By Alexander Borodin
Composed in 1943-44
Appalachian Spring is undoubtedly one of Copland’s best-known works. It led to his receiving the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1945 and helped catapult him to popular fame.
Copland received a commission to compose the original version in 1943-44 as ballet music for Martha Graham, whose dance company premiered the work in 1944. He originally scored it for 13 instruments and called the piece “Ballet for Martha;” it was she, in fact, who gave it the title “Appalachian Spring” by which we now know it. In 1945 Copland revised the ballet into the full orchestral suite which we are performing today.
A programmatic piece, it describes a scene in Western Pennsylvania in the 1830s centering on a celebration around a pioneer family’s new farmhouse. It opens with a slow introduction to the characters, setting a serene, calm mood with echoing three-note rising themes in the winds. It abruptly shifts to a fast, lively section (opening with leaping octaves in the upper strings), with elated and religious thematic overtones brought out by the brass and winds. This is followed by a slow dance between the bride and her intended groom, full of tenderness and passion. Next, a revivalist and his flock appear; the music reflects folk themes and evokes square dances and country fiddles. A lively solo bride’s dance comes next, heralded by fast scale-like passages in the flutes and violins and then by the entire orchestra.
After a transition which echoes the opening themes, there follow a series of scenes of daily life with a theme and variations based on the Shaker melody “Simple Gifts.” After an inspiring climax, the strings and winds revert to quiet passages evoking contemplation and prayer. At the end of the piece, the pioneer couple are left “quiet and strong” in their new house.