Notes by Dr. Beverly Everett
Appalachian Spring holds a special place in my own musical journey perhaps more than any other piece of music in existence. It was the first piece I had the opportunity to perform as a pianist with an orchestra; it was an important piece I studied at my first far-away conducting workshop; it is a piece I studied with Murry Sidlin at the Aspen Music Festival. And it is a piece closely tied to two very important performances.
When I was working on my master’s degree at Baylor University, I chose the 13- instrument version as one of my conducting recital pieces. The students and I worked so hard on it. Just a few days before the concert, my cousin Tommy who was one year my senior and like a brother to me, was killed in an accident. His funeral was the day of the concert. Even though it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, I went forward with the concert. Believing in the healing and spiritual qualities of this piece, I wanted to do it in his honor, and as a gift of healing to my family who drove to my concert, straight from the cemetery. The way the musicians pulled together that night had a kind of depth and sensitivity that was extraordinary and produced one of the sweetest, most perfect performances of the work I’ve ever heard.
Many years later we chose Appalachian Spring, again the 13 instrument version, to perform on a concert honoring Governor Art Link and his wife Grace for their many years of support of the Bismarck-Mandan Symphony Orchestra. Governor Link passed away just two weeks before the event, creating yet another moving, poignant and emotionally and heart-driven performance of the piece.
Those experiences inform the work every additional time I conduct it and always will. Our life experiences and the maneuvering of our souls deepen us as musicians. I know that the October 19 performance by the BMSO will be another such opportunity as we share this magnificent music.
As a little aside, I also love the fact that Aaron Copland’s mother lived in Waxahachie, TX (my hometown) for a short period just after she immigrated to America. And in 1934, Aaron Copland himself spent a summer in Bemidji, MN. He said of Bemidji, that it offered, “All of the advantages of an arts colony without any of the disadvantages.”
Aaron Copland composed Appalachian Spring in 1943-1944 at the request of the legendary choreographer Martha Graham on a commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation. The work was premiered on October 30, 1944 in the new Coolidge Auditorium in the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. by Martha Graham and her company in a special performance honoring the eightieth birthday of Mrs. Coolidge.
The original orchestration of the ballet calls for a chamber ensemble of thirteen instruments. Copland created the full orchestra arrangement that the BMSO will be performing in the spring of 1945 and is a shorter suite containing all essential features of the ballet. The plot of the ballet is of a “pioneer celebration in spring around a newly build farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills in the early part of the 19th century. A revivalist and his followers remind the young couple of the strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end the couple are left quiet and strong in their new house.” The work culminates with a set of variations on the Shaker song ‘Tis’ a gift to be simple.”
Copland, who had gone to Mexico just prior to the premiere, hurried back to be present for opening night. Soon after he arrived he called Martha and asked, “Have you found a title yet?” “Yes,” she answered, “a beautiful title from a poem by Hart Crane. I’m calling the ballet Appalachian Spring.” It was Crane’s American epic The Bridge, with its mixture of nationalism, pantheism and symbolism that was the basis for the script Graham devised for the Coolidge commission. Graham was drawn to a section of The Bridge called “The Dance,” where she found the line “O Appalachian Spring!” The stanza of Crane’s poem ending with this line actually does not refer to springtime in the Appalachian Mountains, but to the uninhibited joyful leap of a mountain spring:
I took the portage climb, then chose
A further valley-shed; I could not stop.
Feet nozzled wat’ry webs of upper flows;
One white veil gusted from the very top.
O Appalachian Spring!…
After conducting the suite in London in 1946, Leonard Bernstein wrote to Copland:
“My one comfort these days is studying it. I manage somehow to borrow some of that fantastic stability of yours, that deep serenity. It is really amazing how the clouds lift with that last page.”
If you would like to listen to other podcasts or featured musical pieces, visit our Podcast section or you can subscribe to our podcast in iTunes! If you have any questions or comments on this podcast or have suggestions for future pieces, please feel free to contact us.
Thanks for listening!