In 1942, Martha Graham and Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge commissioned Copland to write a ballet with “an American theme”. Copland did the bulk of the work in 1943/44, and the work was premiered at the Library of Congress on Oct. 30, 1944, with Graham dancing the lead role. In 1945, Copland was commissioned by conductor Artur Rodzinski to rearrange the ballet as an orchestral suite, preserving most of the music. Copland cut about 10 minutes from the original 13-instrument score to make the suite. From the preface in the original Boosey & Hawkes publication of the suite:
The original scoring called for a chamber ensemble of thirteen instruments. The present arrangement for symphony orchestra was made by the composer in the Spring of 1945. It is a condensed version of the ballet, retaining all essential features but omitting those sections in which the interest is primarily choreographic.
The Orchestral Suite from 1945 was first recorded by Serge Koussevitzky with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 1954, Eugene Ormandy asked Copland to expand the orchestration for the full score of the ballet. In 1972, Boosey & Hawkes published a version of the suite fusing the structure of it with the scoring of the original ballet: double string quartet, bass, flute, clarinet, bassoon, and piano. Thus we see that there are four versions of Appalachian Spring, dating from 1944 (13-player complete), 1945 (orchestral suite), 1954 (orchestral complete) and 1972 (13-player suite).
The original ballet and the orchestral suite were well received. The latter was credited as more important in popularizing the composer.
Originally, Copland did not have a title for the work, referring to it simply as “Ballet for Martha”—a title as simple and direct as the Shaker tune ‘Tis the Gift to be Simple quoted in the music. Shortly before the premiere, Graham suggested Appalachian Spring, a phrase from a Hart Crane poem, “The Dance” from a collection of poems in his book “The Bridge.”
O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge; Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends And northward reaches in that violet wedge Of Adirondacks!
Because he composed the music without the benefit of knowing what the title was going to be, Copland was often amused when people told him he captured the beauty of the Appalachians in his music, a fact he alluded to in an interview with NPR’s Fred Calland. Little known is that the word “spring” denotes a source of water in the Crane poem; however the poem is a journey to meet springtime.
The story tells of a spring celebration of the American pioneers of the 19th century, after building a new Pennsylvania farmhouse. Among the central characters are a bride, a groom, a pioneer woman, a preacher and his congregation.
Form of the piece
The orchestral suite is divided into eight sections. Copland describes each scene thus:
Very slowly. Introduction of the characters, one by one, in a suffused light.
Fast/Allegro. Sudden burst of unison strings in A major arpeggios starts the action. A sentiment both elated and religious gives the keynote to this scene.
Moderate/Moderato. Duo for the Bride and her Intended – scene of tenderness and passion.
Quite fast. The Revivalist and his flock. Folksy feeling – suggestions of square dances and country fiddlers.
Still faster/Subito Allegro. Solo dance of the Bride – presentiment of motherhood. Extremes of joy and fear and wonder.
Very slowly (as at first). Transition scene to music reminiscent of the introduction.
Calm and flowing/Doppio Movimento. Scenes of daily activity for the Bride and her Farmer husband. There are five variations on a Shaker theme. The theme, sung by a solo clarinet, was taken from a collection of Shaker melodies compiled by Edward D. Andrews, and published under the title “The Gift to Be Simple.” The melody borrowed and used almost literally is called “Simple Gifts.”
Moderate. Coda/Moderato – Coda. The Bride takes her place among her neighbors. At the end the couple are left “quiet and strong in their new house.” Muted strings intone a hushed prayerlike chorale passage. The close is reminiscent of the opening music.
The original ballet version is divided into 14 movements. The movements that do not appear in the orchestral suite occur mostly between the 7th and last movement as variations on the Shaker melody Simple Gifts (1848). The second variation provides a lyrical treatment in the low register while the third contrasts starkly in a fast staccato. The last two variations of this section use only a part of the folk tune, first an extraction treated as a pastoral variation and then as a majestic closing. In the ballet, but not the suite, there is an intermediary section that moves away from the folk tune preceding the final two variations.
Known as the “Shaker Melody”, “Shaker Song”, and the “Shaker Hymn”, the music Copland based his ending variations on was actually called Simple Gifts. This same Shaker tune was used by Sydney Carter in a widely recognized hymn entitled “Lord of the Dance“. Copland published independent arrangements of this section for band (1958) and orchestra (1967) titled Variations on a Shaker Melody.