Appalachian Spring. . . Aaron Copland
(Born November 14, 1900, in Brooklyn, New York; died December 2, 1990, in North Tarrytown, New York)
Appalachian Spring has an iconic stature. It is the work most emblematic of Copland’s name, having inspired more admiration by critics and listeners than any of his other music. Some of its fame probably can be attributed to its intertwined history with the work of the famous 20th century modern dancer, Martha Graham. When the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation in the Library of Congress commissioned a dance work from Graham in 1942, she turned to Aaron Copland for the music. In 1944, he delivered a score to her entitled Ballet for Martha, which subsequently became the work’s subtitle. Graham suggested Appalachian Spring, a title that was inspired by Hart Crane's poem, "The Bridge." Appalachian Spring became one of her most durable works and one of the best loved of all-American compositions. “Appalachian Spring would never have existed without her special personality,” Aaron Copland said in 1974. “The music was created for her and it reflects the unique quality of a human being.”
Graham chose the title because she liked the sound of it, but the ballet really has no connection to the Appalachians, and spring in this case refers to a water source rather than the season. 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.” In an interview published in 1975, Graham added, “It is essentially the coming of a new life. It has to do with growing things. Spring is the loveliest and saddest time of year.”
“Appalachian Spring is generally thought to be folk-inspired,” Copland said, “but the Shaker tune ‘Tis the Gift to be Simple’ is the only folk material actually quoted in the piece. Rhythms and melodies that suggest a certain ambiance, and the use of specific folk themes, are after all not the same thing. It took me about a year to finish and I remember thinking how crazy it was to spend all that time because I knew how short‑lived most ballet scores are, but [it] took on a life of its own.” The score displays an absorption in the vernacular, as Pollock, Copland’s biographer says, “suitable to a script so steeped in a wide range of American myth and folklore. It often gives the impression of folk music.”
Copland’s Appalachian Spring ballet divides into two parts that “seemingly portray peace and war.” Appalachian Spring was first performed at the Library of Congress in Washington on October 30, 1944, by a cast that included Martha Graham, (dancing the role of the bride), Merce Cunningham and Erick Hawkins. The set design was by Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. The music was originally scored for an ensemble of thirteen instruments: flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano, four violins, two violas, two cellos and bass, giving it an intimacy that would be more difficult to convey with a larger orchestra. Those were then all the instruments for which there was room in the tiny pit of the small auditorium at the Library of Congress. Although five different versions exist, the orchestral suite is the best known today.
The opening ascending clarinet notes conjure an awakening, the beginning of a new day and a new life on the frontier. The slow music is serious and has a spare texture. The slow beginning is interjected by a sudden quick and bright string passage, which brings in a different mood. Sudden mood changes throughout the piece continue as the music charts various happenings in the newlyweds’ life: revivalists celebrating with a square dance and the bride expressing joy and apprehension at her approaching shift to motherhood. The opening music intermittently reappears, affording a sense of reassurance. The melody “Simple Gifts” grows with its variations, expressing joy and humble gratitude. Finally, Copland imbues the pioneer spirit with dignity and the nobility of the everyday. At the end, the clarinet again plays the opening phrase.