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"Appalachian Spring" by Aaron Copland
with Robert Kapilow and John Adams

Aaron Copland’s "Appalachian Spring” captures the essence of an ideal America, one of open fields and endless possibilities. But when Copland began his Pulitzer Prize-winning ballet score in 1942, he couldn’t have foreseen that it would become one of the most inspiring and symbolic works of the century. In fact, he wasn’t even sure what the title would be. On this edition of Milestones of the Millennium, we examine the story behind this American masterpiece and hear commentator and composer Robert Kapilow dissect its deceptively simple harmonies.

In an interview with NPR music commentator Fred Calland, Copland said, “The fate of pieces is really rather curious…you can’t always figure out in advance exactly what’s going to happen to them.” While Copland was aware that the ballet would deal with pioneering American themes, his working title was simply, “Ballet for Martha.”

Dancer Martha Graham had been commissioned to choreograph the ballet and danced the leading role. Copland readily admitted that the pastoral beauty of Appalachia wasn’t on his mind when he wrote the score: “I gave voice to that region without knowing I was giving voice to it.” Graham chose the title after Copland had written much of the score, though he said that her dance style must have evoked Appalachia. The music and dance were perfect complements; together they reflect youthful aspiration in the American heartland.

Copland was no stranger to Americana and adventure. His 1942 score for the ballet “Rodeo” captivated audiences and critics alike with vivid images of life in the American west. We hear “Saturday Night Waltz” and the rambunctious “Hoedown” from “Rodeo,” with the composer conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.

Composer Robert Kapilow deconstructs “Appalachian Spring” at the piano in NPR's studio. He says you can hear the essence of the whole ballet in the opening chords. By improvising on simple tonal elements from these chords, Copland creates repeating patterns which Kapilow describes as being “centered in the earth.” Then after adding slight chord variations, Copland introduces a simple melody, descending like sunlight upon a pastoral scene. The effect is like a flowering at dawn, as Copland creates the perfect setting for the ballet’s primary characters, two young newlyweds on the western Pennsylvania frontier.

An emotional highpoint of the score is a melody based on a traditional Shaker song, “Simple Gifts.” We hear a chorus sing the original hymn that provided Copland his inspiration, then listen to Copland’s beautiful solo vocal and instrumental adaptations. Throughout the work, Copland brilliantly weaves melodies that evoke simplicity and the “earnest but good-natured piety” of Shaker culture. Composer John Adams discusses the Shaker influence on American culture and how Copland allowed that to shape the piece.

Music critics were in awe of Copland’s ability to capture a vast emotional world within the limits of the 13-piece orchestration prescribed by the original score (which, in turn, was dictated by the size of the Coolidge Auditorium orchestra pit at the Library of Congress, site of the ballet's premiere). With some strings, a few woodwinds and piano he achieves remarkable effects.

In letters to friends, the prolific 40-year-old composer expressed great satisfaction with the “sonorities” of his score. As Kapilow demonstrates, Copland concludes the entire work with an ingenious return to the primal chords with which he starts. Prophetically, Copland's completion of “Appalachian Spring” was itself a new beginning.

Listen as PT host Lisa Simeone explores Copland's "Appalachian Spring" with commentary by Robert Kapilow and John Adams, and interviews with the composer himself. It's another online feature from Milestones of the Millenium. (This audio segment requires the free RealPlayer 5.0 or higher. Portions of the music have been edited from this online version. You can also listen with a 14.4 connection)

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