Aaron Copland

Born: November 14, 1900, Brooklyn, New York
Died: December 2, 1990, North Tarrytown, New York

Dubbed “the dean of American composers,” Aaron Copland was one of the first American composers to enjoy worldwide fame. He studied piano, composition, and theory in the United States, then went to Paris to work with the famous teacher Nadia Boulanger. Copland’s early works evince a love of both jazz and the modernist sounds he encountered in France. By the mid 1930s, Copland embraced a more consciously “American” style, marked by the use of folk songs and folklore (evident in his ballets Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring) and greater melodic and harmonic accessibility. By the 1950s Copland was the most popular of American composers, even as he returned to more dissonant writing, including the use of twelve-tone techniques. His compositional output declined in the 1970s, but he continued to conduct his works around the world. Copland was also the author of several books, including the bestseller What To Listen For In Music.

Appalachian Spring Suite

Composed: 1943-44
Duration: 25 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, strings

By the early 1940s, Martha Graham was widely recognized as one of the great modern dancers and choreographers. But even as late as 1943 she had not created a ballet to original music. Enter the great philanthropist Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who attended a Graham performance in 1942 and immediately commissioned her to create three new ballets for the annual fall festival of the Coolidge Foundation. Paul Hindemith, Darius Milhaud, and Aaron Copland were to write the music.

Copland’s contribution, originally called Ballet for Martha, was begun in June 1943. Graham derived the scenario in part from the memories of her 90-year-old grandmother, who had spent most of her life on a Pennsylvania farm. A year later Copland completed the ballet, now titled Appalachian Spring after a Hart Crane poem. The October 30, 1944 premiere at the Library of Congress featured Graham and a host of other familiar figures, including dancer Merce Cunningham and set designer Isamu Noguchi. Copland later created a suite for full orchestra (as opposed to the thirteen-piece ensemble of the original) from the ballet’s music, which was first performed on October 4, 1945 and won Copland his first Pulitzer Prize.

After employing a dissonant, modernist language in early works like his first two symphonies and the Piano Variations, Copland decided to move to a more accessible style in the mid 1930s. Speaking for himself and a group of fellow American composers, Copland wrote, “We wanted to find a music that would speak of universal things in a vernacular of American speech rhythms. We wanted to write music on a level that left popular music far behind – music with a largeness of utterance wholly representative of the country that Whitman had envisaged.” Such is the case with Appalachian Spring: although only one authentic folk melody is employed, hints of hymns, country fiddles and folk songs pervade the ballet.

The preface to the score of the orchestral suite describes the ballet’s setting as “a pioneer celebration in spring around a newly-built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills in the early part of the last century. The bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, their new domestic partnership invites. An older neighbor suggests now and then the rocky confidence of experience. A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end the couple are left quiet and strong in their new house.”

Although the music is continuous, Copland thought of the suite as being in eight parts: (1) the introduction of the characters in restrained light; (2) an extraverted faster section opening with a sudden burst of strings; (3) a tender duo for the bride and her intended, in a moderate tempo; (4) the appearance of the revivalist and his followers, with hints of square dance and country fiddles; (5) a fast, joy-filled dance for the bride; (6) a slow transition; (7) five variations on the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts,” portraying scenes from the daily life of the husband and wife; and (8) a prayer-like conclusion as the couple stand proudly in front of their new home.

— Chris Morrison

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