Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #32/50: Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland

As mentioned in the two previous posts (which you can read here and here), the period from the very late 1800s up through the 1920s was a time of great advancement in the world of The Arts all across the world. Actors such as Charlie Chaplin were transforming the world of film. Frank Lloyd Wright and others from the Prairie School of Design were changing the way people imagined buildings could look and function. As painters, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso were producing astoundingly original work in comparison to their predecessors. As we have seen previously in this series, Igor Stravinsky and his Russian compatriots Dimitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev were busy reinventing the idea of what classical composition and ballet could and should be. In the world of dance, no one was taking greater advantage of those artistically expansive times than a woman named Martha Graham. Not only did Martha Graham help advance the notion of what emotive dance performance could look like, her techniques have become the standard by which other dancers from around the world have learned their craft for over a century now. Furthermore, her importance as a role model for women in many other fields cannot be overstated. Even though she rose to prominence during a time of cultural enlightenment, she did so while still having to navigate the corridors of power occupied mainly by men. Her success as a dancer, teacher and power broker in the world of The Arts served as an inspiration for generations of women who followed in her wake.

American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham (1894 – 1991) performs ‘Lamentation,’ 1935. (Photo by Barbara Morgan/Getty Images)

As Martha Graham established herself as the preeminent dancer and choreographer in the world of American Dance in the 1920s, one of her greatest skills had nothing to do with music and movement but, instead, had everything to do with her ability to build relationships. Graham had a wonderful ability to connect with a wide variety of people who could help bring her artistic visions to fruition. Some of her networking skills involved those in the world of finance, whether bankers, well-heeled society types who could act as patrons of The Arts and/or government officials who could be influenced to pass legislation favourable to her endeavours and to The Arts, in general. Graham enjoyed working with artists, architects, engineers and graphic designers of all types so as to give her productions the “look” that would make them extraordinary. Needless to say, Graham was a friend, mentor, critic and inspiration to a league of dancers and musicians as well. One of Martha Graham’s greatest networking attributes is that she was blind to issues of colour, gender, religion and so on. She would work with anyone who believed in The Arts and who approached life with the belief that anything was possible when one truly believed it could be so. One example of Martha Graham in action can be found in the story of “Appalachian Spring” by Aaron Copland. Many critics and experts point to this composition as possessing the quintessential “American sound”. Let’s take a closer look at a piece of music that holds a rightful place in the great American Songbook. This is the story of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring”.

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Erick Hawkins, and Martha Graham at the premiere of 201cAppalachian Spring,201d 1944. Coolidge Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

It is difficult for many of us to appreciate what it must feel like to have survived a global conflict such as World War I. As the War ended in 1918, much of the anxiety and self-sacrifice that so characterized the people of many nations gave way to a feeling of unbridled joy and optimism for what lay ahead. Much of the time and money and effort that had previously been devoted to the war effort was now unleashed in the opposite direction toward commerce, scientific advancement and toward The Arts. The Roaring Twenties, as the decade that followed WWI came to be called, was a time teeming with possibilities. One of those who understood the potential for good that existed at this time was Martha Graham. Not only did Graham believe that the 1920s was a wonderful boom time for The Arts, but she believed in her heart that The Arts had an important role in helping America and the rest of the world to heal and move forward in a positive way. One way in which Graham sought to sow the seeds of creativity and help to develop a sense of national identity in America was by commissioning a new ballet in which she would star. This ballet would not only act as a showcase for new and innovative ways to communicate to the world through dance, it would also set a tone for a new spirit of pride in America. In order to finance this new work, Graham teamed up with a woman named Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who was known as a promoter and patron of The Arts. For the designing of her set, she turned to Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. For the musical score, Martha Graham recruited Aaron Copland.

