Copland's Appalachian Spring—Resonating to an America of Vibrant Extremes

LAYO Contemporary Adventure Ensemble performing the chamber version of Copland’s Appalachian Spring May 30, 2019 at Santa Monica 1st Presbyterian Church. Ensemble includes,featured resident guest artists from Brightwork newmusic, LAYO alumni, and current advanced Los Angeles Youth Orchestra students. Copland created this version after the success of his orchestral transcription to bring back the intimacy and sharper rhythmic focus of the smaller ensemble in the original ballet.

Aaron Copland Resonating to the Vibrancy of America

Composed in 1943-44 at the Macdowell Colony, Copland originally titled Appalachian Spring Ballet for Martha after Martha Graham who first performed it with her company in 1944. Though widely known now as a suite for full orchestra, the ballet was originally scored for a chamber ensemble of 13 different instruments, the same ensemble we hear this evening.   

Appalachian Spring defines the genre of a national American concert music. Like America itself, it is not a single style, but a “salad bowl” of styles, a celebration of immigration with all its energy, invention, and dissonance, here embodied by the American pioneer spirit. Copland taps into American history quoting the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” and evokes American folk music with cowboy melodies and fiddling tunes. Even the main theme has a folk song quality. Then, too, Copland infuses much of the fast sections of the piece with jazz rhythms—syncopation and changing meters. This juxtaposition and layering of different styles has great relevance for us today in our post-modern world where we expect diverse ideas to freely combine. 

But what isn't usually pointed out about Appalachian Spring is that it also draws heavily from specific European classical works for its inspiration. The opening sustained note A is more than a little similar to the opening of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler’s first symphony.  Copland’s slow gorgeous unfolding string sonority recalls too Mahler’s famous string and harp Adagietto from his fifth symphony. Copland’s faster string ostinatos and rising fourths in the brass reference similar passages in English composer Gustav Holst’s “Jupiter” from The Planets. There is even one striking dissonant and expressive passage in Appalachian Spring that for a moment takes us to the world of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, composed just seven years earlier. Last, but hardly least, the bustle and multi-layered textures of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka hover over all of Copland’s percussive and energetic sections. With its original use of cinematic editing techniques (analogous to superimposition, splices, jump cuts, etc.), its pan-diatonicism (sounding all the notes of the scale together), and its metric complexity, Petrushka in fact had enormous influence on many American composers mid-20th century, not just Copland.

It's a little strange to imagine Mahler and Stravinsky under one roof! Such different aesthetics. Mahler's lush late Romantic harmonies and phrasing seem diametrically opposed to Stravinsky's more objective and percussive clarity. But then, a community of extremes is a fitting description for American dialogue. If we didn't know Copland's classical references were intentional earlier, we do by the end of Appalachian Spring, when he recalls Mahler's very special ending sounding "the eternal" in his Song of the Earth—strings, winds, harp, and bells (celesta), all on C pan-diatonic harmony (C-D-E-G-A). Copland similarly "discovers" or "resolves" to a C major colored pan-diatonic world (C-D-E-G-B). He even borrows Mahler's orchestral color with strings, harp, and bells (glockenspiel). So Copland opens his ballet with Mahler's invocation of a world (his 1st symphony) and concludes it with Mahler's farewell to the world (The Song of the Earth). Neither accidental or plagiaristic. This is Copland resonating to the world around us, a resonance we particularly ache for today in America.