“Long after its composition, Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring remains both the composer’s quintessential masterpiece and one of the definitive ballets of the twentieth century” (AMG). “Practical and economic constraints led Copland to score the original version of the work for an ensemble of 13 instruments. Within a short time of the ballet’s premiere, however, Copland arranged the music into a concert suite for full orchestra, in which form it is most fequently performed today” (AMG). “The ‘Suite’ both expands on and excises the music, in the end eliminating about 10 or 11 minutes from the approximately 35-minute length of the original score” (Cummings).
“Many purists prefer the original instrumentation, which has, it must be said, a striking austerity and rawness that is largely smoothed over in the version for full orchestra. The latter, at the same time, presents its own beauties not present in the smaller-scale original” (AMG). “Many listeners may be familiar with the ballet version for full orchestra that the composer made in 1954 at the behest of conductor Eugene Ormandy. In the concert hall the original chamber orchestra scoring…may be the least often performed of the three versions, though it is still used in productions of the ballet” (Cummings). “In any event, Appalachian Spring continues to flourish as a perennial favorite and remains Copland’s most beloved contribution to the pantheon of twentieth century classics” (AMG).
The “Pulitzer Prize-winning ballet” (Cummings) was originally “written on commission from dancer/choreographer Martha Graham” (AMG). The story “is set in 1830 Pennsylvania and centers on springtime celebrations relating to the completion of a farmhouse built for a young couple planning to wed” (Cummings). “The scenario that emerges in the course of the dance ‘narrative’ includes a house-raising, a sermon, a festive party, and the couple alone in a moment of hopeful reflection” (AMG). “Throughout, Appalachian Spring unfolds with a spirit of unfailing optimism (though, as is clear from the Hart Crane poem from which the ballet’s name was derived; after the music was written; the ‘Spring’ of the title actually refers to a wellspring, not the season)” (AMG).
“The music of Appalachian Spring is at once characteristic of Copland’s ‘Americana’ style of the late ‘30s and the 1940s. The harmonic language, based largely on triadic and other, mildly dissonant sonorities, is marked by an overall spareness and simplicity; at appropriate moments, though, Copland employs fuller, more luxurious textures. The melodic material varies according to the ballet’s episodic nature: the introduction, for example, is ethereal and almost non-melodic” (AMG) as it “opens in a somber, almost athematic manner, the mood ethereal and sleepy, as if spring is slowly taking hold, winter’s snow still melting. Suddenly the music springs to life with an infectious, lively theme that exhibits a folk-like quality, that spirited sense of Americana that Copland was so famous for. In the ‘Suite’ a xylophone is used to colorful effect…, but the original score included only piano, strings, flute, clarinet, and bassoon” (Cummings).
“The folk-like melodies that sprinkle the work are all original, except for” (Cummings) “what is undoubtedly the most famous tune from the ballet” (AMG). “The composer presents the traditional Shaker hymn Simple Gifts, masterfully spinning a set of variations that progress toward the climax of the entire work, a final tutti statement of the theme marked by a particular dignity and grandeur” (AMG). “It is well known from the ‘Suite’, but in the original version it is less epic-sounding; not least because of the smaller forces; and its variations are interrupted by the stormy revivalist segment” (Cummings).
“The following section is subdued in its slower pacing, with dreamy writing for clarinet, flute, and strings. Another lively folk-like theme, this one a mixture of confidence and humor, is soon presented, and after a contrasting slow section, yet another, even more driven theme is heard. It isn't just the livelier music in the score, though, that exudes Copland's American Frontier manner; even in the more relaxed sections that alternate, the same unique folk-like flavor emerges, both in the deft instrumentation and in the tunes and harmonies themselves” (Cummings).
“In keeping with the nature and purpose of the score, the rhythmic language is particuraly lively, even breathtaking, making Appalachian Spring among the most kinetic of any of Copland’s works. Irregular, changing meters are a particularly notable feature; even when the music remains in a single meter, shifts of accent ensure a distinctive sense of constant motion and rhythmic surprise” (AMG).