Sculptor and Martha Graham set designer Isamu Noguchi

Aaron Copland was a composer who had studied abroad in Paris under the musical direction of a woman named Nadia Boulanger. Like Graham, Nadia Boulanger developed a well-deserved reputation as an excellent music instructor at a time in our social history when it was not all that common for men to take instruction from a woman. But Boulanger had such a vast knowledge of the personalities, repertoire and musical techniques of all of the major classical composers in history that she was respected without regard for her gender. She was simply the best instructor available, and so students such as Copland, Philip Glass and even Quincy Jones sat by her side and absorbed her great wisdom. Aaron Copland came into contact with Martha Graham during a period in his career when he had tried various styles of composition but had yet to develop the style that would make him famous in the annals of American music. At that time, Copland found that he could master various technical styles of composition but that he felt those pieces of music were not in sync with the mood of the nation. Thus, when Martha Graham and Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge approached him with regard to their desire to commission a new ballet score that would come to define America as it felt in the 1920s, Copland felt as though a creative door had opened for him. The vision that Martha Graham wished to bring to the stage was exactly the connection with an audience Copland was desiring to achieve with his music. So, he immediately set to work.

Aaron Copland at home in his studio

As he allowed himself to think about the mythological idea of what America was, he started to conjure images in his mind of the vastness of the Great Plains, of open sky and of mountains harbouring cool, clear springs of water. To Copland, the openness and vastness of the land symbolized the vastness of its potential as a nation. Thus, he set to work creating a composition that sought to replicate that majestic vista in sound. The result of his efforts was a new work called “Appalachian Spring”. As the following years unfolded, “Appalachian Spring” ended up becoming two distinct works. First of all, it became the score of the ballet that Martha Graham had commissioned and ended up dancing to. The story told in the ballet was of a young couple arriving on the Great Plains to begin a new life as husband and wife. There were other characters living nearby who imparted their advice about life in a new land. The young couple accepted the dangers inherent in this new chapter of their lives but believed that through love and hard work, their dreams could be realized and that a better tomorrow was theirs to be had. In many ways, Graham’s ballet was a visual manifestation of the “American Dream”. Copland’s score was slow and sweeping. Coupled with Graham’s expressive manifestation of good old American values, “Appalachian Spring” became an immediate sensation. In time, Copland was asked to modify his score so that it could be performed by orchestras without the ballet component being necessary. So, Aaron Copland tweaked his score and made it possible for chamber-style groups to perform “Appalachian Spring”, too. There is a jazzy component to “Appalachian Spring” which is reflective of how prominent a genre of music Jazz was becoming in the 1920s. Even though the sound of Jazz doesn’t usually cause images of the Great Plains to appear in one’s mind, Copland combined the two in a very original and innovative manner and helped to create a new soundscape for a nation. Aaron Copland won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his efforts.

All through the course of my life, I have witnessed the ebbs and flows of opinion with regard to the value of The Arts in our society. Much of this debate concerns the investment of public funds (in the form of taxes) into having The Arts taught in our public schools. It shouldn’t surprise any of my regular readers to know that I value The Arts highly. There is no debate for me regarding their importance. I firmly believe that anything in life that can touch your heart and stimulate your mind is something that possesses great value. The Arts do that. Not every painting needs to be your cup of tea; not every song needs to make you feel something, either. But what The Arts do provide is a way of looking at the world that holds the potential to inspire individuals and whole countries. It is not without reason that Fourth of July festivities in the U.S. traditionally end with a concert by The Boston Pops or some other orchestra and that, as part of that concert, a piece of music called “Appalachian Spring” is played. When done well, The Arts can uplift the hearts of everyone who sees or hears the manifestation of that creative expression. We should all be grateful to the Martha Grahams and Aaron Coplands of the world for their efforts to prove the one great value of The Arts above all else…they show us the way forward toward a better tomorrow. And when there is Hope, there is Life.

The link to the video for the composition “Appalachian Spring” (ballet) by Aaron Copland can be found here. The Chamber version can be found here.

The link to the official website for Aaron Copland can be found here.

The link to the official website for Martha Graham can be found here.

The link to the official website for designer Isamu Noguchi can be found here. ***Apparently, if you Google “Noguchi table”, you can buy one from Walmart. I kid you not. Go ahead. Try it for yourself.

The link to the official website for Arts Patron, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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