Appalachian Spring

Aaron Copland

Appalachian Spring

Recommended recording

Curated by Guy Jones, Head of Curation

About this work

The music from Copland's Pulitzer Prize-winning ballet Appalachian Spring is better known in the orchestral suite the composer extracted in 1945 in response to the work's instant popularity. 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. 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 here may be the least often performed of the three versions, though it is still used in productions of the ballet.

The ballet 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. The music 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 here, but the original score included only piano, strings, flute, clarinet, and bassoon.

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.

The folk-like melodies that sprinkle the work are all original, except for the famous one near the end, which is derived from the Shaker hymn Simple Gifts. 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. After the final variation, the music turns subdued and dreamy, and the work ends serenely.