Appalachian Spring: Ballet for Martha (1944)

Aaron Copland (1900 - 1990)

What is it about Copland’s music that evokes such feelings of nationalism and nostalgia? Some would point to the composer’s use of open intervals of fourths and fifths, which emblematize the wide-open spaces of the American West. Others note his incorporation of folk-tunes and hymns, sometimes only in fragments, which add a familiarity for listeners. There is also a certain indefinable quality about his music that is—simply Copland. Aaron Copland (1900–1990) was born to Lithuanian-Jewish immigrant parents in Brooklyn, where he grew up. Yet his music is so associated with rustic Americana that he has been deemed the “Dean of American Music.” His most popular works seize upon themes and scenes reinforcing this portrayal and include titles such as Rodeo, Billy the Kid, Lincoln Portrait, Fanfare for the Common Man, and of course, Appalachian Spring. All of these compositions, and indeed, the majority of Copland’s most well-known works, were composed in the 1940s when World War II brought together much of the country. Perhaps then, Copland’s unique style has ingrained itself into our nation’s memory as music linked to American themes, resulting in a collective perception of his music as uniquely American. Regardless, in 1944, the year Appalachian Spring premiered, Copland was the darling of the U.S. art music community.

Several years earlier, Martha Graham, renowned dancer and choreographer, had approached Copland with a commission for a new, modern ballet. Separated geographically, the two collaborated through written correspondence to create Appalachian Spring. Copland responded with a work for thirteen instrumentalists, a group small enough to fit into the performing space at the Library of Congress where the work was premiered. Later the composer would re-orchestrate the piece for full orchestra, but there is something about this first chamber-like instrumentation that is especially evocative of the ballet’s narrative. The story simply tells of a revivalist preacher and a young couple whose wedding in the then-Pennsylvania-wilds heralds a promising future. Graham and legendary dancer Merce Cunningham performed lead roles. The production, in terms of both dance and music, claimed a new American vision for modern ballet. Glistening string lines and lilting winds highlight the score, which features a middle section of variations on the Quaker hymn, “Simple Gifts.” The future was bright not only for the newlyweds in the ballet: Copland received a Pulitzer Prize for Music for his composition the following year.

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes

Performed by the Fort Collins Symphony on their America Awakens virtual concert, April/May 2021, alongside Adolphus Hailstork’s Church Street Serenade and the Tender Land Suite by Arron Copland, arr. Murry Sidlin.