Born and raised in the same urban, early-20th-century milieu that produced Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and George and Ira Gershwin, the great and quintessentially American composer Aaron Copland was trained in the classics but steeped in the jazz and popular Jewish music that surrounded him in childhood. As a young composer, his stated aim was to write music that would “make you feel like you were alive on the streets of Brooklyn.” Ironically, it was music that brilliantly evoked the rural American heartland that made Copland famous. One such work—arguably his greatest—was the score for the ballet Appalachian Spring, which became one of the most recognizable and beloved pieces of American music ever written almost immediately following its world premiere on this day in 1944.
The score for Appalachian Spring was commissioned in 1942 to accompany a ballet being choreographed by a young Martha Graham. Copland would know the work only as “Ballet for Martha” throughout its composition, having no guidance other than that the ballet would have some sort of a “frontier” theme. In fact, the name Appalachian Spring and the setting of western Pennsylvania would be decided on only after Copland had completed his score. Yet somehow, without having had any idea of doing so, Copland had composed a work that audiences and critics alike found brilliantly evocative of the specific time and place referenced in the title.
The most recognizable passage of Appalachian Spring is the portion Aaron Copland adapted from the Shaker song “Simple Gifts”—”‘This a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free“—which was largely unfamiliar to Americans prior to Copland’s adaptation. Copland’s artful incorporation of the folk tradition with his distinctly modern sensibility is what made Appalachian Spring the transcendent work that it is. In its review of the October 30, 1944, premiere, the New York Times praised all elements of the “shining and joyous” work: the choreography by Martha Graham; the set design by the Isamu Noguchi; and the score by Aaron Copland, which it called “the fullest, loveliest and most deeply poetical of all his theater scores….It is, as the saying goes, a natural.”
Though written expressly for the ballet and for only 13 instrumentalists—a limitation dictated by the size of the orchestra pit at the Library of Congress—Appalachian Spring was soon adapted into an orchestral suite, which is the form in which it became widely popular. Appalachian Spring was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1945.