Aaron Copland returned from his studies in Paris in 1924, bringing back to America the technique and clarity he had honed during three years of lessons with the noted pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. He also retained a taste for the spiky, crystalline sounds of modern European music, the kind of sound popularized in Paris by Stravinsky and the young French composers known as “les Six.” The music Copland wrote over the next decade was some of his most incisive and angular, but in the mid-1930s and beyond he relaxed into the broad, spacious aesthetic of Rodeo, Appalachian Spring and other favorites in a more populist vein.
By the time Copland introduced his Symphony No. 3 in 1946, which included the rousing “Fanfare for the Common Man,” he was the clear leader among the generation of composers who were defining a new American sound. His music even caught the ear of an unlikely champion of contemporary music: Benny Goodman, the “King of Swing,” who had taken to using the windfall from his commercial successes to commission new repertoire for the clarinet. (Up to that point, he had focused his attention on top European composers, including Bartók, Milhaud and Hindemith.) Goodman gave Copland $2,000 and free reign on what to compose. The work progressed fitfully during 1947 and 1948, until finally Copland had a Clarinet Concerto ready for his famous patron. After a few adjustments to the solo part and a delay on Goodman’s end, the concerto reached the public in 1950 during a national radio broadcast by the NBC Symphony Orchestra.
Copland scored the concerto for a small orchestra of strings, harp and piano. The structure is also more compact than a typical concerto, using only two linked sections instead of three separate movements. The opening section, played “slowly and expressively,” stretches long, delicate strands of clarinet melody over humble accompaniments from the harp and strings. The clarinet connects the two sections with an extended cadenza, which gives an impression of free improvisation even though it is fully notated. The “rather fast” second section begins with “staccato, delicate, wraith-like” music, as marked in the piano part that enters here for the first time. A more playful side emerges when the clarinet plays lazy phrases over the jazzy sound of slap bass.
Aaron Grad ©2016
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
About This Program
To celebrate Thanksgiving weekend, the SPCO continues its tradition of presenting a wide range of compositions by American composers. Chia-Hsuan Lin conducts favorites by Aaron Copland including his Clarinet Concerto, featuring SPCO Principal Clarinet Sang Yoon Kim, and the Suite from Appalachian Spring. Flutist Alicia McQuerrey is the soloist for John Corigliano’s lush Voyage and the orchestra premieres a new arrangement of former Artistic Partner Stephen Prutsman’s Color Preludes.