Appalachian Spring is one of the most decisively American pieces of classical music ever composed. Written in 1944 for the Martha Graham Dance Company by composer Aaron Copland (1900–1990), Appalachian Spring is a short ballet which depicts a newly married Shaker couple building a home in Pennsylvania during the 1800s. Copland famously incorporated a set of variations on the Shaker hymn Simple Gifts towards the end of the ballet. Of course, by the time Copland wrote Appalachian Spring, the Shaker movement in New England had largely subsided, but something about the Shakers spoke to Copland. Later composers, such as John Adams were influenced by them as well.
Appalachian Spring was commissioned by influential modern dancer Martha Graham for her dance company. The original version, written for Graham, which was first written and performed in 1944, was scored for only 13 instruments, as this was the maximum number of players that could be fit into the Coolidge room at the Library of Congress (where the work was set to premier) while leaving room for the dancers. In 1945, Copland arranged the work for full orchestra, removing sections of music in the process which he considered to be solely choreographic. It is this version which is most often heard in concert today.
Copland did not give Appalachian Spring its title; he originally called it Ballet for Martha, which now stands as the work’s subtitle. Graham proposed the title Appalachian Spring, taking a phrase from a poem. Copland did not intend to write a piece of music symbolizing the Appalachian mountains, however this is how the piece is often interpreted. Instead, Copland was writing to tell the story of a pioneer family. The era depicted in Appalachian Spring had been over for a long time when Copland wrote the music. What inspired Copland about the Shakers was the apparent simplicity of their lives, which was something that was hard to find during the 1940s. Copland was already famous for writing profoundly simple music at a time when things were becoming complex at an increasing rate. When Copland wrote the ballet, World War II was coming to a close. Politics was becoming more unavoidably global, and the United States’ traditional individualistic philosophy, which was perfectly embodied by the Shaker pioneers portrayed in Appalachian Spring, was becoming much harder to maintain. Appalachian Spring was Copland’s way of reminiscing to what seemed like a simpler, happier time.
By writing such simple music, Copland contributed to the American tradition of simplicity. However, as in Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the apparent simplicity covers an inner complexity. There are a multitude of meter and tempo changes, and the piece contains a lot unorthodox chordal structures. In this way, Appalachian Spring is original despite its heavy reliance on tradition. Copland was able to make traditional music innovative anew. His use of the folk hymn, Simple Gifts, and melodies based on traditional American music is similar to Ives’ use of folk music and Gershwin’s use of jazz. All of these things continued the important American custom of making art music relatable to the common citizen. Copland was far from the last American composer to utilize these themes.
Appalachian Spring became one of the most popular compositions from the United States because it captured the imaginations of the people who listened to it, and embodied some of their most central values at a time when they were being tested still more extremely than before. A truly timeless work of art, it continues to have this effect today, and will likely continue to do so far into the future.
A bunch of fantastic NPR articles (there are plenty more that I didn’t cite):
Program notes from a performance by the New York Philharmonic:
A short article from Encyclopædia Britannica:
The original ballet version with the Martha Graham Dance Company:
A recording of the Orchestral Suite with the Ulster Orchestra and Thierry Fisher (accompanied by a chamber version of the score):