Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring and the Traditional Music that Inspired It
Notes by Sato Moughalian © 2012 (not to be used without permission)
Appalachian Spring stems from the collaboration of two great twentieth-century artists, composer Aaron Copland (1900-90) and choreographer Martha Graham (1894-1991). Like many masterpieces that have entered the canon, Appalachian Spring appears to have come into existence fully formed, like the adult Athena bursting out of the head of Zeus. It presents to us a musical language that we now consider to be iconically American. Aaron Copland’s genius was to weave together seamlessly, out of his own imagination and inspired by the traditional works that preceded it, all these musical strands, creating from them a new but immediately recognizable whole—a sonic language that conveys the characteristic qualities of independence and individualism associated with the American movement west and the idealism and sense of renewal that accompanied those pioneers. Copland came of age after The Great War, at a time when American artists were looking to create forms, languages, and ideas that were distinctly American.
In 1943, Martha Graham received a commission from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, the well-known patron of many mid-twentieth century composers, to choreograph three works, each with a newly composed score, for a festival to be held at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Graham approached Copland with the intent of creating an “American” work. They corresponded, trying to create a story with the right balance of elements. Graham wrote in a letter to Copland: “It is hard to do American things without becoming pure folk or a little like a mural in a middle western railway station or post office.” She suggested the possibility of including an Indian girl “on whose parents’ land the frontiersman have settled. She was to represent a dream…the legend of American land, youth and country. It was a meeting of frontiersman and Indian. But it didn’t work.” They also discussed and then rejected the possibility of including an episode from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Graham said of the completed work, “Appalachian Spring is essentially a dance of place. You choose a piece of land, part of the house goes up. You dedicate it. The questioning spirit is there and the sense of establishing roots.” The final story outline describes “a pioneer celebration in spring around a newly-built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills in the early part of the last century.” It is perhaps the fact that the two creators finally chose a very abstracted plot which only suggests, in Copland’s words, “youth and spring, with optimism and hope,” that explains the universal popularity of this work. They succeeded in distilling the essence of human aspiration and clothing it in the personae of American pioneers. Copland described Martha Graham as “unquestionably very American. There’s something prim and restrained, a strong quality about her that one tends to think of as American. Her dance style is seemingly, but only seemingly, simple and extremely direct.” Graham said of Copland’s score: “It now has an independent existence apart from the dance. It is a symbol for many people of the central part of America. They see distances which, perhaps, exist no longer.” And it is ironic that the title, which has proved to be so evocative, was almost an afterthought. The work was originally called “Ballet for Martha.” Some time before the first performance, Graham suggested using a phrase from the first line of a Hart Crane poem “The Dance.” And so, without Copland ever having considered the Appalachian spring of Crane’s poem while writing the piece, an enduring American icon was born.
By the end of the 1800s, European composers, after centuries of shifting borders and political structures, were deep into an attempt to create nationalistic styles of music. Composers looked to the folk musics of their own countries and incorporated them and took them as inspiration–melodically, rhythmically, and in terms of orchestral colors and instrumentation. In Hungary and Spain, the influence of the Roma culture was strongly evident. In Russia, monumental works like Boris Godunov (Mussorgsky), Ruslan and Ludmilla (Glinka), Scheherazade (Rimsky-Korsakov), Little Russian Symphony (Tchaikovsky), The Firebird, and Petrushka (both by Stravinsky) were created in the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth. And composers followed suit in every other European country. During Antonín Dvořák’s years as the Director the National Conservatory of Music of America, he urged his students likewise to seek inspiration in the traditional music of their own country. By the 1890s, with the closing of the frontier, it was apparent that the United States needed to develop non-emulative schools of art. The method that Dvořák preached was that used with great success by the Slavic and European nationalist composers—namely, the incorporation of folk elements into newly composed works. This tradition was initiated by Glinka, Balakirev, Borodin, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov in Russia and was adopted elsewhere most memorably by Sibelius, Smetana, Grieg, Janáçek, and Dvořák. Dvořák advocated the incorporation of African-American and Native American melodies into works, and numerous classically-trained composers including Edward MacDowell, Charles Griffes, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Henry F. B. Gilbert, Victor Herbert, and Arthur Farwell actively followed his lead. Dvořák’s own Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” presented original themes with which Dvořák sought to evoke Native American music, the most famous of which is often mistakenly thought to be an African-American spiritual. Copland frequently stated his belief that American composers could not create a national music without a body of folk music as a background. His definition of folk music included jazz, hymn tunes, and cowboy songs. Despite this worldwide trend, many American composers continued to study in the Germanic tradition until World War I, when political conditions made such training impossible.
