Copland's Appalachian Spring
- February 27, 2016
The initial inspiration for this piece came from Frank Lloyd Wright’s stained glass window designs, which he termed “light screens.” These designs use simple shapes like the square and the rhombus in repetitive patterns, and they often feature a lively dynamic of asymmetry between areas of intense geometric activity and expanses of largely empty space.
Light Screens was originally written for flute and string trio. It was later transcribed for string quartet and taken up by the Ives and Cassatt Quartets.
Andrew Norman ©2002
Following his successes with two ballets set in the American West—Billy the Kid (1938) and Rodeo (1942)—Aaron Copland began Appalachian Spring in 1943. He created the ballet score for the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, in whom he saw “something prim and restrained, simple yet strong about her, which one tends to think of as American.” He worked under the title Ballet for Martha until not long before the premiere, when Graham suggested Appalachian Spring, borrowing a phrase from Hart Crane’s poem “The Bridge.” The writer Edwin Denby summarized the scenario for the original program notes:
"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."
*Appalachian Spring debuted on October 30, 1944, at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Given the limited dimensions of the 500-seat auditorium, Copland had orchestrated the score for just thirteen instruments. He followed up the next year with a concert suite for full orchestra, which kept all the essential aspects of the ballet while trimming some of the sections that were less relevant without choreography. His publisher later released the version heard here, which combines the original scoring for chamber ensemble with the structure of the concert suite.
Copland forged the unmistakable sound of Appalachian Spring out of simple and familiar musical materials. The first section builds a hazy wash of consonant sonorities, especially triads and the open intervals of fourths and fifths. The following section energizes similarly basic materials—octave leaps, triadic intervals and descending major scales—into spry dance music. There is a tender scene for the young couple, a lively romp depicting the revivalist and his dancing minions, and a brisk solo dance for the bride, which dissipates into a return of the gentle, triadic wash of the beginning.
The famous section that follows, starting with a theme in the clarinet, presents the tune of Simple Gifts, a Shaker dance song written in 1848 by Joseph Brackett. The humble melody fits seamlessly into the homespun, diatonic language of Copland’s score, and its increasingly grand variations propel the suite toward a transcendental climax.
Aaron Grad ©2015