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  • Chris Anderson

Appalachian Spring

"Appalachian Spring" is one of Aaron Copland's most celebrated compositions, and it holds a special place in American classical music.

  • Composition Date: Copland composed "Appalachian Spring" in 1943-1944.

  • Premiere: The piece premiered on October 30, 1944, at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., with Martha Graham choreographing the ballet. The original title of the work was "Ballet for Martha," as it was commissioned by choreographer Martha Graham.

  • Scoring: The original score is written for a chamber orchestra, featuring a unique ensemble of instruments. The instrumentation includes flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano, strings, and a special part for the "clarsach," a Celtic harp.

  • Pulitzer Prize: "Appalachian Spring" won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1945.

  • Title Inspiration: The title "Appalachian Spring" was suggested by Martha Graham. Copland later explained that the title had nothing to do with the specific region but rather evoked the sense of spring in the Appalachian Mountains.

  • Musical Style: The composition is characterised by Copland's distinctive use of open harmonies and simple, folk-like melodies. It reflects his interest in incorporating American folk elements into classical music.

  • Popular Section - "Simple Gifts": One of the most famous sections of "Appalachian Spring" is the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts," which is quoted in the composition. The use of this melody has contributed to the enduring popularity of the work.

  • Ballet Connection: While "Appalachian Spring" is often performed as a standalone orchestral suite, it was originally composed as a ballet. Martha Graham's choreography added a visual dimension to the music, enhancing its impact.

  • Themes: The music captures the spirit of the American frontier, conveying a sense of optimism, simplicity, and the beauty of the landscape.


The composition is divided into eight sections:

  • Very Slowly (Introduction of Characters): The work begins with a slow and mysterious introduction, setting the stage for the unfolding drama. It introduces the main characters in Martha Graham's ballet.

  • Allegro (Fast, with vigour) - "The Revivalist and His Flock": This section is lively and rhythmically energetic, portraying a scene of religious fervour and communal gathering.

  • Moderato (Dance of the Bride): The music becomes more moderate, accompanying a dance that represents the bride's anticipation and reflection on her new life.

  • Allegro (Dance of the Husband and Wife): This section is a faster-paced dance that captures the playful and joyful interactions between the newlyweds.

  • Molto Adagio (The Hymn): A slow and contemplative section featuring the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts." This melody has become one of the most recognisable and enduring aspects of the composition.

  • Moderato - Coda (Dance and Coda): The tempo picks up again in a dance that leads to the concluding section. The coda brings the work to a serene and tranquil close.

  • Subito Allegro (Conclusion): This final section provides a sense of resolution and celebration, bringing the work to a triumphant end.

Musical Techniques:

  • Open Harmonies: Copland's use of open harmonies, often in parallel fourths and fifths, contributes to the expansive and distinctly American sound of the piece.

  • Folk-Inspired Melodies: Throughout the composition, Copland incorporates folk-like melodies that evoke a sense of Americana.

  • Varied Orchestration: The orchestration is carefully crafted to create a chamber music-like intimacy, despite the use of a relatively large ensemble.

  • Shifting Meters and Rhythms: Copland employs varied meters and rhythms to create a sense of dynamism and energy in the music.

Cultural Significance:

"Appalachian Spring" has come to symbolise the American spirit and has been embraced for its depiction of the American landscape and its celebration of community and optimism. The work has transcended its original ballet context to become a staple of the orchestral repertoire.

In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize, "Appalachian Spring" earned Copland a prominent place in the pantheon of American composers. Its enduring popularity has led to numerous arrangements and adaptations, ensuring its continued presence in concert halls around the world.

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