In the early twentieth century, Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály roamed the Hungarian countryside collecting and transcribing Magyar folk music. In Anatolia, Komitas Vartabed did the same, recording and studying the Armenian, Kurdish, Azeri, and Turkish traditional songs and dances. And in the United States, Alan Lomax and others began the great work of collecting American folk music for the Library of Congress. Lomax was one of many musicologists and composers who maintained a great interest in what was thought of as indigenous music, a portion of which was later determined to have been carried over from the Old World. Appalachian fiddle and banjo tunes and dances were recorded, transcribed and studied, and today the collection known as the Alan Lomax Collection in the Library of Congress comprises 6,500 linear feet of manuscripts, 6,400 sound recordings, 5,500 graphic images, and 6,000 moving images of ethnographic material, all collected by Lomax and others who were united in the belief that traditional music and dance forms were as worthy of preservation as more academic and “composed” forms. And in the case of all these folklorists, they often succeeded in preserving a culture and oral tradition which had been transmitted by people who themselves perished during the world wars and strife. A collection of Lomax tunes, transcribed by the composer and musicologist Ruth Crawford Seeger, was published with the title Our Singing Country (1941). “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” a fiddle tune commonly played in the southern United States, which one anecdote describes as having been derived from the improvisation of a Scots regiment bagpiper at the Battle of Waterloo, was incorporated note for note in Copland’s famous “Hoedown” from Rodeo, possibly one of the most commercially licensed pieces of “classical” music ever.
Aaron Copland, born in 1900 in Brooklyn, NY into a family of Lithuanian Jewish descent, had a great interest in music from an early age. Like many middle-class immigrant families of that era, the Coplands nurtured an interest in music in their children, taking them to symphonic concerts and the opera. His teachers trained him in the Germanic style prevalent in the US in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but when the time came for him to go to Europe for advanced training, he went to France, studying with Nadia Boulanger, who was also instrumental, like Dvořák, in encouraging composers to develop their own nationalistic styles. Upon Copland’s return to the States in the 1920s, his music reflected a “modernist” or “international” style, but he began to befriend a circle of artists in New York who set out to discover and create a distinctly American approach. At the same time, he developed what proved to be a lifelong interest in helping discover and support other composers, both from the US and Mexico, and also began lecturing on musical and cultural subjects. Some of these talks were subsequently published in the collection What to Listen for in Music. In the 1930s he began to write ballets, works which are now among the most performed of his broad repertoire. Billy the Kid (1939) and Rodeo (1942), both major successes, evoked the culture of the west through the use of popular idioms including cowboy songs and fiddle music. Appalachian Spring (1944) used an actual Shaker song, “Simple Gifts,” and more of the jazzy rhythms prevalent in popular music of the 1930s and later that had worked so successfully in his previous ballets.
