Copland: Appalachian Spring
essay by Geoff Kuenning
Aaron Copland, 1900-1990. Appalachian Spring (Ballet for Martha). Completed 1944 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, first performance October 30, 1944, in Washington, D.C. Originally scored for 13 instruments, expanded version scored for 2 each flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, and trombones, an extensive percussion battery of tympani, xylophone, snare drum, bass drum, long drum, wood block, claves, glockenspiel, triangle, plus harp, pianoforte, and strings.
Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring is the best-known work by the dean of American composers, and with good reason. Copland's gentle, jazz-influenced style always falls easily on the ear, and his distinctively ``American'' sound led to the development of a unique national idiom that has served us well for over half a century, both in the concert hall and in the less obvious venue of the movie theater. Copland's work was very popular in Hollywood; he composed scores for many films, including such well-known ones as Our Town and Of Mice and Men.
In 1943 Copland traveled to Hollywood to write the music for "North Star", based on a story by Lillian Hellman. While he was there, he was contacted by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, which commissioned him to write a ballet. The new work would be performed by Martha Graham and her dance company in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress. Copland quickly set to work on the music, which would accompany the story of a wedding in rural Pennsylvania.
The majority of the ballet was composed while Copland was in California and Mexico, with final touches added after he returned to Massachusetts to teach at Harvard University. The melodies are primarily original, but towards the end of the work he chose to quote the Shaker song "Simple Gifts," basing a masterful set of variations on the tune.
Graham was pleased by the work, which was scheduled to be performed in the fall of 1944. The only remaining problem was the title, which apparently stumped both composer and dancer. Even the day before the premiere, the work was still referred to as simply "Ballet for Martha," but at the last minute the name "Appalachian Spring" was taken from a poem by Hart Crane. It is one of the minor oddities of history that this phrase had never before been encountered by the composer, for it describes the music so perfectly that one would naturally conclude it had driven the creation of the work instead of being appended only as an afterthought.
© 1998, Geoff Kuenning