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The Orchestra Sings

Melodies Can Be Varied

Aim: How do composers use musical elements and the orchestra to play with melodies?
Summary: We explore melodic variations.
Standards: National 1, 4, 7, 10; NYC 1, 2, 3, 5
Vocabulary: articulation, dynamics, orchestration, rhythm, tempo

Learn About Variations

  • Aaron Copland used the Shaker song “Simple Gifts” as the basis for a set of variations in his ballet Appalachian Spring. Variations are composed of a repeated melody with altered musical elements. Common variation methods include lengthening or shortening notes, adding or subtracting notes, and changing the rhythm, tempo, dynamics, orchestration, or articulation. Any number of these changes can be combined to create a series—or set—of variations.
    • Copland altered some of the following elements of music to create variations on “Simple Gifts”:

Melody

  • Listen to Track 41  in the playlist below for the first statement of the melody played by the woodwinds.
  • Listen to Track 43 and notice how Copland alters the melody slightly when it is played by the brass.
    • Can you hear the small difference between these two tracks? What changes?

Rhythm and Tempo

  • Listen to Track 46.
    • In this example, Copland doubles the rhythmic values from the original melody.
    • How does this sound different from the original statement of the melody played by the woodwinds?

Orchestration

  • Listen to Tracks 41–46.
    • Copland changes the orchestration in each variation. Which instruments or families of the orchestra do you hear playing the melody in each variation?

Articulation

  • Prepare students to move to “Variations on a Shaker Melody” from Appalachian Spring.
    • Copland changes the articulation for the melody in many of the variations. Sometimes the melody is smooth and legato, and other times it is detached and staccato. How would you represent these two different types of articulations in movements?
  • Move around the room while listening to Track 40.
    • How do your movements reflect what you hear?
    • How do your movements change throughout the piece?

Dynamics

  • Repeat the movement activity above, but this time ask students to demonstrate through their movements when the music is soft (piano) or loud (forte).

“Simple Gifts” and the Shakers

For more information about “Simple Gifts” and the Shakers, visit shakervillageky.org.

My Own Melodic Variations

  • This activity can be done as a class, in small groups, or individually.
  • Using the activity My Own Melodic Variations for the “New World” Symphony (PDF), select pitches for the missing eighth notes in the score (students may write in the note name or notate on the staff).
  • Indicate the tempo, articulation, and dynamics for your variation, and then perform it!

Melodies of the “New World” Symphony

For three years, Dvořák lived in the US, where he was based at the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. At the same time, the conservatory enrolled a student named Harry Burleigh. Burleigh’s grandfather, who was formerly enslaved, taught him traditional spirituals and songs of enslaved people from a young age. Burleigh shared his grandfather’s musical talents and became an accomplished classical singer.

During his time at the National Conservatory, Dvořák often asked Burleigh to sing for him, and was even quoted as saying: “In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.” Burleigh also described this exchange: “Dvořák used to get tired during the day and I would sing to him after supper … I gave him what I knew of Negro songs … and he wrote some of my tunes (my people’s music) into the New World Symphony.”

By sharing these songs from African American musical traditions, Burleigh contributed to the composition of one of the most iconic pieces of symphonic repertoire. After he left the conservatory, he went on to have a successful career as a professional singer and composer, and he was famous for his art songs and settings of African American traditional melodies. Burleigh was also one of the first African American musicians to perform at Carnegie Hall, where he sang alongside the noted soprano Sissieretta Jones in an 1892 performance. Burleigh appeared at Carnegie Hall approximately 12 times throughout his career, and more than 90 of his compositions and arrangements have been performed at Carnegie Hall.

Go Deeper

Using the complete melody to the “New World” Symphony, try varying additional musical elements with your students. For example, lengthen or shorten the rhythmic values, discuss orchestration options, or create more variations within the melody by adding more steps or leaps.

Downloadable PDFs

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