sentiments. The couple grows more comfortable with the ritual of daily life that lies ahead, their humility underscored by Copland’s use of the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts,” and they greet the future with a sense of serenity. The “Simple Gifts” section of Appalachian Spring is the part that has lodged most insistently in the popular memory, and Copland’s variations on that melody are indeed remarkable. Nonetheless, it is a curious inclusion in the context of the final scenario. Copland later remarked, “My research evidently was not very thorough, since I did not realize that there have never been Shaker settlements in rural Pennsylvania!”

THE MUSIC Although the general sound of Appalachian Spring can be found elsewhere in Copland’s works of this period, this is the music that established its vocabulary as representing the quintessential “American sound.” Rich in wide-open, disjunct intervals, it’s a sound that became much imitated by American composers in ensuing years—including very often by Copland himself. That it seemed to evoke something inherently American made it irresistible to composers of strictly commercial music, and in a sentimentalized form it thrives to this day as the inspiration for countless movie and television soundtracks. Copland himself was aware of the pitfalls of empty nostalgia that might torpedo his score, and some years later, after he had conducted it frequently, he would write, “I have often admonished orchestras, professional and otherwise, not to get too sweet or too sentimental with it.” 

James M. Keller

 

MORE ABOUT THE MUSIC

Recordings: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony in the complete ballet score for thirteen instruments. Available as a companion recording to Keeping Score: Copland and the American Sound (SFS Media)  |  Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (RCA Red Seal)  |  Aaron Copland leading the London Symphony Orchestra (CBS)  |  Leonard Bernstein leading the New York Philharmonic (Sony Classical)  

Online: Keeping Score: Copland and the American Sound, with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (available from SFS Media at keepingscore.org and on iTunes and Amazon)

ReadingCopland on Music, by Aaron Copland (Norton)  |  Aaron Copland: A Reader: Selected Writings, 1923-1972, edited by Richard Kostelanetz (Routledge)

(September 2018)