Variations on a Shaker Melody
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 who are contemplating their future together.
Originally, Copland had used the working title "Ballet for Martha." "When I wrote Appalachian Spring," Copland 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 premiere of the ballet, October 30,1944, Copland created an orchestral suite. The composer himself wrote the following description of the seventh movement of the suite:
"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.' …"
-- Dave Kopplin