It is undoubtedly human nature to crave consistency. We take great comfort in knowing what to expect, whether it be the flavor of our favorite dish at a local restaurant, the plot lines of our favorite author’s books, the style of our favorite painter, or the sounds of our favorite composer or group’s music. And yet creative artists continuously evolve, rarely content to simply recreate the same work or experience over and over. Driven by the desire to explore new aspects of themselves and the world, creative artists have been known to leave behind lucrative careers in order to embark on new paths, leaving mystified or frustrated audiences scratching their heads.
Such was the case when Aaron Copland, who had begun to establish himself as a serious composer in the modernist style, decided in the mid-1930s to switch gears and begin to compose music with a more accessible, populist sound. Copland hoped to produce music that would reach a larger audience and perhaps be more financially lucrative, yet remain artistically relevant. It was an evolution that was heralded by audiences and derided by musicologists at the time, who accused Copland of having “sold out” his higher artistic ideals in pursuit of popular success. Copland was undeterred however, responding, “The composer who is frightened of losing his artistic integrity through contact with a mass audience is no longer aware of the meaning of the word art." Beginning with 1936’s El Salón México through his ballet scores to Billy the Kid (1938) and Rodeo (1942), Copland developed a completely new, more pared-down style of composition, full of widely spaced harmonies and folk-like elements, designed to create a sense of the vast American landscape. It was so popular and successful that the style continues today to be imitated and utilized by composers of television and film scores seeking to evoke a pastoral, uniquely American atmosphere.
Copland’s ballet music to Appalachian Spring premiered in 1944 at the height of this “populist” period of composition. Having been approached in 1942 by choreographer Martha Graham and philanthropist Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge to compose the score for a ballet which would be what Graham called “a legend of American living,” Copland composed the original score for 13 instruments during 1943-1944. He later orchestrated the work in 1945. The title was supplied by Graham, after she saw the phrase used in “The Dance,” a poem by American poet Hart Crane. The ballet depicts a small community of American pioneers during the mid-19th century as they celebrate the wedding of a bride and groom and the construction of their farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania. The work comprises seven distinct sections, beginning with a magical, ethereal opening, continuing through various dances for the bride and groom and a church revival, and culminating with the introduction of the beloved Shaker melody “Simple Gifts.” Copland ingeniously introduces the hymn tune quietly using a solo clarinet, then builds the drama to a final, magnificent rendition of the melody by the entire ensemble. The ballet ends as it began, with the Appalachian mists returning as the pioneers look to the future with strength and hope.
Appalachian Spring was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1945 and cemented Copland’s place in history as the architect of a distinctly “American” style of composition. Although Copland continued to write in this style until the early 1950s, it should be noted that his approach morphed again in his later years, and some of his last compositions utilized the 12-tone serial techniques that had become popular in the mid-20th century. That he voluntarily moved away from his extraordinarily successful populist music and onto something far less commercially viable proves once again that creativity does not stand still, and that, as Albert Einstein said, “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”