Some of Copland’s most populist “American” music was produced during the Depression and war years, including the overtly patriotic morale boosters Lincoln Portrait and Fanfare for the Common Man. Appalachian Spring capped a trilogy of dance interpretations of the American frontier spirit, beginning with Billy the Kid (1938) and continuing with Rodeo (1942). This was music that created the concert and theater equivalent of the poignant “high lonesome” bluegrass sound emerging at the same time, music of open chords and spare textures that often drew on traditional sources.
Appalachian Spring was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge for Martha Graham. Copland began work on Graham’s then-untitled scenario in Hollywood in June 1943, completing the ballet a year later in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “After Martha gave me this bare outline, I knew certain crucial things – that it had to do with the pioneer American spirit, with youth and spring, with optimism and hope,” Copland later wrote.
Graham took the eventual title from a poem by Hart Crane (where it refers to water, not the season), though not the narrative of an Appalachian housewarming for pioneer and his bride. Copland originally scored the ballet for an ensemble of 13 instruments, since the premiere was in the small Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress (with Graham herself as the Bride, Erick Hawkins as the Husbandman, and Merce Cunningham as the Revivalist). In the spring of 1945 he arranged a suite from the ballet for full orchestra, which won the Pulitzer Prize for music that year.
The Suite is cast in eight uninterrupted sections. It opens with a slowly blooming introduction, which unison strings burst into in an elated Allegro. The scenes that follow move from a warm, gentle duet for the pioneering couple, through fleetly fiddling dances for a revivalist preacher and his followers, to an animated dance of anticipation for the bride. A transitional interlude recalls the opening, before the Suite’s climax, a set of variations on the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” which supported scenes of rustic domesticity in the choreography. In the coda, the married couple is left alone in their new home, with tender music that bookends and fulfills the opening expectations.
Graham told Copland that she wanted the dance to be “a legend of American living, like a bone structure, the inner frame that holds together a people,” and the ballet and its music were immediately understood as reflections of a national identity, of hope and fulfillment in a difficult time. “… the Spring that is being celebrated is not just any Spring but the Spring of America; and the celebrants are not just half a dozen individuals but ourselves in different phases,” John Martin wrote in his New York Times review.