By Thomas Heuser
What started out as simply “a ballet for Martha” became “Appalachian Spring” only late in the creative process. Aaron Copland was commissioned by the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham in 1944 to write music for a simple scene: American pioneers in the 1800s celebrating the completion of a new farmhouse. The work follows the narrative of a single day: an early sunlight gives way to an excited scene of villagers, a revivalist preacher, a young bride and her farmer husband who, after a full day of celebratory dances and the singing of hymns, are left “quiet and strong in their new house.”
Copland’s Pulitzer Prize winning score is often cited as the benchmark of a distinctly “American sound.” To be sure, Copland’s open chords and harmonic colors are distinctly recognizable, and their influence can still be heard in the popular film scores of John Williams. But by 1944, our country was filled with jazz, blues, honky-tonk and bluegrass, and we can now appreciate that John Philip Sousa’s 19th century marches are as much a part of our American musical heritage as are the strands of Native American music that course through Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. The American sound is really a combination of music and culture as complex and varied as the American people, and so Copland’s greatest contribution was the blending of our diverse stylistic heritage into a music that sounds simple and familiar.
The tune “Simple Gifts” in Appalachian Spring is a melody from the American Shaker tradition that bears many commonalities with the Norwegian and Russian folk songs quoted by Grieg and Tchaikovsky. Copland was following a well-trodden path by using folk melodies of familiar origins to create music with a national identity. Indeed, the music of Franz Schubert has become part of Austria’s national identity, and his beloved melodies are themselves considered part of the country’s inherited tradition. Schubert’s melodic gift was to capitalize on that same power of simplicity, and in his Fifth Symphony, folk-like tunes are the glue that binds together a perfectly crafted, high-Classical structure.