Music History Monday: An American Classic

By Professor Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.

On this day in 1944—73 years ago—Aaron Copland’s ballet Appalachian Spring was first performed by the Martha Graham Dance Company in Washington, DC.

Photograph of Aaron Copland in front of bookshelves in 1970
Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

From that moment, it has been embraced as being “as American as baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie!”

Now there’s a familiar cliché: “as American as baseball, hot dogs and apple pie.”

Except that not a single one of those presumably “American” things is American in origin, any more than the vast majority of “Americans” are actually American in origin.

We are told that “baseball and the other modern bat, ball and running games—such as cricket and rounders—were developed from folk games in early Britain and Continental Europe (such as France and Germany). Early forms of baseball had a number of names, including ‘base ball’, ‘goal ball’, ‘round ball’, ‘fetch-catch’, ‘stool ball’, and, simply, ‘base.’”

This article originally appeared on Professor Greenberg’s Music Blog

As for hot dogs, the German city of Frankfurt is credited as being the birthplace of a sausage called a “frankfurter”. In Germany, the sausage was colloquially referred to as a “dachshund” or “little dog” because of its resemblance to a dachshund. It was around 1870 that an enterprising German immigrant named Charles Feltman began selling hot dogs in rolls at Coney Island, in Brooklyn, New York. By doing so, Feltman made the hot dog an inexpensive finger food, one that was embraced in particular by America’s growing immigrant class.

As for apple pie, well, apples aren’t even native to the Western hemisphere. They originated in the Eurasian continent and were brought to England by the Romans. The oldest extent recipe for apple pie was written in England in 1381.

Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring is indeed “as American as baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie” in that what makes it “American” is that it is a synthesis, a hybrid, an amalgam of vastly different cultural elements. Copland, the child of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants (the family name was originally “Kaplan”), was born in 1900 in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he grew up. He received his advanced musical education in France. His music is an amalgam of ragtime and jazz derived rhythmic snap; Anglo-American and Hispanic folk music; Stravinskyan rhythmic asymmetry; an extremely concise compositional style (Copland himself referred to it as being “thrifty”); and a melodic sensibility that has come to be stereotypically associated with the wide open spaces of the American West (no small irony for someone who grew up and spent the bulk of his life in urban New York).

Along with Fanfare for the Common Man and the ballet Rodeo (both from 1942), Appalachian Spring is Copland’s most famous and popular work. All three works reflect a populist compositional impulse that was a mirror of current events.

Some background:

The Great Depression began with the stock market crash on October 29, 1929 and ended when the United States declared war on Japan twelve years later, on December 8, 1941, a day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. There was a belief during the Depression that the “fine arts” should address not just an “elite few” but rather, the many: an idealized “common man”. This spirit of populism was, if anything, magnified during the War, when national pride and patriotism were as important to the War effort as metal drives and victory gardens.

Aaron Copland was deeply affected by the populist spirit of the time. He later wrote:

“In all the arts the Depression had aroused a wave of sympathy for and identification with the plight of the common man. There was a ‘market’ for music evocative of the American scene – industrial backgrounds, landscapes of the Far West, and so forth. We [composers] were pleased to find ourselves sought after, and were ready to compose in a manner that would satisfy both our [audiences] and ourselves.”

Among Copland’s best-known “populist” works are Billy the Kid (of 1938); Rodeo; A Lincoln Portrait; and Fanfare for the Common Man (all of 1942); and Appalachian Spring (of 1944).

Appalachian Spring was composed as a ballet, commissioned, choreographed and danced by Martha Graham. She conceived of it as a springtime celebration around a newly built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills during the early part of the nineteenth century. The ballet received its premiere at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. on October 30, 1944. In 1945, Copland’s score was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music.

It was also in 1945 that Copland pared the fourteen-part ballet down to an eight-part “suite” for orchestra; a sort ofAppalachian Spring’s greatest hits. It is this version that we will hear in concert and on the vast majority of recordings.

Black and white photographic portrait of Martha Graham
Dancer and choreographer Martha Graham (1894-1991)

The TITLE

A word about this wonderfully evocative title, “Appalachian Spring.” It was an entirely serendipitous creation. Copland never failed to get a laugh when he told this story:

“The first thing I said to [Martha Graham] when I came down to the rehearsal in Washington was, ‘Martha, what’dya call the ballet?’ She said, ‘Appalachian Spring’. ‘Oh’, I said, ‘What a nice name. Where d’ya get it?’ She said, ‘it’s the title of a poem by Hart Crane.’ ‘Oh’, I said, ‘Does the poem have anything to do with the ballet?’ She said, ‘No, I just liked the title and took it.’ And over and over again, nowadays people come up to me after seeing the ballet on stage and say, ‘Mr. Copland, when I see that ballet and when I hear your music I can just see the Appalachians and just feel spring.’ [And you know], I’ve begun to see the Appalachians a bit myself!”

A salute, then, to the anniversary of the premiere of an “American classic”, whatever that really means!

Dr. Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances
Many of his lectures series, including How to Listen to and Understand Great Music are available to stream at The Great Courses Plus.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.