On October 30, 1944, the ballet “Appalachian Spring,” choreographed by Martha Graham to music by Aaron Copland, premiered at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Copland’s score, which won him the Pulitzer Prize the following year, also went on, in its various versions, to become one of the most beloved and performed pieces in the American repertory.
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Aaron Copland (1900-1990) was the youngest of the five children of Harris Morris Copland (who had changed the family name from “Kaplan”) and the former Sarah Mittenthal, both of them Jewish immigrants to the United States from Russia. The family lived in Brooklyn, above the general store that it owned and ran in the Prospect Heights neighborhood. The family was active in the Conservative synagogue Baith Israel Anshe Emes, where Aaron celebrated his bar mitzvah.
Copland graduated from the Boys High School, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Like all his siblings, he began studying music and playing piano as a child. He began composing at the age of 11, and by the age of 15 had resolved on that as his profession.
Instead of attending college, Copland, with the support of his mother, decided to travel to France for a year to pursue his music education. Although he had never heard of Nadia Boulanger when he arrived in Paris, when they met, they were mutually impressed, and he became her student, in the end remaining there for three years. At the time, Boulanger was only 34, but she went on to become one of the most important composition teachers of the 20th century, and a composer and performer in her own right.
Upon his return to New York, in 1924, Copland began working fulltime writing music. His career received a large boost in February of that year, when the conductor Serge Koussevitzky led the Boston Symphony in Copland’s “Symphony for Organ and Orchestra,” with Nadia Boulanger as soloist. When the same piece had its earliest performance premiere a month earlier, by the New York Symphony Society, the conductor, Walter Damrosch, turned to the audience after finishing and said, “If a young man can write a piece like that at the age of 24, in five years he will be ready to commit murder!"
During the 1920s and ‘30s, Copland consciously set out to develop what he later characterized as “a naturally American strain of so-called serious music." This included incorporating jazz themes and folk melodies into his works. “Appalachian Spring” is perhaps the best example of one of these compositions.
“Appalachian Spring” was the third of Copland’s “Americana” dance pieces, having been preceded by “Billy the Kid,” choreographed by Eugene Loring (1938), and “Rodeo,” for Agnes de Mille (1942). He and Martha Graham had discussed working together as early as 1941, and Graham had proposed a script based in 19th-century New England. It was only after Copland received a commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, in 1943, that she came back to him with an idea for a piece based among the Shakers, a monastic Protestant sect, with origins in England, that based itself in New York and New England in the late 18th century.
Graham (1894-1991) described her vision to Copland as taking place on the frontier: “a new town … the framework of a doorway… a Shaker rocking chair with its exquisite bonelike simplicity, and a small fence that should signify what a fence means in a new country.” The dance’s final section, she suggested, might have the feeling of “a Shaker meeting.”
Copland had the idea of incorporating a song that had also provided the title to the book from which he learned about it: “The Gift to Be Simple: Songs, Dances and Rituals of the American Shakers,” by Edward Deming Andrews. Today, largely thanks to Copland, the song “Simple Gifts,” by Joseph Brackett, with its opening lines of “'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free / 'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be, / And when we find ourselves in the place just right, / 'Twill be in the valley of love and delight,” is known and sung by every American schoolchild.
Copland’s working title for the composition was “Ballet for Martha.” Martha Graham decided to affix to it a phrase she had encountered in a poem called “The Dance,” by the American writer Hart Crane: “O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge; / Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends / And northward reaches in that violet wedge / Of Adirondacks!” Although Crane’s use of the world “spring” is a reference to water, in the dance, it is an illusion to the season.
Because the ballet – which in the end depicts a frontier community raising the roof of a family home - was to be performed in the small auditorium at the Library of Congress named for Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge’s foundation, there was room for only a chamber orchestra of 13 pieces. Its spare set was designed by Isamu Noguchi. Martha Graham danced the lead role of “The Wife,” Erick Hawkins was “The Husbandman” and Merce Cunningham performed “The Revivalist.”
“Appalachian Spring,” which was accompanied at its premiere on October 30 with two other dances, met immediately with a warm reception. Writing in The New York Times, critic John Martin described it as "shining and joyous…. a kind of testimony to the simple fineness of the human spirit."
The following year, Copland rearranged “Appalachian Spring” as a somewhat shorter orchestral suite, which is the way it is most frequently performed today. Other orchestral versions have included some of the music that Copland left out of the 1945 version. The composer also incorporated the “Simple Gifts” melody into his 1950 piece “Old American Songs,” for voice and piano.