Appalachian Spring: Concert Suite for Full Orchestra

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            Aaron Copland is generally considered America’s greatest composer.  That is, it is he, through his compositions and through his essays, books, lectures, and other thoughts on music who has done more than any other individual to establish a corpus of “serious” music in this country that largely defined an “American Sound."  He lived a long life; influenced generations of young composers; advanced the cause of art music in this country; and composed music that delighted millions in the audiences of ballet, chamber music, symphonic music, radio, television, and the movies.  The son of Jewish immigrants, he lived for most of his life in New York City—or close by—but assimilated so much of the disparate elements of our culture that he came to be considered as representative of all of it.  In his music one finds jazz, ethnic, western, folk, intellectual, and populist elements and references—and much more: Cuban, Mexican, and European Continental.  But his wide-ranging intellect easily synthesized it all into an inimitable style (or small group of stylistic voices) with which his music spoke with a clear and unified expression. 

            His greatest musical influence was undoubtedly the grande dame of teachers, Mme. Nadia Boulanger, with whom he studied in Paris during the early 1920s.   Teacher of generations of distinguished performers and composers, she counted Copland as her greatest pupil.   Of course, while spending those years in Paris—along with the so-called “lost” generation (Copland was assuredly not part of it)—he was exposed to a wealth of musical styles and composers.   Of them, Stravinsky was the other great influence upon Copland.  Upon his return to the USA his early dalliances with jazz and “symphonic jazz” were more or less replaced by a severe, often dissonant style—one not often associated with Copland by many of today’s audiences, but definitely a life-long option for him in his compositions.  During the 1930s his interest in socialist perspectives crystallized for him and he turned to a more accessible, populist style that has come to be his hallmark for mainstream America.  His ballets, Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring, as well as his music for the films, Of Mice and Men and Our Town and other works all endeared him to a wide audience and made his reputation as a composer of “American” music.  He continued that trend with the Lincoln Portrait, music for the film adaptation of Steinbeck’s Red Pony, and even wrote a clarinet concerto for the great Benny Goodman.  How mainstream American can you get?   But about 1950 both Copland’s musical style and his popular place in society took a distinct turn.  His earlier support of socialist causes (he supported the American Communist Party in the election of 1936) made him a target of Red Hysteria and Senator McCarthy.   The Republican Party cancelled a performance of his Lincoln Portrait for Ike’s inauguration, and other indignities followed him for a few years.  His music began—but not completely—to return to the severe and dissonant basis that informed his early work, and he occasionally disappointed those who commissioned works thinking they were going to get another Appalachian Spring.  By 1972, in his own words, it was “as if someone had simply turned off a faucet,” and he gave up composition completely.   He died in 1990 of Alzheimer’s disease.

            In 1943 the great American dancer and choreographer, Martha Graham, armed with $500 from a prominent patron, approached Copland with the idea to write some music for her ballet company.  He had already garnered success with Billy the Kid, and Rodeo—Copland was a lifelong aficionado of dance—and soon produced a half-hour or so of music appropriate to a story quite unlike that with which we now are familiar.  He simply entitled the work, “Music for Martha.”  Dissatisfied with the original story, Graham completely reworked it into a scenario (following the published score) that concerns a pioneer celebration:

 ." . . in spring around a newly-build 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."

            Needless to say, Copland’s music was conceived with none of this in mind, moreover, the title that Graham chose originated in a Hart Crane poem about a mountain rivulet.  Copland was often amused later at plaudits accorded him for evoking the “hope” inherent in simple people in the "spring" season.  Nevertheless, his angular melodies, spare textures, and relatively simple harmonies were brilliantly exploited by Graham in her appropriation of his music for her choreography.   While much of Copland’s earlier work consciously had used folk melodies as part of his musical resources, Appalachian Spring is based around original material that seems to evoke folk simplicities.  The major, important exception is his use of the Shake dance tune, ‘Tis a Gift to be Simple,’ around which he builds a set of variations that lead to the climax of the work.  His rhythms echo the muscular, almost jerky, movements that—as every serious dancer knows—are characteristic of Graham’s choreographic style.  Metrical shifts and constantly changing accents inform most of the livelier sections.

            This little gem of a ballet has assumed a place of favored—almost iconic—status for American audiences.  It, along with Fanfare for the Common Man, Lincoln Portrait, Rodeo (Beef—It’s What’s for Dinner!), and other brilliant compositions have all come to help inform our sense of who we are as Americans.  And, it is a comment upon the great, sprawling nature of our country that one of its most eloquent creators of that image was a gay, leftist, son of Jewish immigrants from Brooklyn.


--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan