Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland

From Vivaldi and Haydn to Stravinsky and The Beatles, the joy that comes with the return of spring has inspired great pieces of music. And if you wouldn’t know any better, you’d think Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring is one of them.

It starts with a clarinet and flute that timidly play three notes that could – or could not – be the beginning of a melody. Like snowdrops that bud in what could – or could not – be the last of snow. And after some back-and-forths between extasy and doubt, the piece ends with five variations on a glorious Shaker melody – Simple Gifts – that’s Copland version of an Ode to Joy. Summer is definitely on its way!

But as much as that interpretation makes sense, it’s not how Appalachian Spring was intended. In fact, the work could have been called Autumn in Arkansas and sounded more or less the same.

The story

Copland’s Appalachian Spring started as a score for a ballet that was commissioned in 1942. The story was written by choreographer Martha Graham, and it too had nothing to do with spring. Its recounts the day of two newlyweds in pioneer country. And contains a few interesting sidekicks such as a preacher and his congregation.

Seen here congregating. Here’s the full ballet.

In the original version, all these fun and games were interrupted by the arrival of a fugitive slave. But that part was eventually changed to a dance solo by the possessed preacher. The end result is more a loose string of tableaux than an actual plot.

And the name? Martha Graham came up with it when the music and choreography were already finished. She took it from a poem by Hart Crane – simply because she liked the sound of it. Moreover, the poem refers to a natural water source, not the season of new beginnings.

Capturing the American soul

Maybe it’s because of its flimsy story, but Appalachian Spring – first performed in 1944 – immediately became widely popular as a sort of parable for the post-war American spirit of renewal. Copland’s pleasant and seemingly uncomplicated musical language was the perfect complement to the cast of rural characters eagerly displaying their moral fortitude. Appalachian spring was exactly the kind of artwork that could inspire a nation destined to become the leader of the free world.

In a way, this was what drove Copland throughout his career: defining an American form of art music – sometimes derived from popular and folk idioms such as jazz or Shaker hymns. It’s a bit of a nationalist agenda, from an era when nationalism was not exclusively linked to the political right. As an active communist, Copland wrote his ‘populist’ music as a tribute to the dignity and authenticity of the common man, in opposition to the soulless cultural products of the capitalist mass media. You could say he was a highbrow Woody Guthrie.

Aaron Copland, composer of Appalachian Spring.
Aaron Copland in 1946. Presumably during a blackout.

Wholesome orchestral suite

But in post-war America, there was no need for left-wing populism, or left-wing anything for that matter. As a Jewish homosexual communist, Copland ticked all the boxes to be summoned to the McCarthy hearings. He managed to talk himself out of serious sanctions, but wisely kept a low political profile for the rest of his career.

Meanwhile, his orchestral suite based on the ballet score of Appalachian Springs soared in popularity. Far from an incitement to class warfare, it was considered a wholesome piece of Americana. Copland had indeed defined the American sound, but it was now used as musical shorthand for the shiny city on the hill where anyone could make it through hard work. Just listen to the music in this iconic Ronald Reagan commercial:

Versions of Appalachian Spring

For the intellectual classes of the United States, and especially post-war Europe, everything with mass appeal conjured up the trauma of what masses were capable of when they fell into the hands of a ruthless leader. They pretended to listen to Boulez and Stockhausen and had no time for ‘commercial’, even ‘regressive’ music such as Appalachian Springs. It’s only since accessible music came back into fashion that the work is universally considered to be one of the masterpieces of the twentieth century.

And yet, there are some who feel that Appalachian Springs – the orchestral suite – doesn’t have enough depth. Or that it lacks authenticity. They have two solutions for this:

  1. Go back to the original chamber ensemble, with nice results such as the reference recording by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra or more this more recent version by Ensemble K.
  2. Put the music back in that Copland removed when he turned the ballet music into a suite. The logic being that this fragment – originally meant to accompany the fugitive slave – is a dark interlude that adds much-needed drama to the musical development. Michael Tilson Thomas is a big proponent of this idea. Christopher Hogwood embraced it is as well. I’m not a fan. The reinstated music is indeed dark(ish), but also kind of boring. And it breaks the wonderful flow of the Simple Gifts variations.

The ultimate version

In the end, it doesn’t matter which version they choose to perform. The definitive recording was made almost 60 years ago. No, it’s not directed by the man himself. In his recordings of Appalachian Spring, I feel Copland goes too much out of his way to demonstrate how sophisticated this deceivingly simple music is – making sure you don’t miss any of the individual threads that make up the dense musical fabric.

Copland’s good friend Leonard Bernstein, on the other hand, just wants to make as much of an emotional impact as he can. Contrapuntal subtleties be damned, his recording with the New York Philharmonic simply blows you away. Literally, because the sound of the brass is especially exhilarating. The audio quality of this recording is astounding, especially for that time.

Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland
Bernstein and Copland comparing dental work in 1945.

Bernstein pulls no punches. The slow parts crawl by and sound lusciously romantic, while he accelerates to warp speed when he needs to. What Bernstein understood better than Copland – and many other directors – is how to breath life into the dance rhythms that characterize large portions of the work. They’re supposed to evoke square dancing, but Copland doesn’t so much seem to channel the pioneer time as the Brooklyn melting pot that he grew up in. This is truly American music, after all.

Just listen

Hungry for some more classical Americana? Check out Missy Mazzoli’s pioneer opera Proving Up.

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