Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring: The Ballet for Martha Graham (1944)

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Analysis and critique of American composer Aaron Copland's ballet score for Martha Graham of 1944, which was taken from a piece for 13 instruments, fully orchestrated and won a Pulitzer Prize.

Copland, reviewing his scores in Central Park

Aaron Copland established American concert music through his compositions, polemics, promotions, and just plain hard work. He belonged to a generation of composers - along with Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, and Walter Piston - which not only raised our native music to a thoroughly professional level, but put it on an equal footing with contemporary developments in European modernism. As Stravinsky once remarked, "Why call Copland a great American composer? He's a great composer."

As Leonard Bernstein noted, they were the rhythms of someone who had grown up with jazz and American pop, although not necessarily jazz rhythms. As a young man in his 20s, he composed a ballet Grohg (later reworked as the Dance Symphony) to an Expressionist libretto by the theater critic Harold Clurman. Later works culminate in the highly Stravinskian Short Symphony and the craggy Piano Variations, two masterpieces in which this writer can find not a single wasted note.

Copland can be considered the product of two milieus: Paris and the United States. The States gave him something not always at the front of his conscious mind - an imaginative landscape of expression, more than anything else. Paris gives him a French orientation and technique, as well as an elegance of expression - the ability to say the most with the fewest notes. Additionally, he became an impresario of modern-music concerts and assiduously attended the major modern music festivals, always on the lookout for something new.

Aaron Copland has often been called "the dean of American music"; his lifetime efforts to recognize, encourage and reward young composers resulted in a fruition in which he was able to take personal pride. Through his works he became a leading figure in the history of contemporary American music. Music historian Orin Howard wrote, "The broad success of America's Aaron Copland has in large part been the result of the appeal and accessibility of Aaron Copland's Americana. Like untold numbers of composers before him, Copland appropriated familiar folk tunes, placed them in the context of a large design, put his personal stamp upon them, surrounded them with original music having the same folklike character, and ended by 'inventing' a folklore that seems for all the world to be the genuine article."

Appalachian Spring was commissioned for the Martha Graham Ballet Company by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation and received its first performance at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. on October 30, 1944. The work received the New York Music Critics' Circle Award as outstanding theatrical work of the 1944-45 Season. Copland scored the work as an orchestral suite shortly thereafter, creating a condensed version of the ballet by retaining all essential features, but omitting those sections in which the interest is primarily choreographic. The Suite from Appalachian Spring received its first performance by the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Society on October 4, 1945, conducted by Artur Rodzinsky. The work received the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1945.

The first page of the score with original instrumentation for 13 instruments.

Copland himself noted that "the music of the ballet takes as its point of departure the personality of Martha Graham," and his score bears the affectionate subtitle "Ballet for Martha." The title Appalachian Spring was found by Miss Graham in a poem by Hart Crane; the ballet's scenario, created well before the felicitous discovery was made, was summarized by Edwin Denby (Copland's librettist for the 1937 high school opera The Second Hurricane), reporting the New York premiere in the Herald Tribune of May 15, 1945, as:

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 hew household of the strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end, the couple are left quiet and strong in their new home.

In place of the western tunes he had used so effectively in his two earlier ballets -- Billy the Kid (1938) and Rodeo (1942) -- Copland introduced in this score a hymn-like Shaker tune that was to prove remarkably successful in creating precisely the atmosphere of simple wonder, humility, and faith that is the essence of the work.

The characters are introduced, one by one, in the opening slow music. A fast section then accompanies the activities around the settlement, reflecting, in Copland's words, "a sentiment both elated and religious." A "scene of tenderness and passion" for the betrothed couple is succeeded by one in which the Revivalist exhorts his flock. "Folksy feelings -- suggestions of square dances and country fiddlers" (the composer's words again) -- lead to a solo dance in which the bride expresses her "presentation of motherhood, extremes of joy and fear and wonder." Another slow section, reminiscent of the introduction, takes us to the one marked "Calm and flowing," in which the Shaker theme mentioned above and Copland's five variations on it depict "scenes of daily activity for the Bride and her farmer-husband." Finally, "the Bride takes her place among her neighbors. At the end the couple are left 'quiet and strong in their new house. Muted strings intone a hushed, prayer-like passage. The close ins reminiscent of the opening music."

* Cover image is Martha Graham performing at the Washington DC premiere in 1944.

* Recommended listening: The set of links below are the complete and fully orchestrated version of Appalachian Spring performed by a fairly accomplished student orchestra. This is only an example.  Please support those who work in the arts by purchasing music and art legally.Thank you.

1 comment

Joe Dorish
Posted on Aug 6, 2010