Join us as the Clinton Symphony Orchestra kicks off their 66th season on Saturday, September 21 at 7:30 pm. The concert, entitled “From the Countryside” will take place in the Centennial Auditorium of Sterling High School in Illinois. More information about the concert may be found here. A featured piece on the concert is Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Please enjoy the following program notes:
Aaron Copland—Appalachian Spring
When Aaron Copland (1900-1990) was born at the turn of the twentieth century, the one piece of serious music considered to be “American” was written by a Czech composer. As head of the newly-founded New York Conservatory of Music, Antonín Dvorak had composed a symphony to illustrate to his students—and to America’s classical composers—how to incorporate native American influences into their compositions, so that their works were reflective of American culture rather than the European trends of Wagner and Brahms.
Dvorak’s Symphony No 9 in E minor, “From the New World,” was viewed by many as incorporating slave melodies and Native American music into, particularly, the second and third movements, respectively. Sensitive to any suggestion that he might have copied verbatim from native musical sources, Dvorak vehemently denied doing so, stating that he only sought to capture the essence of the American spirit in his work. Long after his American sojourn, he explained to one music journal writer
…I am sending you Kretschmar’s analysis of the Symphony [No 9], but the nonsense-that I made use of “Indian” and American motifs leave out, because it is a lie, I only sought to write in the spirit of these American folk-melodies.
Only after World War I did American composers take seriously the task of presenting idiosyncratic American music to world audiences. The most notable instances was Broadway composer George Gershwin’s venture into classical music with his jazz-infused scores: Rhapsody in Blue (1924), Piano Concerto in F (1925), and An American in Paris (1928).
Fresh from his studies in Europe, Aaron Copland sought in his early works in the 1920s and ‘30s to fashion a music that truly embraced the singularities of a unique American tradition in subjects and tonalities. His first attempts were, like Gershwin’s, jazz-inspired, but had negligible impact in forwarding his career. However, when he turned his considerable skills to western-themed subjects, to writing in his “vernacular style”, as he put it, he struck a chord with critics and the public that brought him broad recognition. His two notable ballets of that period were Billy the Kid (1939) and Rodeo (1942), both for the Martha Graham Dance Company and funded by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation.
Copland began working on Appalachian Spring in late 1942, following the success of Rodeo; again, the score was for the Graham Dance group and commissioned by the Coolidge Foundation. His fee was a quite generous five-hundred dollars.
When he started composing for the ballet, Copland had no clear idea of what the story concept was. According to the composer, Graham gave him only the barest of hints, “the legend of American living.” Happily, Copland’s inspiration arrived in the form of a book by Edward Deming Andrews, The Gift to be Simple—Songs, Dances and Rituals of the American Shakers. Copland stated that the book’s title song jumped out to him immediately. But his Ballet for Martha, stressed the characteristics of Graham herself:
I was thinking primarily about Martha and her unique choreographic style, which I knew well. There’s something prim and restrained, simple yet strong, about her which one tends to think of as American. Appalachian Spring would never have existed without her special personality. The music reflects…the unique quality of a human being, an American landscape and a way of feeling.
The ballet is set in the Pennsylvania countryside during the early nineteenth century. The bride-to-be and her future husband along with their neighbors are celebrating the construction of the couple’s new farmhouse. The young couple depict the joy and apprehension that await them, while the neighbors attempt to moderate their naive expectations with anecdotes of human frailty and fate. But the couple end the celebration in the quiet and calm of a new resolve.
Copland made liberal use of the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts”, composed in 1848 by Elder Joseph Bracket. Copland later learned to his chagrin that the Shakers had never resided in the part of Pennsylvania referenced in the ballet. The title of the ballet was chosen by Graham shortly before its premiere, suggested by a Hart Crane poem, “The Dance,” from his book The Bridge.
Copland’s original orchestration of thirteen instruments was determined by the venue for the ballet—the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.:
There simply wasn’t room for any more instruments in that little pit in front of the stage, so there could be no question of scoring the ballet for a larger orchestra.
The ballet was first performed at a concert on October 30,1944, at the Coolidge
Auditorium in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. with Graham in the lead role of the bride, as part of a festival of chamber music celebrating Mrs Coolidge’s eightieth birthday. The suite that Copland subsequently prepared in 1945 is a reworked version of the original, scored for full orchestra.
In total, four versions of Appalachian Spring exist in performing editions, dating from 1944 (13-player complete), 1945 (orchestral suite), 1954 (orchestral complete) and 1972 (13-player suite).
Appalachian Spring received the Pulitzer Prize for music as well as the Music Critics Circle of New York Award for the outstanding theatrical work of the 1944-45 season.
Program notes are graciously written by William Driver.