Copland’s Appalachian Spring

“Copland’s gentle, jazz-influenced style always falls easily on the ear, and his distinctively ‘American’ sound led to the development of a unique national idiom that has served us well for over half a century…” ~Geoff Kuenning

This is an amazing piece. This is one of the finest pieces there is. I’ve said before that this 25 minutes of music is a greater contribution to the world than every piece of art in MoMA combined. Though wholly inconsequential to my point in this post, I suggest the following exercise to the interested reader.

Load a version of Appalachian Spring onto your music player of choice. Go to the MoMA. Stare at this while you listen.


Vasily Kandinsky. (French, born Russia. 1866-1944). Watercolor (Number 13). (1913) From MoMA site.

Which one moved you? Which one had you thinking about the pastoral scenes of our American past. Which one reminded you of a cheap fishing lure? Which one escorted you through a gamut of orchestral moods, from a calm sonority to a boisterous, brass rendition of the Shaker Melody. Which one escorted you through a gamut of colors in your fifth grade fingerpainting pallete?

Enough nonsense. Why must I bring down one to build up another? (Nothing against Kandinsky, who happened to be the first “artist” I happened upon at the MoMA site.) I’d like to let the music make its own case, but this is a blog. I can do nothing but make comparisons and describe feelings. What I really want is for you, the reader, to take the time to listen.

For fear of copyright infringement if I upload it, I offer a portion of the song in the form of a youtube rendition with passable audio.

I like the description of the piece offered by Peter Gutmann.

“While Billy the Kid and Rodeo made explicit reference to American myth and incorporated actual folk songs, Copland’s musical treatment in Appalachian Spring was far more subtle, as he evokes his sources by distilling their essence into original materials. The sole exception (which, ironically, has emerged as the most popular excerpt) was a section of variations on an obscure but catchy Shaker dance tune, whose humble text not only encapsulates that sect’s philosophy but provides an ideal description of Copland’s outlook and method.”

Subtle is a hard adjective to pull off in a work like Appalachian Spring. The piece feels understated, even with the trumpeting and timpani which repeatedly populate the tune, and it’s never monotonous or stuffy (unlike my writing). Give it a listen. In my not-entirely-uniformed opinion, it is one of the finest pieces of music from the past century.

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~ by wcuk on June 30, 2008.

3 Responses to “Copland’s Appalachian Spring”

  1. It’s fun to read your blog and see your take on modern art. As a person who loves both Copland and Kandinsky, I thought your choice of comparisons was excellent.

    Your comparison of Appalachian Spring with MoMA is appropriate considering the links between the two. Appalachian Spring was originally scored for 13 instruments as a ballet score for choreographer Martha Graham. Graham was one of the premier American modernist choreographers, and her work was celebrated by MoMA. The most famous photographs of Graham are in the collection of MoMA, a series called Letter to the World by Barbara Morgan.

    Getting back to the point, you can’t really understand Appalachian Spring unless you consider its original intent as a ballet score. It is not music meant to “speak for itself” but is tied to a narrative about a barn-raising in Pennsylvania.

    Also, you completely underestimate the Kandinsky. If you saw the actual watercolor, I think you would find it far more impressive than your fifth grade finger-painting. To begin with, watercolor is a very difficult and painstaking medium. Secondly, this watercolor is an excellent example of Kandinsky’s interest in ethnography, particularly Finno-Ugric northern Russia. Finally, Kandinsky intended his abstract works to evoke specific emotions in the viewer, to resonate in his or her soul. Certain colors and shapes were associated with certain emotions, and each work attempted to harmonize all these things together – much like a piece of music.

    So again, good choice of comparisons, but you might want to do an equal amount of homework on both ends of your argument.

  2. I knew as soon as I saw this post that Olivia was going to comment on it, but holy sweet sassy goodness.

    Even though I totally and utterly agree with Will, and even though I am instinctively opposed to some of Olivia’s points (‘resonate in his or her soul’?), the scorecard is unequivocally clear:

    Olivia 1, Will 0.

    And she did it so diplomatically, too!

  3. That’s not Copeland. That’s Dan Flan (once he gets closer to retirement).

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