Aaron Copland wrote Appalachian Spring as a ballet on commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation. He called it “Ballet for Martha”; Graham gave it the title we know today. The original ballet music is for 13 instruments so the following year Copland arranged a suite for full orchestra, the version that is most heard today and that won Copland the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1945. The sound world he created is frequently used to represent America’s panoramic landscapes, awesome mountains and broad prairies, vast agricultural fi elds and muscular urban skylines. The music has become a sound symbol of America itself, albeit an idealistic America, one before the internet and visceral politics and that may or may not have ever existed. Listeners of a certain age may remember the music as closing Walter Cronkite’s television show of the 1950s and 60s, The Twentieth Century, because the 20th century was the American Century.
As in Copland’s other famous ballet, Billy the Kid, he incorporates American folk music, in this case the Shaker song “Simple Gifts.” The ballet did not portray a Shaker community, however, but one in rural Pennsylvania of the early 1800s when America was a new nation with limitless possibilities. A young farm couple is building a house with the help of neighbors, the older ones reminisce and remind the young couple that troubles lie ahead but they will weather any storm. The opening tones of the music evoke the innocent naiveté of the younger couple and the new nation; the first theme is a simple triad, three ascending notes. The ballet’s synopsis tells us that at the close the man and wife are left standing quiet and strong in their new home. The contrasting vastness of the Shaker tune variations with melodies based on the simple triad and open fi fth harmony is both reassuring and poignant, refl ecting the optimism of mid-century America.