Program Notes

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
Appalachian Spring, Suite for 13 Instruments (1944)

Notes for: August 7, 2012

Early in 1942, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, a well-known Washington, D.C. patron of the arts, invited the famous American dancer Martha Graham to create three new ballets for her foundation’s 1943 annual fall festival at the Library of Congress. At Graham’s suggestion, she commissioned Aaron Copland, Darius Milhaud and Paul Hindemith to provide the scores.

Several months later, Copland received from Graham a ballet script in outline form, divided into scenes with approximate timings indicated. Copland’s working title was Ballet for Martha, but Graham subsequently called the ballet Appalachian Spring, drawing that title from a line in Hart Crane’s poem “The Bridge.” The text of the poem had nothing to do with the ballet, but she liked the rural connotation of the words. Copland still liked Ballet for Martha, and he used that caption as a subtitle in the published score.

Because of Copland’s and Graham’s other commitments, the ballet was premiered a year later than planned. Graham and her company gave the first performance at Coolidge’s modern dance festival in the Library of Congress auditorium on October 30, 1944. The following May Graham presented the ballet in New York, and it subsequently won both the Pulitzer Prize for Music and the award of the Music Critics Circle of New York for the season’s outstanding work for the musical theater.

Given the small orchestra pit in the Library of Congress auditorium, Copland initially scored the ballet for only 13 instruments – flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano, four violins, two violas, two cellos and double bass. In the spring of 1945, Copland arranged the music as a suite for symphony orchestra, dropping or recasting those passages initially included only for choreographic purposes. This is the form in which it is most frequently played today.

In 1970, however, a friend persuaded Copland to publish the suite in its original 13-instrument scoring, and invited him to conduct it in Los Angeles. The composer subsequently endorsed and conducted both versions, convinced that, particularly in small auditoriums, the original provided an intimacy consistent with the work’s simple materials and folk-like idiom. “I have come to think,” he said, “that the original instrumentation has a clarity and is closer to my original conception than the more opulent orchestral version.” That is the version we hear this evening.

A preface in the published score summarizes the action of the ballet as follows:

“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 rock 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.”

With one significant exception, all of the themes in Appalachian Spring are original with the composer. The exception is the Shaker song “Simple Gifts,” composed by Elder Joseph Bracket in the 1830s at the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine. Although sometimes called a hymn, “Simple Gifts” was intended to be danced while it was sung, its closing lines being:

When true simplicity is gain’d,

To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,

To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come ‘round right.

Thus, Copland’s use of “Simple Gifts” in a ballet was consistent with the music’s initial purpose as a Shaker “dance song.” Copland uses it with simple variations in that portion of the ballet that portrays the daily activity of the bride and her young farmer-husband. He also arranged the song for inclusion in another work, his Old American Songs, published in 1950.

Copyright © 2012 by Willard J. Hertz