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. Written on commission from dancer/choreographer Martha Graham, Appalachian Spring depicts the lives of a newly married pioneer couple in nineteenth century Pennsylvania. 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. 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).
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, but is immediately followed by leaping, spiky lines in which melodic fourths play a prominent role. What is undoubtedly the most famous tune from the ballet is not Copland's own: 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. 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.
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. 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. 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.