Erich Auerbach/Getty Images
Composer Aaron Copland in 1962.
Composer Aaron Copland in 1962. Erich Auerbach/Getty Images
Let's get this out of the way. Aaron Copland always called his piece "Appalachian Spring," but as he wrote in his memoirs, he discovered on a trip to West Virginia in 1972 that he'd been pronouncing the name incorrectly for almost 30 years.
No matter how you pronounce it, the title actually has nothing to do with the genesis of the music. As the composer recalled at an 81st birthday celebration held at the Library of Congress on the same tiny stage were "Appalachian Spring" premiered in 1944...
"I was really putting Martha Graham to music. I had seen her dancing so many times, and I had a sense of her personality as a creative office. I had—really in front of my mind I wasn't thinking about the Appalachians or even spring. So that I had no title for it. I was a ballet for Martha, was actually the subtitle that I had. "
By the time he received the $500 commission to create his ballet for Martha Graham, Aaron Copland was one of America's most important composers. Throughout the 1920s and early '30s, he created work in a modernist style, music that was prickly and angular, frequently utilizing elements of jazz.
But by the early '40s, he moved towards a more populist style, with such pieces as "Fanfare for the Common Man," "Lincoln Portrait" and "Rodeo." According to conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, one of the ways that Copland made his work more accessible was to incorporate American folk music into his scores.
"He listened to folkloric music of America and took recognizable elements from it. The open fourths and fifths from the tuning of folk instruments. The particular odd, out of tune notes that could be a feature of country western music or cowboy ballads. The sort of very easy, loping along the trail kinds of rhythms that were in this music. All of this went into this new style."
In an interview with the BBC, Aaron Copland said that one of the reasons he liked to use folk music was because it was free.
"The principal attraction for me in a folk song was that it was an easy way to sound American. And so I found myself making use of that material."
In 1942, while Copland was in Hollywood, philanthropist Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge commissioned him to create a ballet for Martha Graham to perform at the Library of Congress.
A pioneer of modern dance, Martha Graham was in the midst of creating a series of ballets with a distinctly American flavor. She called them "Frontier," "American Document," "American Provincial." Graham initially sent Copland a scenario for a ballet set during the Civil War. In her correspondence to Copland, Graham was very specific about the kind of feeling she wanted the music to evoke. Pearl Lange, who danced in the premiere, reads from one of these letters.
"And she says, `This is a legend of American living. It is like the bone structure, the inner frame that holds together people. This has to do with living in a new town, someplace where the first fence has just gone up.'"
Letters flew back and forth between Hollywood and Bennington, Vermont, where Graham was teaching. Copland biographer Vivian Perlis says that much of the correspondence was practical.
"He liked to have an idea of what it was about and the timings. For example, 10 minutes of a lyrical, slow section; two minutes of a fast, running section and so forth."
In June, 1943, Copland exclaimed in a letter to the chief of the music division of the Library of Congress, `I think I have my first theme!' Conductor and "Performance Today" commentator Robert Kapilow has analyzed the Copland score.
"At its heart is one chord which is so the essence, not only of "Appalachian Spring," but in my mind Copland's entire vision of America. And it's right at the very beginning and it's this simple chord. That, to me, is the genesis of the whole piece. And what's so interesting is it's very close to something very simple."
Kapilow says Copland found many uses for this simple musical idea.
"The whole piece is dominated by it. You can take those two chords in this version. But if you do it fast on the harp, and go back and forth, you have now the basis for this. And we have a whole set of melodies that come from that."
Copland came up with all of the themes except for the most famous melody in the score, the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts."
Modifying the melody slightly, Copland than created a series of variations on "Simple Gifts." Here's Aaron Copland at the piano in a rare acetate recording made in 1944.
"It's fascinating to work with folk materials, because there's a kind of forced simplicity implied in the working. You don't want to fancify it or dress it up or make it something it isn't meant to be. So that it's a kind of a challenge to see how interesting you can be as a composer within a comparatively small frame."
"Appalachian Spring" is set in a western Pennsylvania community in the early 19th century. Most of the scenario revolves around the courtship and wedding of a young couple, originally played by Martha Graham and Eric Hawkins. Merce Cunningham was the fire and brimstone preacher. Once Copland's score was completed, Graham and her dancers went to work. Pearl Lange danced once of the preacher's followers.
"The first day we heard this music, it was like the sun spread over the floor. Every rehearsal was like that. The music is so clear and so beautiful and so rhythmically alive."
Graham preferred to rehearse without the composer present, so Copland didn't actually see the ballet until the day before the premiere. According to Copland biographer Howard Pollack, what the composer saw on stage was not what he had imagined.
"Martha Graham would often present her composers with these very detailed scenarios that might go for pages and pages, which is the case in "Appalachian Spring." Once she heard the music, she felt free to change her ideas."
Copland liked what he saw and asked Graham what she decided to call it.
"She said, "Appalachian Spring." `Oh,' I said, `What a nice name. Where'd you get it?' She said, `Well, it's the title of a poem by Hart Crane. `Oh,' I said. `Does the poem have anything to do with the ballet?' She said, `No, I just liked the title and I took it.' And over and over again nowadays, people come up to me after seeing the ballet on stage and say, `Mr. Copland, when I see that ballet and when I hear your music, I can just see the Appalachians. I've begun to see the Appalachians myself a little bit."
"Appalachian Spring" premiered on October 30th, 1944, and was a tremendous success. The Graham company toured with the ballet, and on V-E Day in 1945, Aaron Copland won the Pulitzer Prize for his score. Copland adapted the original 13-piece chamber orchestration into a full orchestral suite, which is the version most often heard today. Many critics, including Terry Techout, feel that "Appalachian Spring" is Aaron Copland's finest work.
"It is the ultimate statement of his American musical language. In that piece, all of the elements come together and they're in perfect balance. It is probably the greatest piece of classical music composed by an American. Certainly the greatest dance score composed by an American, completely comparable in quality to the great ballets of Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky. All that is best about mid-century American music is in this piece."