Copland’s National Work: Appalachian Spring

Topics: Martha Graham, Aaron Copland, Simple Gifts Pages: 5 (1539 words) Published: October 27, 2012
Copland’s national work: Appalachian Spring
In the early 20th century, American artists sought the utility between music and society. Composers faced the dilemma of being a musician in a culture with little serious music tradition. Aaron Copland once wrote: “ (I) lived in an environment (New York City) that had little or no connection with serious music. Artists had deep desires to contribute meaningfully to the life of the nation and to see music filling a real need in American society. As a leading composer who sought the integration of music and life, Aaron Copland expressed his belief in Appalachian Spring that music should appeal to a broader public without losing high musical standards. To achieve this, Copland created the American modern style by combining Neo-classical elements such as motivic unity and variation technique into folk melody and style. When he was young, Copland started to search for personal expression in music that can be related to its own culture and people. Living in the time of the mass music distribution media, such as Phonograph, radio, tape recording and television, Copland raised his dissatisfaction with composers’ efforts (including himself) to meet the needs of new public. In an autobiographical essay he wrote: “ composers were in danger of working in a vacuum. Moreover, an entirely new public for music had grown up around the radio and phonograph. It made no sense…to continue writing as if they did not exist.” Therefore, Copland started to compose music in Gebrauchsmusik (music for use), an aesthetic movement of modern European development. Music was written for varied purposes and performed in both amateur and professional stages, such as high school bands, radio, films/theater commission music, and ballets. Among different Gebrauchsmusik music, Appalachian Spring is the greatest piece to reflect the modern American style that Copland achieved. In 1942, Copland received a commission from Elizabeth Sprague to write ballet scores for Martha Graham, a prominent modern dancer and choreographer. The two artists shared the same artistic altitudes. Similar to Copland, Martha had shown a lifelong fascination and respect for American folk and the vernacular style dance. The ballet was composed with eight continuous sections for 13 instruments based on a script “House of victory”, which tells of a couple’s wedding day in a Pennsylvania farming community in the nineteenth-century. The music reflects characteristics of music from the Shaker community. During the composition process, Copland mistakenly interpreted that the character is from the Shaker community, a pioneer settlement in Appalachian region. They had a simple and communal life with their own religion and culture. Therefore, many music style of this ballet are in the flavor of Shaker hymns: “repeated tone; melodies made from major arpeggios; tune containing ascending and descending scale passages.” For example, the opening movement of the ballet is a slow introduction. The music grows from an A-major triad to the hymn melody. The triads are repeated a couple of times with different instrumentations. The melody is diatonic and flows up and down within wide spacing harmony. More interestingly, the harmony is overlapped. As shown in the example I, A-flat major chord overlaps with E-flat major chord underneath the main melody. This feature, “superimposed tonic and dominant or tonic and subdominant triads,” makes up the characteristic sound of the ballet. Aside from showing the characteristic of the shaker hymn, Copland also wrote music that is reminiscent of country-dance music. For example, the fourth movement is a unison dance of the preacher and neighbors. As shown in example II, the phrases are short and the music is energetic and catchy with staccato mark and steady rhythmic pattern provided by the trombone. The texture and instrumentation suggests folksy atmosphere of square dance. Though Copland uses familiar folk style and...
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