The traditional works we present tonight are either directly or indirectly related to Copland’s work. We begin the program with a rendition of the Shaker song “Simple Gifts.” The Shaker sect was established in England and its members fled to the American colonies in 1774 to escape religious persecution. They lived in communal groups according to strong ideals of hard work, frugality, chastity (to the point of refraining from procreation), revelations, and separation from the world. The sect is also renowned for their production of exquisite furniture. The pervasive value of simplicity was reflected in many aspects of their lives and in the large amount of music composed within their communities. “Simple Gifts” was written in 1848 by Elder Joseph Brackett, a member of the Shaker society in Maine. Like many works which have come to be considered traditional, it was actually composed. “Tombigbee Waltz” is named for a river that flows from northeast Mississippi into the Alabama River. The word Tombigbee was traditionally said to mean “coffin maker” in a Native American language. A version of this waltz was published as a song in 1909, although the song is much older and may also have minstrel origins. A vocal version of “Dinah” was collected in southwestern Pennsylvania, in the Appalachian region, where it also existed separately as a fiddle tune. “June Apple,” which like many of these tunes, bears close resemblance to other fiddle tunes of different origins, has been collected in North Carolina and Virginia and is in the mixolydian mode. “Old Paint,” a famous song from Oklahoma, bears strong resemblance to the old-time Texas waltz “Midnight on the Water,” which is also attributed to Texas fiddler Luke Thomasson, although it is not known which one may have influenced which. “Grey Eagle” is derived from an English hornpipe or reel, and was published in a notated version both in a publication from central Pennsylvania and in the collection English Country Dance Tunes. “Miss McLeod’s Reel” was apparently first printed in Gow’s Fifth Collection of Strathspey Reels of 1809, with the description “An original Isle of Skye Reel.” This piece was also popular in Ireland as far back as the third quarter of the eighteenth century.
Shape note singing, also called fasola singing (after the solfège syllable names), and Revivalist singing, was a popular form of singing established in New England by the early pioneers, and found its way into becoming a deeply-held tradition in the rural south. A common name for this practice is Sacred Harp singing, after the most widely used shape-note songbook The Sacred Harp, published in 1844. Shape notes were a simplified method of notation that made it easier for untrained musicians to follow along while singing these hymns and anthems. There were many collections of shape note hymns that were written and published beginning in the eighteenth century. The earliest records of this practice come from New England, but with the widespread distribution of published collections by John Wyeth, from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania around 1800, the tradition seems to have begun a southward migration. Aaron Copland arranged “Zion’s Walls” in the second set of his Old American Songs (1952). Shape note singing remains a popular everyday practice in some southern churches, with a major annual gathering in Georgia. A fascinating documentary film, Awake My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp, released in 2009 and available on DVD, follows the path of the tradition today. Shape note hymns are characterized by rhythmic monody and parallel intervals, which one can easily hear echoed in Appalachian Spring. The style of singing is often passionate and filled with an intense sense of faith, devotion, and continuity with the community of amateurs who have practiced this type of singing continuously for almost 250 years in America, making it one of our oldest artistic traditions.
The version of Appalachian Spring that we present tonight is the original orchestration of the piece. Martha Graham had asked Copland to write for ten players; he chose to add three winds. The composition of the ballet took place in 1943-44, and in 1944 Copland produced this suite, omitting several minutes of music created for the needs of the ballet. In 1945, he wrote the full symphonic version, which is frequently played today, and received the Pulitzer Prize for his score in the same year. The persistent popularity of this work, in its three versions, and the stream of royalties from its many performances continue to support Copland’s lifelong mission of supporting the work of living composers: grants from the Copland Fund support the commissions of new works, recordings, and ensembles that perform contemporary music.
So what are the musical elements that make Appalachian Spring sound “American”? There is, of course, the score’s mixture of diverse influences – a mixture not unlike the makeup of the country itself. More specifically, Appalachian Spring is characterized by its use of open intervals, extremely long lines which seem to stretch time, wide spacing of instrumental parts, sections of great rhythmic energy and jazzy, displaced accents contrasted by sections of great plainness and simplicity, diatonic (and sometimes modal) harmonies reminiscent of the traditional songs and fiddle tunes (some inherited from England and Ireland), the incorporation of a Shaker tune, and a quality of directness. It also has clear and distinct sections, in contrast to the through-composed music of many German Romantic and early twentieth-century composers, and American composers trained in that tradition. It evokes an idealized image of the frontier and its eternal sense of opportunity and promise while synthesizing a musical language that, like the best of our national efforts, transforms the myriad threads which form our collective community into an integrated and astoundingly beautiful whole.
© 2012 Sato Moughalian
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Founded in 1993, Perspectives Ensemble creates musical events that present the works of composers in cultural or historic context. Its programs offer interpretations informed by the influences prevailing upon composers at the time of composition, and often bridge and integrate the musical, visual, and literary arts. The Ensemble maintains the highest standards of preparation and performance in order to produce intellectually stimulating events that provide its artists and audiences opportunities to gain new insights into particular works of art.
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