America is a place where one can ideally create their own unique life with ultimate freedom of expression and endless opportunities. This ethos originated through the idea that all people are created equally and when working together, greatness will be achieved. Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” captures the true essence of what it means to be an American. His piece conjures up feelings of hopefulness, curiosity, and inspiration, all of which represent the spirit of America. Through the referencing of traditional American hymns combined with his own original composition, Copland has truly recreated the American Dream in his music.
Commissioned by modern choreographer and dance pioneer Martha Graham in 1942, Copland set out to compose a ballet that would feature Graham as the lead dancer. She had specifically requested that the piece display “American” style thematic material, as her ballet was set to tell the story of two newlyweds, their quaint new farmhouse, and the celebration of spring. Copland didn’t realize it at the time, but he had begun writing what many music enthusiasts described as the sound of Appalachia. “Appalachian Spring evokes an idealized image of the frontier and its eternal sense of opportunity and promise while synthesizing a musical language that, like the best of our national efforts, transforms the myriad threads which form our collective community into an integrated and astoundingly beautiful whole.” (Sato Moughalian, Perspectives Ensemble, 2012). In the passage above, Moughalian is expressing that Copland’s composition depicts a relationship between sounds that could be compared to the relationship of a well-integrated community. Each instrumental section of the ballet represents a unique voice that when combined, creates a beautiful conversation.
Copland’s original score was written for a thirteen-member ensemble. It was not until later that Polish conductor Artur Rodziñzki commissioned Copland to arrange his composition into the famous orchestral suite that is still celebrated to this day. The first section of the ballet is described in the score as “very slowly”. Set in the key of A major, the piece begins with a pedal on the tonic presented by the violins and violas, while a solo clarinetist states the first theme. This theme consists of an A major triad expressed one note at a time in root position. Copland is known for his simplistic composition style. Through using larger intervals, he is able to create a musical painting of wide-open spaces. This theme continues to be handed off between soloists including the flutes and flugelhorns. Soon, the thematic material has reached its way across the entire ensemble, each musical cell being expressed on displaced beats. This creates a drone-like gesture that may induce the listener with feelings of joy and images of the American frontier. Keeping these images in mind, Graham choreographed a beautiful opening to this ballet in which its characters are first introduced. One by one, a husband, bride, preacher, and flock of revivalists take the stage with pure elegance. Together, Graham and Copland captured a congregation of the common people of America.
Copland takes his listeners by surprise when he first introduces the ‘Fast/Allegro’ movement following the introduction. Remaining in A major, the strings express a memorable theme built of arpeggios played in unison. This three-bar phrase remains consistent throughout the ballet, appearing in various contexts with contrasting tempos, dynamics, etc. As the Allegro movement proceeds, Copland continues to display arpeggiated triads from the opening section. However, this theme is now being presented in new keys including F major, which shares a third-relationship with A major. Simultaneously occurring with the new ‘Allegro’ theme, the two musical statements build off of each other. This creates tension that is soon released when the themes finally match up to create a glorious contrapuntal moment in American music history. University of North Texas alum Russell Rober offers an accurate and scholarly synopsis of Copland’s ballet in his Master’s thesis. “Static and dynamic areas, non-traditional harmonies, tonal material used in unique ways, and third-related keys. Not tonal in a traditional sense, is not pandiatonic, is not highly chromatic, and does not employ a double-tonic complex. It is an individualistic example of tonality in the twentieth century.” (Russell Rober, Tonality and Harmonic Motion in Copland’s Appalachian Spring, 1993). This movement is performed through dance as the revivalist flock moves about the stage in perfect unison. By incorporating religious postures such as prayers and bows into the ballet, Graham captures the spiritual essence of an American farmhouse.
Appalachian Spring comes to an exhilarating climax when Copland introduces a traditional Shaker song known as “Simple Gifts”, written by American songwriter Joseph Brackett in 1848. This recognizable American hymn is stated in Copland’s “Doppio Movimento” of Appalachian Spring, a section of the ballet that occurs twice as fast as the normal tempo. A clarinet first plays the recognizable melody while a flute accompanies, mainly playing the root and 5th diatonic note in the key. The two voices begin trading the melody back and forth like an elegant conversation. Written in the key of C major, “Simple Gifts” is often classified as a song for dance, as its melody is quick and flowing, while still diatonic and easily memorable. In this movement of the ballet, Martha choreographed a dance between the husband and wife in which they celebrate their lives in their strong, newly built house. The movement ends with a grand gesture as the hymn is projected throughout the entire ensemble at fortississimo.
