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Though no one single work truly captures the breadth of Copland's musical interests and formidable capabilities, his Appalachian Spring may come the closest. Indeed, biographer Howard Pollack has suggested that among Copland's works "none holds the kind of emblematic stature of Appalachian Spring, a work admired by the critics as well as by the average listener… and one, furthermore, that evokes a special kind of admiration, even love."
Pioneering American dancer Martha Graham definitely loved Copland's music. In 1931, she choreographed her Dithyramb to the composer's Piano Variations, and at the time they discussed working together on a ballet. It would be a dozen years before the collaboration would take place, however, and only then thanks to the beneficence of a generous patroness, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. In 1942, she commissioned the dancer to create three new ballets, at the same time commissioning composers of Graham's choice to create original music.
Copland began the music in 1943 after receiving a scenario outlining the dance and approximate timings. The ballet, set in Pennsylvania in the 1830s, depicts the anxieties of a young couple contemplating their future together.
Originally, Copland had used the working title "Ballet for Martha." "When I wrote Appalachian Spring," he once remarked, "I was primarily thinking about Martha. No one else seems quite like [her]: she's so proud, so very much herself. And she's unquestionably very American: there's something prim and restrained, simple yet strong, about her which one tends to think of as American."
He could surely have been describing himself, too, as well as the music he wrote for the ballet. It's tuneful and graceful, and as Leonard Bernstein has said, "filled with bittersweet tenderness."
Graham gave the ballet its name, from the title of a poem by Hart Crane (though the poem has nothing to do with the ballet). A year after the work's premiere, October 30, 1944, Copland created an orchestral suite, of which the composer himself wrote the following description:
"1. Very Slowly. Introduction of the characters, one by one, in a suffused light.
2. Fast. Sudden bursts of unison strings…start the action. A sentiment both elated and religious gives the keynote to this scene.
3. Moderate. Duo for Bride and her Intended - scene of tenderness and passion.
4. Fast. The Revivalist and his flock. Folksy feelings - suggestions of square-dances and country fiddlers.
5. Still faster. Solo dance of the Bride - presentiment of motherhood. Extremes of joy and fear and wonder.
6. As at first (slowly). Transition scene to music reminiscent of the introduction.
7. Calm and flowing. Scenes of daily activity for the Bride and her Farmer-husband. There are five variations on a Shaker theme. The theme, sung by solo clarinet, is 'Simple Gifts.' …
8. Moderate. Coda. The Bride takes her place among the neighbors. At the end, the couple are left 'quiet and strong in their new house.' Muted strings intone a hushed, prayer-like passage. The close [recalls] the opening music."
- Dave Kopplin