Program Notes: Appalachian Spring

Program Notes, Laurie Shulman

Suite from Appalachian Spring
Aaron Copland

Born 14 November, 1900 in Brooklyn, New York
Died 2 December, 1990 in North Tarrytown, New York

  • For most of the 20th century, Aaron Copland was widely regarded as the Dean of American composers
  • A native of Brooklyn, he studied with the eminent pedagogue Nadia Boulanger in Fontainebleau, France
  • He was one of the first Americans to incorporate elements of jazz into his music
  • In the 1930s and 1940s, he favored a simpler style that focused on Americana
  • His music features attractive melodies tinged with pungent harmonies

More than any other 20th-century composer, Aaron Copland captured the American character in his music. In particular, his popular ballet scores breathe the spirit of ‘Mom and apple pie’ that symbolized the ideal American everyday life. His 1944 ballet, Appalachian Spring, was commissioned by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation for Martha Graham’s dance company. Set in Pennsylvania Dutch country in the early 19th century, the scenario depicts a young newlywed couple whose community come together to build them a new home. Copland’s incorporation of the Shaker hymn “Tis a Gift to be Simple” in the music was a stroke of genius, but his original melodies are equally compelling in this delightful ballet suite.

Appalachian Spring is one of three “folk ballets” that constitute the foundation of Aaron Copland’s substantial reputation. (The other two are Billy the Kid and Rodeo.) Appalachian Spring’s sentimental appeal derives from the strong sense of Americana with which Copland suffused his score. Even though the only borrowed melody is the Shaker tune “‘Tis a gift to be simple,” his original music communicates the sense that we have always known it. Somehow Copland distills the essence of our nation’s spirit in ways that speak to us all.

The Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation commissioned Copland to compose this ballet for Martha Graham in 1943. He completed the score in 1944 while teaching at Harvard. The premiere took place in Washington, at the Library of Congress’ Coolidge Auditorium that October; Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham danced the principal roles. Appalachian Spring was an immediate success, earning the New York City Music Critics’ Circle Award for the outstanding theatrical work of the 1944-1945 season, and the Pulitzer Prize in music for 1945.

The ballet scenario takes place in the early nineteenth century. A young farming couple in Pennsylvania Dutch country are being married; the wedding celebration centers around their new pioneer farmhouse in the Appalachian foothills. The ballet takes 34 minutes in performance. For the Concert Suite, Copland reduced his score to 26 minutes. He told Vivian Perlis:

The Suite . . . is a condensed version of the ballet, retaining all essential features but omitting those sections in which the interest is primarily choreographic (the largest cut was the Minister’s dance). The Suite follows a sectional arrangement of eight sequences and is scored for an orchestra of modest proportions.

Copland’s concise, modest description does not mention the gentleness of spirit that permeates his lovely music. Elsewhere, however, he acknowledged the essential message that guided his thinking when he composed this ballet:

I knew certain crucial things — that it had to do with the pioneer American spirit, with youth and spring, with optimism and hope.

Copland scored the ballet for 13 instruments. The Suite expands that ensemble to a modest orchestra consisting of woodwinds in pairs (with second flute doubling piccolo), two horns, two trumpets, two trombones, timpani, percussion, piano, harp and strings.

The Block (2019)
Carlos Simon

Born 1986 in Washington D.C.

  • Though only in his 30s, Carlos Simon already has an impressive resume
  • The New York Philharmonic and Los Angeles Philharmonic are just two of the prominent musical organizations that have commissioned his music
  • He won the Marvin Hamlisch Film Scoring Award in 2015
  • Simon has been keyboardist and music director for Jennifer Holliday
  • He was a Sundance Composer Fellow in 2018 at the historic Skywalker Ranch

Currently an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University’s Department of Performing Arts, Carlos Simon often draws on extra-musical stimuli for his compositions. For The Block, his impetus was a series of paintings by the African-American painter Romare Bearden depicting various buildings on a single block in New York City’s Harlem. Simon’s music pulsates with the energy of the urban city-scape, rife with strong rhythms, bold gestures, and a resolutely positive vibe.

Winner of the 2021 Sphinx Medal of Excellence, Carlos Simon is a rising star not only among Black and Latinx musicians, but also in American and world music. He studied with Michael Daugherty and Evan Chambers at University of Michigan, and also holds degrees from Georgia State and Morehouse College. Simon’s music ranges from large-scale concert works to chamber music and film scores. Broadly speaking, his music embraces the influence of gospel music, jazz, and neo-romanticism. He often composes with a social conscience. For example, his string quartet, Elegy, honors the lives of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, while his Portrait of a Queen for orchestra and female narrator traces the evolution of Black people in America through the lens of the Black woman.

The Block is an upbeat score, celebrating both the paintings of a prominent Black artist and a vibrant sector of New York’s Harlem district. Simon’s composer’s note explains.

“The Block” is a short orchestral study based on the late visual art of Romare Bearden. Most of Bearden’s work reflects African-American culture in urban cities as well as the rural American south. Although Bearden was born in Charlotte, NC, he spent his most of his life in Harlem, New York. With its vibrant artistic community, this piece aims to highlight the rich energy and joyous sceneries that Harlem expressed as it was the hotbed for African American culture.

