Song 332: Aaron Copland, “Appalachian Spring” (Perspectives Ensemble, Sato Moughalian, cond.) (1944/2012)Posted: November 28, 2013
In 1942, the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham commissioned composer and conductor Aaron Copland to write a score for her ballet. The ballet’s story evolved over the course of the two years between conception and premiere, but the final narrative centered on a Pennsylvania family in the 1800s, building their home and finding their place in the community.
I haven’t seen the ballet, but the music, like most of Copland’s music, seems to capture America perfectly: it can be as airy and open as a midwestern field or as busy and bustling as Manhattan, often within the span of a few seconds. “Appalachian Spring” begins with tones slowly and deliberately overlapping, as if the musicians are slowly building the song like the family builds their house. Suddenly, around 2:40 in the Perspectives Ensemble performance below, notes rush up and down a major scale as if they’re being chased. We’ve set the scene, and now it’s time to get to work. Let’s build this house.
The entire piece is beautiful, but I wanted to focus specifically on the seventh section of “Appalachian Spring,” the “Doppio Movimento.” This section (which begins at the 17-minute mark in the video) cribs from the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” written by Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett in 1848. The melody is indeed very simple, but very affecting, and its themes of appreciation for our shared and individual freedom has made the song a Thanksgiving staple. Those themes are also a perfect fit for “Appalachian Spring,” a piece centered on the establishment of an American identity.
As Alex Ross writes in his book The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Copland wrote the score for “Appalachian Spring” at a time when an American identity seemed especially unstable: the Depression was not forgotten, and World War II was new. Graham plucked the title phrase from the poem “The Bridge” by Hart Crane, a man consumed by financial hardship, alcoholism, and guilt over his homosexuality (he committed suicide in 1932). The poem contains a section about a train barreling along without noticing men suffering alongside the tracks, and Ross writes that with “Appalachian Spring,” Copland “tries to stop the speeding train. Like so many other Copland works, it offers images of an ideal nation, the America that could have been or might still be.” America is still imperfect, of course, making Copland’s idealized country a timelessly hopeful view.
The excellent compilation A Copland Celebration, Vol. 1 features a recording of Copland rehearsing “Appalachian Spring” with the Columbia Chamber Ensemble, and like any rehearsal, it features the conductor trying to make the piece as perfect as possible. But there’s something very Coplandesque in the way Copland tries to idealize “Appalachian Spring”—with his boundless enthusiasm, he tries to make the piece sound clear and effortless. “Like an organ sound,” he commands at one point, indicating that he wants the sound to remain constant, not fade. “Now take it freshly again. Like an amen.” Then his ensemble finishes the section, and Copland lays down his baton with a sharp click, and says “That’s it,” without a hint of frustration. He’s satisfied, and his vision, at least for today, is complete.