COPLAND - Appalachian Spring (MaM)
Composed in 1944
It was Chavez who called Appalachian Spring the hit of a lifetime. To this day, no other work by Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is as beloved or well-known, not even the ubiquitous Fanfare for the Common Man. Certainly no other Copland score so perfectly captures the vast open spaces, the homespun plainness, and the bracing pioneer spirit of our country. Appalachian Spring was written for Martha Graham, the doyenne of American dance—the score's working title was Ballet for Martha, replaced only at the last minute by the new-familiar phrase Graham found in Hart Crane's poem "The Dance," from Hart Crane's epic cycle, The Bridge. (Crane meant spring as a source of water, not a season.) Graham had been commissioning scores since the thirties, and she had also begun working on set design with Alexander Calder and Isamu Noguchi. For years she had wanted Copland to write a ballet for her company; in 1941, armed with money from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, she commissioned both Chavez and Copland. At first Copland envisioned a work for double string quartet and piano, but added double bass and woodwinds when he learned that Chavez intended to use them as well.
Although Appalachian Spring has taken on iconic status as a portrait of rural Americana, with its furrowed fields and radiant skies, Copland was thinking primarily about Graham "and her unique choreographic style" when he wrote it. "Nobody else seems quite like Martha: she's so proud, so very much herself. And she's unquestionable very American: there's something prim and restrained, simple yet strong, about her which one tends to think of as American."
In a score that is suffused throughout with the natural melodic charm of folk music, there is just one actual folk song—the then-obscure Shaker song "Simple Gifts" that, in a moment of true inspiration, Copland picked out of a book on Shaker music and dance. (Apparently a single line in Graham's initial script, referring to a "Shaker rocking chair" pointed him in this direction.) From its first performance, with Graham herself dancing the young bride, and with sets by Noguchi, Appalachian Spring took its place in the history of American culture. Copland's score won both the New York Music Critics' Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize. The ballet became a cornerstone of the Graham Company repertory—Martha continued to dance the bride's role for many years—earning its stature not only as "one of Martha's signature pieces," in the words of Agnes de Mille, but as a landmark in American music.