flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, piano, 4 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, bass
Composed 1944 (original version), 1945 (orchestral suite).
First performance: October 30, 1944, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Martha Graham, choreographer. Louis Horst, conductor.
First performance of orchestral suite: October 4, 1945, Carnegie Hall, New York. New York Philharmonic. Artur Rodziński, conductor.
What makes music American? There are as many answers to the question as there are composers in the Americas, but we still find ourselves looking for something in common, an identity we might share in this hemisphere. There is a certain urge to reconfigure institutions and forms shared among American composers, conductors, and performers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Classical music, after all, is a European transplant. Aaron Copland and Roger Sessions were convinced that it could only survive in America with a transfusion of new ideas, so from 1928 to 1931, they hosted a series of concerts in New York City designed to foster young American composers. With a similar concern, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge endowed a foundation at the Library of Congress in 1925 to commission and perform new works, a legacy that included Appalachian Spring (1944). More recently, Robert Spano’s commissions and public outreach as leader of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra have led to the emergence of the “Atlanta School” of composers, including Christopher Theofanidis, for whom accessibility is not a byword. The newest work from John Luther Adams, there is nothing, not even the wind, is the result of an innovative co-commission from five partners, including the Chamber Society of Lincoln Center and the Redlands Symphony Orchestra. But what about the sound and the spirit of the music? Another shared attitude that this program reveals is the awareness of nature—whether human physicality, natural landscapes, or the living web of our environment—that inspires many American composers. American composers look to the future and to the horizon.
Like many American composers, much of Copland’s music is deeply rooted in a sense of place, whether the western vistas of Billy the Kid (1938) or the urban loneliness of Quiet City (1939). In cooperation with the choreography of Martha Graham, Appalachian Spring focuses on the human landscape of a rural Pennsylvania community in the nineteenth century. Neither the season nor the mountains were on Copland’s mind when he composed. Rather he worked with Graham to delineate characters—a bride and her husband-to-be, a revivalist minister and his followers, a pioneer woman (danced by Graham herself), and a fugitive—and telescope the events of an entire day, from the morning of the young couple’s wedding to the evening. The opening of Appalachian Spring is perhaps the most effective musical sunrise ever composed: sleepy oscillations in the clarinet and other woodwinds murmur over wide-open intervals that, consonant and clear, seem to reach for the horizon. A simple, hymn-like melody gradually takes shape as the community comes awake. The process of accretion heard here is part of Theofanidis’ lineage and the pandiatonic harmonies (in which a tonal center is created while avoiding traditional formulas) is the ancestor of the neotonal language of Adams, Theofanidis, and many others writing today. Along with the inspiration from folk music—evocations of country fiddling, dancing, and singing can also be heard in this score—the turn to a neoclassic simplicity of harmony and melody marked Copland’s commitment to reaching a broader public. However, the famous “Simple Gifts” variations, as ubiquitous as they are now, were not a bid for familiarity by Copland. He actually selected the somewhat obscure Shaker hymn “‘Tis the gift to be simple” for its association with dancing:
When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d
To turn, turn will be our delight
’Till by turning, turning we come round right.
The tune is first introduced as a simple round in the strings, as if for a congregation, and then followed by the clarinet, an instrument Copland heard as “pure.” Each variation builds in texture, rhythmic activity, and volume, in an immensely satisfying crescendo that fills “the valley of love and delight.” Rather than concluding with the brass chorale and tutti orchestral version of the tune heard in the concert suite, in this full ballet score you will hear the variations interrupted by the arrival of a fugitive. Darker harmonies, an agitated ostinato in the piano and low strings, and shuddering interjections from the woodwinds signal the troubles this man brings with him. In the nineteenth century scenario, he is presumably fleeing the conflicts of the Civil War, but in Copland and Graham’s own world of 1944 the horrors of World War II seem to have reached even this idyllic space—Americans could no longer be content in their isolation. The community recovers, however, as the revivalist’s preaching resumes. Both “’Tis the gift to be simple” and Copland’s opening melody return and the day ends as peacefully as it began.