Aaron Copland (14.11.1900 – 02.12.1990) was an American composer who taught composition and later became a conductor of his own and other American music. The open, slowly changing harmonies in much of his music are typical of what is widely regarded as the sound of American music, evoking the vast American landscape and pioneer spirit.
Aaron Copland (left) discussing a score with Leonard Bernstein.
Copland is widely known for the pieces that he composed in the 1930s and 1940s. These were deliberately written in a simple, approachable style often referred to as “populist” and which the composer referred to as his “vernacular” style. The most famous and popular of these works include the ballets Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid and Rodeo, his Fanfare for the Common Man and his Symphony No. 3.
Appalachian Spring is a ballet, composed by Aaron Copland. It had its premiere in 1944 and has since achieved widespread and enduring popularity as an orchestral suite. The ballet score was written as a result of a commission by the choreographer and dancer Martha Graham¹.
The ballet depicts the day of a wedding celebration at a Pennsylvania farmhouse in the early 20th century. It opens at dawn with a gentle theme for strings and winds. The characters are introduced: the revivalist preacher, the pioneer woman, the young couple to be married, and the preacher’s followers. There is a lively general dance, then a prayer scene, and then a pas de deux danced by the young couple. The sweet interlude erupts into joyous dancing as the wedding is celebrated. Still, the couple remain apprehensive about their new life, and the music carries a sombre undertone. Only the strength of their older neighbours and the faith of a revivalist meeting² provide reassurance. At last, taking courage from those around them, the bride and groom stand in their new home. The piece ends as serenely as it began, ending the day with the same chords with which dawn was evoked.
We have selected a most enjoyable recording that truly evokes the scenes that Copland was attempting to depict. It is performed by the San Francisco Symphony and conducted by their Music Director the American conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.
¹ It was supported by funding from the Coolidge Foundation.
² Copland depicts the revivalist meeting by utilising a direct quotation from the hymn Simple Gifts.