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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

March 21, 2017: Spring in America: “Appalachian Spring”

[As spring gets ready to spring, a series on the season in American culture. Add your vernal associations and responses for a blooming weekend post!]
On the composer and work that helped bring classical to America, and vice versa.
I’m no music historian, yet I would argue that many, indeed most, of the last century’s dominant genres of popular music originated in America: the blues, jazz, rock and roll, country, rap, hip hop, all would seem to have had distinctly American origins. By the same token, however, it’s inarguable that when it comes to one of the most longstanding world musical traditions, classical music (or orchestral music, to make clear that the tradition has continued into our contemporary moment just as much as those other genres), America’s historical role has been far more insignificant. For example, the 19th century saw such classical masters as Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Dvorák, and Mendelssohn, among many others; yet in America during roughly the same period, it’s fair to say (again, says the non-music-historian) that the only composer to achieve any sort of international prominence would be John Philip Sousa—and his marches were of course themselves not exactly classical symphonies.
By the mid-20th century, many of the aforementioned popular genres had begun to emerge in earnest, and with them many significant American composers and musicians. Yet the same decades witnessed the rise of (to my mind) America’s greatest classical composer, one deeply indebted to contemporary American genres such as jazz yet also able to stand toe to toe with any international peer: Aaron Copland. Copland’s earliest (1920s) compositions reflected both sides to those influences, with more classical pieces such as “Symphony for Organ and Orchestra” (1924) complemented by jazz-inflected ones like “Music for the Theater” (1925). His more mature and famous compositions carried forward both trends, as evidenced by two pieces from 1942: the classical (“Fanfare for the Common Man”) and the American (“A Lincoln Portrait”). But perhaps no single piece, of Copland’s or of any other composer’s, better weds the classical to the American than “Appalachian Spring” (1944).
Copland composed the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Appalachian Spring” for Martha Graham’s ballet of the same name, but of course the music has endured in our popular consciousness more fully than the ballet. There are various possible reasons for that persistence, but I would argue it’s most centrally due to just how successfully Copland balances American folk motifs (such as the traditional Shaker song “Simple Gifts” on which he apparently based one of his central melodies) with classical traditions. The truth, of course, is that every nation’s version of a “classical tradition” is due precisely to a combination of unique, local influences with overarching tropes and elements—as brought together and taken to another level by the kinds of musical masters I cited above. That isn’t to downplay the legacies of the world’s greatest composers, but to note, instead, how fully Copland stands among those greats, and how thoroughly he brought America with him into the classical conversation. An uncommon man, and piece, indeed.
Next spring connection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on Copland or music in America? Other images of spring you’d highlight?

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