In the 1930s, Aaron Copland wrote that he was making a significant change in his style. “I felt that it was worthwhile to see if I couldn’t say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms.” Additionally, he was committed to creating a distinctive American voice in music. “It was Copland’s genius for finding the memorable, evocative musical phrase that moved him from the avant-garde maverick to the voice of America.” (Barbara Heninger, program note annotator) He succeeded brilliantly. Composer Virgil Thompson called him “The President of American Music.” His music in this regard was so effecting, so endearing, so comprehensible, so identifiable as ours that he singularly defined the American spirit in music. On one occasion, the composer recalled that an audience member, after hearing Appalachian Spring in 1981, came up to him and said, “Mr. Copland … when I hear your music, I can just see the Appalachians and I just feel spring. …” Mr. Copland concluded, “Well, I am willing if they are!”
Appalachian Spring (for chamber orchestra) began as “Ballet for Martha,” referencing Martha Graham’s ballet troupe. According to Copland, the music was based on his friendship with Graham herself. “I was thinking primarily about Martha and her unique choreographic style, which I knew well. Nobody else seems quite like Martha: she’s so proud, so very much herself. And she’s unquestionably very American: there’s something prim and restrained, simple yet strong about her which one tends to think of as American.” Copland met Martha Graham in the early 1930s at a concert that featured his Piano Variations. She told the composer she wanted to dance to it; Copland told her that was “impossible.” Proving him wrong, she created the dance Dithyramb. Copland was thunderstruck. “Surely only an artist with an understanding of my work could have visualized dance material in so rhythmically complex and thematically abstruse a composition.”
The composer began work on Appalachian Spring in 1943, commissioned by the Foundation of Arts patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who paid him $500 “for a dance piece.” Martha Graham (who actually titled the work) had been inspired for a ballet by Hart Crane’s poem, “The Dance,” which included these words:
O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge;
Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends
And northward reaches in that violet wedge
The ballet received the Pulitzer Prize in May 1945. Copland orchestrated the chamber score, and the Suite for Orchestra premiered in 1945 with the New York Philharmonic.
The setting is the early 19th century, on the site of a Pennsylvania farmhouse that was a wedding gift to a young couple. Copland wrote, “The bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, which their new domestic partnership invites. An old 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 ballet had 14 segments; the orchestral version eight. The composer kindly provided the following road map:
- Very slowly. Introduction of the characters, one by one, in a suffused light.
- Fast. Sudden burst of unison strings in A Major arpeggios starts the action. A sentiment both elated and religious gives the keynote to this scene.
- Moderate. Duo for the Bride and her Intended — scene of tenderness and passion.
- Quite fast. The Revivalist and his flock. Folksy feeling — suggestions of square dances and country fiddlers.
- Still faster. Solo dance of the Bride — presentiment of motherhood. Extremes of joy and fear and wonder.
- Very slowly (as at first). Transition scene to music reminiscent of the introduction.
- Calm and flowing. Scenes of daily activity for the Bride and her Farmer husband. There are five variations on a Shaker theme. The theme, sung by a solo clarinet, was taken from a collection of Shaker melodies compiled by author Edward D. Andrews, and published under the title “The Gift to Be Simple.” The melody most borrowed and used almost literally is called “Simple Gifts.”
- 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 chorale passage. The close is reminiscent of the opening music.
The above became iconic American music, deeply embedded and embraced in our culture. The seventh section, “Simple Gifts,” sometimes tends to “steal the show.” In response, Copland made a separate arrangement for orchestra, titled “Variations on a Shaker Tune,” which has also become part of our American musical heritage.
© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2017