Copland: Appalachian Spring and the miracle of the American Spirit

1943 cannot have been an enjoyable time in which to live.

In Europe, the Third Reich was at the height of its power. From Vichy France to North Africa, its domination seemed complete and as its eye turned east towards Russia, nobody felt safe. The war in the Pacific raged on much as it had the last few years, with no end in sight, no peace to be found. Here at home Americans had become used to the fact that this was now our war, too. As young American men were sent off to battle in distant lands the reach of war was felt on our own Free Soil as war rationing began in earnest.

For a middle-aged man living in New York City, hope cannot have felt entirely natural. It should have been easier to imagine warplanes over Manhattan or U-boats surrounding Cape Cod than to truly believe that peace was possible. And even if that peace should arrive–what then? How could humanity possibly return to any sense of normalcy when such atrocity was being unleashed on such a massive scale?

Yes, 1943 must have been bleak. And yet, shrouded in that gray mist of uncertainty and fear, Aaron Copland found a way to feel hope. Copland remembered, somehow, that wonderful American spirit–the ability to see possibility instead of adversity, to remember that a community could overcome anything if they worked together. Copland saw–and he composed.

It was thus that Appalachian Spring was born. The work did not initially bear that title–a detail which hardly detracts from the spirit of the work which was in its infancy. Indeed, its original name–’A ballet for Martha’ (Graham, that wonderful pioneer of American dance, for whom the work was written)–contains a simple but wonderful sentiment: in friendship and mutual admiration was born a gift, given from one artist to another. But the real gift was to be that of Copland and Graham to America: the personification, through sound and dance, of the indomitable American Spirit.

The work is one of love–that is to say, it was born of love, but it is also very much about love. The action, we are told, concerns the matter of a wedding party of a group of pioneers. Set in the early 1800s in the beautiful hills of Pennsylvania, we are first introduced to our key players: A bride (to be) and her groom; townspeople–friends and family to wish them well; an older neighbor who may be a bit world weary (and perhaps a kinder, gentler cousin to Don Alfonso!); and a revivalist preacher and his flock. But this is not a linear narrative! Each character or group has his or her say and action, naturally; but we are not merely told what they do. No, no, no. We are shown: we are shown how they feel, what they think, their inner-most joys and fears. And then–ah, art! Then we are invited in! Now we must get up and dance, eat and drink–but there is a price! Yes, there is always a price, isn’t there? Our bill arrives, and it is steep, but we can pay: We must laugh and cry, shout and whisper, proclaim boldly and pray silently.

It seems that Copland, despite working in the past by virtue of his subject matter, was really looking to the future. That, perhaps, makes the work and its message all the more remarkable. For how could a man living in one of the worst eras of human history possibly have seen this redemption? How could one imagine a world in which each day ends in some sort of bliss and peace? He does not thrust it upon us, however: he allows us free will, invites us to join, suggests that we try hope and not fear.

How does this marvelous work end, then? Surely such a powerful work must end with a triumphant fanfare, a rousing dance, a flurry of orchestral fireworks? No. Copland will not allow such reckless indulgence. How ironic that he should have given the sharpest pull to the heartstrings of his listeners in the final variation of ‘Simple Gifts’! Simple! No, his final gift is a prayer. It is not loud like the revivalists; it does not come with fire and brimstone or the Fear of any horseman, nor the communal ‘A-men!’ so common to the end of a jubilant celebration of mystery. This is a personal prayer: it comes from the heart, careful yet spontaneous, simple and sincere. And from a work which is now and again shrouded in a fine mist or, for a moment or two, in heavy fog–from that Sirius tone we are ushered gently into a meadow of possibility, set on a path to a brighter future. ‘It really is marvelous how the clouds seem to lift on that last page!’ wrote Leonard Bernstein to his friend and colleague some years after the premiere of the work. Bernstein, per usual, could not have been more accurate: The clouds lift, the sun shines, and all is right with the world. It is we who are not right, most of the time, due to greed or laziness, anger or petty jealousy, for favoring zeal over sincerity or comfort over quality. But, Copland’s music reminds us, there is always hope: there is always another chance, a tomorrow, a future. The world is there for us. We will stumble and may even fall–but winter will always lead into spring.

It was a Ballet for Martha–but now it is a work for us all.

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One thought on “Copland: Appalachian Spring and the miracle of the American Spirit

  1. This article brought tears of gratitude to my eyes. I have always loved this piece of music. Now I understand why. “The clouds lift, the sun shines, and all is right with the world.” I love that!

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