Following “Simple Gifts”, Aaron Copland finishes his composition with a Moderato section. This sections contrasts greatly from the previous section as it is played at pianissimo with legato phrasing. Described in the score as “like a prayer”, Copland revisits some of his simpler ideas from the ballet’s opening movement. Drifting between multiple major and minor chords, he demonstrates his sensitive awareness in voice leading. Through this, he is able to once again capture Appalachian imagery. The chorale-like movement is choreographed with the upmost beauty as the bride presents a solo dance while the other characters remain still. Graham continues to choreograph religious gestures into dance as the wife reminisces on her and her husband’s life together.
Appalachian Spring is considered to be one of the most popular suites in American culture. Although it represents peace and simplicity, the commissioning of the ballet consisted of nearly the opposite. American music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge commissioned the ballet, while evoking her own ideas into its legacy. Its premiere had been rescheduled multiple times, eventually being premiered over a year later than expected. “The Commissioning of Appalachian Spring involved missed deadlines, broken promises, and last-minute substitutions. The principals in the drama of the commissioning must often have felt that they were creating an object-lesson in the folly of government involvement in the arts rather than a work that would serve as a symbol of America.” (Shirley, Wayne D. “Ballet for Martha: The Commissioning of Appalachian Spring, p.102-123). The passage above continues to analyze multiple letters regarding the commissioning of the ballet. After its premiere on October 30th, 1944, Copland won the Pulitzer Prize for music in his incredible accomplishment.
Coinciding with leftist, socialist groups, Aaron Copland was heavily involved in politics throughout his career. Although his composition boasts the grace and simplicity of rural America, he wrote in response to the devastation of the Great Depression and World War II. “Copland’s music from the 1930s and 1940s is most often described as quintessentially “American” in sound and character, but Michael Denning (American cultural historian) reminds us that the “figure of ‘America’ “ is a symbol, “locus for ideological battles over the trajectory of US history, the meaning of race, ethnicity, and region in the United States, and the relation between ethnic nationalism, Americanism, and internationalism.” (Crist, Elizabeth B. “Aaron Copland and the Popular Front” p. 457). The upheaval of the economy and the Great Depression inspired Copland to write with the upmost simplicity in hopes to reach a broader audience.
Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring represents the joyful spirit of America expressed through the grace of Martha Graham’s choreography. Their work together proved that even the simplest forms of inspiration could inspire a wealth of beauty and cultural freedom. “Copland, even when composing his most erudite works, was no ivory-tower composer. His lifelong concerns of musical communication, promotion of the living composer, and establishment of an identifiably American musical expression placed him in the center of musical activity in the United States throughout much of the twentieth century.” (Marta Robertson, Aaron Copland: A Guide to Research, p.2). The legacy of Aaron Copland and Martha Graham will forever live on through this pure and moving work of art.
Aaron Copland was born November 4th, 1900 in Brooklyn, NY. Born into a conservative Jewish family, Copland was the youngest of five siblings. He first gained musical interest through his mother Sarah Mittenthal Copland who was a pianist and singer. Following in the footsteps of his older siblings, Copland began taking piano lessons early at a young age. Copland’s passion, alongside his advanced grip on tonal harmony would eventually lead him into his intriguing musical career. Into his early teens, Copland first started becoming inspired to write grander compositions including piano sonatas and operas. He took private lessons with renowned music educator and composer Rubin Goldmark where he worked on composition and music theory. Still based in New York City, Copland expanded his musical company by constantly attending New York Symphony and Metropolitan Opera concerts. All along, Copland developed a strong fascination with socialist ideologies. He had been known for speaking out in favor of many leftist, communist organizations, and even got himself blacklisted on multiple occasions for having been involved in these groups. These political affiliations affected his music in personal ways. He strived to convey simplicity in his music that would demonstrate the purity of American values. Some of his most famous compositions include Appalachian Spring, Billy The Kid, Fanfare for the Common Man, and Rodeo. Copland continued to pursue music into his later life, frequently appearing as a guest conductor for various orchestras around the world. Copland died on December 2nd, 1990 from Alzheimer’s disease. His fund, “Aaron Copland Fund for Composers” grants $600,000 to the performing arts yearly.
Rober, Russell Todd. “Tonality and Harmonic Motion in Copland’s Appalachian Spring.” Master’s thesis, University of North Texas, 1993.90 p. UMI No. MA1355854.
Shirley, Wayne D. “Ballet for Martha: The Commissioning of Appalachian Spring” Performing Arts Annual (1987): 102-123.
Moughalian, Sato. “Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring and the Traditional Music That Inspired It.” Perspectives Ensemble. N.p., 2012. Web.
Robertson, Marta, and Robin Armstrong. Aaron Copland: A Guide to Research. P.2 New York: Routledge, 2001. Print
Crist, Elizabeth B. “Aaron Copland and the Popular Front” Journal of the American Musicological Society
Vol. 56, No. 2 (Summer 2003), p. 457