Appalachian Spring Suite (for 13 Instruments), by Aaron Copland
Aaron Copland, dubbed the "Dean of American Composers”, earned this moniker in part by being the first composer whose music was clearly and forever known as simply American. Prior to Copland, there were many fine American composers such as John Paine, George Chadwick, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Amy Beach, etc., but all had clear European influence. Copland’s first piano lessons were with his sister, and later he began formal lessons at the age of twelve. After performing his first recital in a department store, his mother encouraged him to attend as many music performances as he was able and indulge in the musical culture of New York City. One performance in particular, a piano recital by Ignacy Paderewski in 1915, gave him the spark of interest in composition. After beginning his study of composition with Rubin Goldmark, Copland discovered composers Charles Ives and Maurice Ravel leading him to the conclusion that Goldmark was too conservative. He traveled to France in 1921 to attend the American School at Fontainebleau where he studied with Nadia Boulanger. For the entire three years he was there, he studied with her at her home in Paris. He also absorbed the work of French composers and writers and made important connections like Boston Symphony conductor Serge Koussevitsky.
Copland’s output can largely be classified in four categories, the first being works influenced by Jazz. He hoped these works would appeal to American audiences as an alternative to European classical music, e.g., Music for the Theater and the ballet Grogh (later Dance Suite). None was well received. "They called me an ogre," Copland said. "They even claimed...Koussevitzky had programmed [the concerto] with the malice of a foreigner who wanted to show how bad American music is."
Next came pieces, some influenced by Igor Stravinsky, including his Piano Variations (1930), Short Symphony (1933, later Symphony No. 2), and Statements for Orchestra (1935). None of those caught on, either. Copland’s feelings of dissatisfaction with the relations of the music-loving public and the living composer led to the “modern” but accessible piece that he’s best known for. Their sound is "Copland" as he is now described: open, quartal harmonies, changing meters and shifting accents that moved the beat around creating motion, and brilliant settings of American folk and cowboy songs that seemed to come from open prairies of the West–all written by a French-trained, Jewish composer from Brooklyn. The first major success was El Salón México (1936), rooted in Mexican folk music Copland heard on a trip to that country at the behest of Mexican composer Carlos Chavez. There followed the ballet Billy the Kid–his first work with cowboy songs–and An Outdoor Overture (both in 1938), another ballet, Rodeo (1942), Letter from Home and Appalachian Spring (both 1944), and the Third Symphony (1946). His Lincoln Portrait and Fanfare for the Common Man (both 1942) were an effort to boost the morale of soldiers and the country during WWII. For radio broadcasts, he wrote Music for Radio (1937), John Henry (1940), and Letter From Home (1944). Like many classical composers of his era, he also wrote film scores, most notably Of Mice and Men (1939), Our Town (1940), and The Red Pony (1948), The first three earned Oscar nominations with The Heiress (1948) being the piece that finally won.
Appalachian Spring, a Pulitzer Prize winning ballet, was written for American dancer Martha Graham, hence the original title, “Ballet for Martha.” The two met with Graham, after hearing his Piano Variations, expressed to Copland that she would like to dance to it. Her Dithyramb was set to that work, and left Copland flabbergasted at how she was able to penetrate what he described as rhythmically complex and thematically abstruse compositions. While writing Appalachian Spring, Copland was thinking about Martha and her unique choreographic style. Her restraint, her simple yet strong demeanor, and her pride in being herself, lead Copland to see her as very American. The setting is a 19th century Pennsylvania farmhouse, meant to be a wedding gift to the newlyweds. "The bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, which their new domestic partnership invites. An old 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.” Following is his description of the scenes.
• Very slowly. Introduction of the characters, one by one, in a suffused light.
• Fast. Sudden burst of unison strings in A Major arpeggios starts the action. A sentiment both elated and religious gives the keynote to this scene.
• Moderate. Duo for the Bride and her Intended—scene of tenderness and passion.
• Quite fast. The Revivalist and his flock. Folksy feeling—suggestions of square dances and country fiddlers.
• Still faster. Solo dance of the Bride—presentiment of motherhood. Extremes of joy and fear and wonder.
• Very slowly (as at first). Transition scene to music reminiscent of the introduction.
• Calm and flowing. Scenes of daily activity for the Bride and her Farmer husband. There are five variations on a Shaker theme. The theme, sung by a solo clarinet, was taken from a collection of Shaker melodies compiled by author Edward D. Andrews and published under the title "The Gift to Be Simple." The melody most borrowed and used almost literally is called "Simple Gifts."
• Moderate. Coda. 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 prayerlike chorale passage. The close is reminiscent of the opening music.
The piece opens with tranquility. Copland beautifully establishes a sense of stillness in this early section, while also not simply holding one long chord. Every so often, the winds and piano punctuates as if to represent the languid ticking of a clock as one fights to get out of their warm bed in the early morning. After the piece mesmerizes the listener into almost a meditative state, Copland plunges you into the famous “Allegro” or fast section, waking the listener up as if doused in ice water. This section is one of the two most recognizable melodies in the suite, and can be considered the musical equivalent of running through a sprinkler on a hot summer day. It is refreshing, surprising, and upbeat - beautiful demonstrated by the playfulness of the orchestration.
From there, the “Moderato” is tender, calm, and loving. There is a deceptive simplicity to this piece that starts to fade around this moment. Conflict seemingly emerges, representing passion and strength in the instrumentation. The protagonist, the Bridge and her Intended, are preparing for what is to come in their lives. The future is unknown and mysterious, but Copland uplifts that sentiment by acknowledging there is and can always be joy in the unknown, and pivots quickly into a square dance. This is a little reminiscent of his Rodeo Suite. Following this square dance, we get into the “Subito allegro”, hearing elements of the earlier “allegro” theme, but faster and almost panicked, as if Copland is showing the listener how quickly time flashes ahead, and repeats upon itself. This section ends sweetly, with calmness and compassion. Coplan deemed this style of Appalachian Spring as “homespun,” a term that feels vibrant at the end of the “Subito allegro.”
Copland then dips back into the first melody before introducing a variation on a Shaker melody known best as “Simple Gifts.” This is the other well-known theme from Appalachian Spring. This movement grows and evolves so elegantly, passing the melody between the low strings, the bassoon - all while the piano playfully glistens in the background like stars in the night sky. After “Simple Gifts” evolves and passes through the ensemble like a warm summer breeze, we reach the “Moderato - Coda” - recalling the easy stillness of Copland’s opening. By this point, however, the melody feels truly expansive, like a big field of wildflowers. The expansive and openness of the sound broadens the imagination and evokes powerful American imagery of wide open spaces and sky as far as the eye can see. This piece leaves you free to project whatever joys and fears you summon as it plays.