Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is one of the titans of American art music. A native New Yorker, he went to France at age 21 and became the first American to study with the legendary Nadia Boulanger. His Organ Symphony, written for Boulanger, provided his breakthrough into composition stardom. After experimenting with many different styles, he became best known for his idiomatic treatment of Americana, crafting such chestnuts as The Tender Land (1954), Billy The Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944), from which Variations on a Shaker Melody is drawn. He was also an acclaimed conductor and writer.
Appalachian Spring is justifiably one of Copland’s best known works. Among many other accolades, it won him the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1945. It was written between 1942 and 1944 on a commission from the renowned choreographer Martha Graham and arts patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, to whom the piece was ultimately dedicated. It used a 13-piece ensemble of strings, woodwinds, and piano. Although it is now thought to be supremely evocative of Americana and Appalachia in particular, Copland had nothing so specific in mind when writing it: his working title was “Ballet for Martha.” The title was only settled after staging began, taken from a stanza of a the Hart Crane poem, “The Dance“:
O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge;
Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends
And northward reaches in that violet wedge
The ballet was premiered in a full staging at the Library of Congress on October 30, 1944, with Graham herself dancing the lead role.
Copland himself provided the following breakdown of what he considered to be the “movements” of the ballet:
- Very slowly. Introduction of the characters, one by one, in a suffused light.
- Fast/Allegro. Sudden burst of unison strings in A major arpeggios starts the action. A sentiment both elated and religious gives the keynote to this scene.
- Moderate/Moderato. Duo for the Bride and her Intended – scene of tenderness and passion.
- Quite fast. The Revivalist and his flock. Folksy feeling – suggestions of square dances and country fiddlers.
- Still faster/Subito Allegro. Solo dance of the Bride – presentiment of motherhood. Extremes of joy and fear and wonder.
- Very slowly (as at first). Transition scene to music reminiscent of the introduction.
- Calm and flowing/Doppio Movimento. Scenes of daily activity for the Bride and her Farmer husband. There are five variations on a Shaker theme. The theme, sung by a solo clarinet, was taken from a collection of Shaker melodies compiled by Edward D. Andrews, and published under the title “The Gift to Be Simple.” The melody borrowed and used almost literally is called “Simple Gifts.”
- Moderate. Coda/Moderato – Coda. The Bride takes her place among her neighbors. At the end the couple are left “quiet and strong in their new house.” Muted strings intone a hushed prayerlike chorale passage. The close is reminiscent of the opening music.
Movement 7 above comprised the Variations, which became one of the most recognizable parts of the ballet, and thus of Copland’s entire oeuvre. Copland himself created the wind band version of these Variations in 1958, changing little other than the instrumentation.
The wind band version of the Variations, as performed by the Dallas Wind Symphony:
Very soon after the ballet’s premiere, Copland created an orchestral suite from most of its music. This exists in 2 versions: for full orchestra and the original 13-member ballet ensemble. (There is an additional full orchestra version of the entire ballet as well.) The video here has the score for the smaller ensemble, but the audio for the full orchestra. As you will see, their forms are identical. The Variations begin at 18:14. If you view this video on YouTube, you will also see its excellent program notes.
For the sake of completion, here is an outstanding live recording of the small ensemble version by the Sydney Camerata Chamber Orchestra:
Here is part 3 of 4 of a 1959 film version of the ballet, using Copland’s music, Graham’s choreography, the original scenic design by Isamu Noguchi, and featuring Graham herself as the bride. This part opens with the Variations: you’ll notice many formal differences between this and the orchestral suites and wind band version. The rest is all available on YouTube as well.
Copland quotes the tune “Simple Gifts,” originally composed by Joseph Brackett in 1848. Thanks to Appalachian Spring, this melody, which had been nearly forgotten for almost a century, has become ingrained in the American musical consciousness. Here it is in a choral version by Copland, with the original melody and lyrics largely intact:
Copland has a huge presence on the internet, thus this site features only the main portals into his work. Please click far beyond the sites listed here for a complete idea of Copland’s footprint on the web.
Fanfare for Aaron Copland – a blog with information on the composer, extraordinarily useful links, and some downloadable versions of old LP recordings. This is the place to explore the several links beyond the main site.
New York Times archive of Copland-related material. Includes reviews of his music and books as well as several fascinating articles that he wrote.
Copland Centennial (from 2000) on NPR.