Appalachian Spring Suite
The first collaboration by dancer-choreographer Martha Graham
(1894-1991) and composer Aaron Copland took place in 1931. Graham
selected Copland's Piano Variations (1930) as music to accompany a
dance piece entitled Dithyramb. Copland and Graham, who
enjoyed a profound mutual respect, looked forward to other joint
projects. However, the next opportunity did not occur until 1942,
when Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge first saw Graham dance. Coolidge
invited Graham to create and stage three new ballets for the 1943
season of the Festival of the Coolidge Foundation, which was held
at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. For the event, Graham
commissioned music by three contemporary composers: Paul Hindemith,
Darius Milhaud, and Aaron Copland.
Graham herself chose the title for Copland's ballet from a poem by
Hart Crane. Copland began work on the score in June 1943, while in
Hollywood. Because of various delays, the premiere of
Appalachian Spring (as well as the Hindemith and
Milhaud ballets) did not occur until October 30, 1944 (Copland
finished his score in June, 1944, while at Cambridge,
Massachusetts). Graham and Erick Hawkins danced the principal
Copland scored the original ballet for a chamber group of 13
instruments. He later arranged an orchestral suite for a larger
ensemble, although one still remarkable for its lean and
transparent sonority. In 1945, Appalachian Spring won
both the Pulitzer Prize for Music and the Music Critics' Circle of
New York award for outstanding theatrical work of the 1944-1945
The Story of Appalachian Spring
The score of Appalachian Spring contains the following
plot synopsis, fashioned by Edwin Denby and approved by Copland.
The story concerns
a pioneer celebration in spring around a newly built farmhouse in
the Pennsylvania hills in the early part of the last century. The
bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful
and apprehensive, their new domestic partnership invites. An older
neighbor suggests now and then the rocky confidence of experience.
A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the
strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end the couple
are left quiet and strong in their new house.
Copland on Appalachian Spring
The suite is divided into eight sections that are performed without
pause. The composer offered the following program notes for the
suite's 1945 premiere:
1. Very slowly. Introduction of the characters, one by one, in a
2. Fast. Sudden burst of unison strings in A-major arpeggios starts
the action. A sentiment both exalted and religious gives the
keynote to this scene.
3. Moderate. Duo for the Bride and her Intended-scene of tenderness
4. Quite fast. The revivalist and his flock. Folksy
feelings-suggestions of square dances and country fiddlers.
5. Still faster. Solo dance of the Bride-presentiment of
motherhood. Extremes of joy and fear and wonder.
6. Very slowly (as at first). Transition scenes reminiscent of the
7. Calm and flowing. 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 later
under the title The Gift to Be Simple. The melody I
borrowed and used almost literally is called "Simple Gifts."
'Tis the gift to be simple
'Tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down
Where we ought to be.
And when we find ourselves
In the place just right
'Twill be in the valley
Of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd
To turn, turn will be our delight,
'Till by turning, turning we come round right.
8. Moderate. 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, prayer-like passage. We hear
a last echo of the principal theme sung by the flute and a solo
violin. The close is reminiscent of the opening music.
© 2012 Woodruff Arts
Center, Atlanta, GA
During the 1964-1965 season, Leonard Bernstein took a sabbatical
from his duties as music director of the New York Philharmonic, a
post he assumed in 1958. Bernstein hoped that the sabbatical would
afford him a greater opportunity to devote his energies to
composition. Bernstein's major venture was a collaboration with
Betty Comden and Adolph Green—a musical based upon Thornton
Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth. However, by
January 1965, it was clear that the project would not come to
fruition. Bernstein wrote to composer David Diamond: "The wounds
are still smarting. I am suddenly a composer without a project,
with half of that golden sabbatical down the drain. Never mind,
During the sabbatical period, Bernstein also experimented with
"12-tone music and even more experimental stuff. I was happy that
all these new sounds were coming out; but after about six months of
work I threw it all away. It just wasn't my music. It
wasn't honest. The end result was the CHICHESTER PSALMS ..."
In 1964, Bernstein received a commission from Dr. Walter Hussey,
Dean of the Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, England, to compose a
new work for its summer music festival. Hussey advised Bernstein
that "it is not really possible to have a full symphony orchestra
for reasons of space and expense and the fact that the combined
strength of the three Cathedral (Chichester, Winchester, and
Salisbury) Choirs is about 70 to 75." Bernstein's score employs a
reduced orchestra that excludes winds.
Bernstein composed his Chichester Psalms in Manhattan
during the spring of 1965, completing the work on May 7. The
Cathedral graciously allowed Bernstein to conduct the premiere not
at Chichester, but at a July 15 New York Philharmonic concert. That
performance featured a chorus of male and female voices. On July
31, the first performance of the composer's preferred original
version-with a male choir-took place in Chichester.
In describing the structure of the Chichester Psalms, the
composer observed, "The work is in three movements, lasting about
18 and a half minutes, and each movement contains one complete
psalm plus one or more verses from another complementary psalm by
way of contrast or amplification."
Bernstein characterized his Chichester Psalms as "the
most accessible, B-flat-majorish tonal piece I've ever written. If
one is trying to find optimism versus pessimism in my music, the
closest musical equivalent is tonality versus non-tonality." And in
a poem written at the conclusion of Bernstein's New York
Philharmonic sabbatical, he offered this affectionate
These psalms are a simple and modest affair,
Tonal and tuneful and somewhat square,
Certain to sicken a stout John Cager
With its tonics and triads and E-flat major.
But there it stands-the result of my pondering,
Two long months of avant-garde wandering—
My youngest child, old-fashioned and sweet,
And he stands on his own two tonal feet.
© 2012 Woodruff Arts
Center, Atlanta, GA
In late 1929, the BBC approached William Walton with the prospect
of commissioning a new work. Walton accepted the BBC's limitations
on performing forces, including a "small chorus, small orchestra
not exceeding 15, and soloist." Walton decided to collaborate with
British writer Osbert Sitwell on a setting of an episode from the
Book of Daniel. During a feast, the Babylonian King Belshazzar
witnesses a hand appear and write on the wall the prophesy of his
demise. Sitwell fashioned a libretto out of excerpts from the Book
of Daniel, supplemented by lines from the Book of
Isaiah and the Book of Revelation, and Psalms 137
Initial progress on Belshazzar's Feast was slow. But by
September 1930, Walton and the BBC agreed that
Belshazzar had expanded far beyond the agreed-upon
performing forces. In the early portion of 1931, it was announced
that Walton's Belshazzar's Feast would
premiere at the Leeds Festival that October.
The director of the Leeds Festival was the great British conductor
Thomas Beecham. Sir Thomas, never one to mince words, told Walton:
"As you'll never hear the thing again, my boy, why not throw in a
couple of brass bands?" As part of the festival, Beecham was
conducting Berlioz's epic Requiem; thus, extra brass players would
be on hand. Walton agreed with Beecham's suggestion, and added two
brass ensembles, each of which comprised three trumpets, three
trombones, and tuba, and positioned left and right of the
conductor. The premiere of Belshazzar's Feast was a
triumph for the young Walton. Adrian Boult conducted the London
premiere in Queen's Hall on November 25; again, it was a great
Belshazzar's Feast is a remarkable achievement, even
more so given that it was William Walton's first large choral
composition. It is one of the most dramatic and compelling choral
works ever written, one that grips the listener from first note to
last. Perhaps English writer and critic Neville Cardus summed it up
best when, after the world premiere, he described Belshazzar's
Feast as "a clear case of red-hot conception instinctively
finding the right and equally red-hot means of expression."
© 2012 Woodruff Arts
Center, Atlanta, GA