“The Block” is comprised of six paintings that highlight different buildings (church, barbershop, nightclub, etc.) in Harlem on one block. Bearden’s paintings incorporate various mediums including watercolors, graphite, and metallic papers. In the same way, this musical piece explores various musical textures which highlight the vibrant scenery and energy that a block in Harlem or any urban city exhibits.

The delirious pulses of diverse urban activity sparkle throughout Simon’s energetic score, which makes liberal use of an expanded percussion section and orchestral piano.

Instrumentation: woodwinds, horns, trumpets, and trombones in pairs; tuba, timpani, a large percussion complement, harp, piano, and strings.

Symphony No. 1 in E minor (1932)
Florence Beatrice Price

Born 9 April 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas
Died 3 June 1953 in Chicago

  • Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Florence Price studied at the New England Conservatory
  • A skilled organist and pianist, she was also interested in composition
  • After several years of teaching in the South, she moved with her family to Chicago
  • She wrote four symphonies; however, her songs are considered her finest work
  • Marian Anderson was a champion, regularly singing Price’s songs in her recitals
  • Most of Price’s 300 compositions remain unpublished

When Florence Price won the Rodman Wanamaker Prize in 1932 – a prestigious national competition for composers – Chicago Symphony conductor Frederick Stock took note. His premiere of her First Symphony in June 1933 was the first time that a symphony by a female African-American composer was performed by a top-tier American Orchestra. Price’s symphony is a major, four-movement work. She fuses together the traditional techniques of Western European art music with African-American spirituals and a lively African dance called juba. Though sometimes reminiscent of Antonín Dvořák, Price’s First Symphony breathes its own individuality, introducing a chorale in the slow movement and a lively tarantella in the finale.

In recent years, the neglected music of Florence Price has taken a proud place in American music. The first African-American female composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra, Price’s compositions now are getting a considerable amount of well-deserved attention.

Her story is remarkable. She performed in public at age 4 and published her first composition when she was 11. She was accepted to New England Conservatory at 16, studying composition, piano, and organ. After teaching in Little Rock and Atlanta for several years, she left the South for Chicago, pursuing additional study at Chicago Musical College and the American Conservatory.

Florence Price was neither shy nor lacking in ambition. Her confidence had been boosted by recognition and awards for some of her compositions in the 1920s. In 1932, she submitted two orchestral works and two piano pieces to the Rodman Wanamaker Competition. Founded in 1927, the competition sought new music from African American composers. All four of Price’s scores won awards, and her Symphony in E minor garnered first prize. Chicago Symphony conductor Frederick Stock – a long-time champion of American composers – took note and premiered the symphony in June 1933 as one of the CSO’s first concerts at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Price’s career had been launched.

Her style is neo-romantic and rooted in the Western classical tradition. She shows a secure hand with traditional harmony and orchestral color, particularly in her imaginative use of woodwinds and the balance between and among instrumental sections. In this Symphony, she sought to affirm Black cultural heritage.

The influence of Antonín Dvořák is also apparent from the opening measures of the Allegro ma non troppo; it is surely no coincidence that Price’s Symphony shares the key of E-minor with the New World Symphony. This first movement favors motto rhythms (e.g., short – long – short – longlong), yet varies them enough to sustain listener interest. She introduces a delicious series of fleeting solos in the development. The movement closes with an Andante maestoso section, returning to the home tonality of E minor with full orchestra, cymbal crashes, and an uncanny summing up of thematic unity.

The slow movement opens with a brass chorale, complemented only by timpani and African drum. The rhythmic structure is unusual: five-bar phrases answered by a two-bar woodwind response. Price’s penchant for antiphonal writing emerges in this movement; she uses orchestral sections in sonic blocks. The strings introduce a new idea that is again reminiscent of Dvořák – but they are silent (or relegated to the background) for a considerable portion of this movement. A beautiful passage features extended woodwind solos, gently supported by brass. Toward the end, the brass chorale returns with a complement of clarinet embroidery and cathedral chimes, taking up the two-bar response. Full orchestra closes in a final statement of the chorale.

Her third movement Juba Dance takes its name from an African dance that involves stomping and clapping. Its descendants in this country include ragtime and cakewalk. Within the context of the First Symphony, it functions as a foot-tapper of a scherzo, bubbling over with syncopations, countermelodies, and sassy slide-whistles. Essentially Price’s ideas unfold as a series of variants largely achieved through color. She’ll allocate a primary theme to one instrument or section, with others embellishing in complementary motives. The ingredients meld in good-natured fun.

The finale is a tarantella thematically related to Price’s first movement. Frequent short sections are repeated, rather like a rondo in alternation. Rhythmic strings – sometimes bowed, elsewhere pizzicato – keep the momentum hurtling forward. Despite the minor mode, this is music of resolute good cheer. Once again, Price dazzles us with her facility in showcasing individual woodwinds and brass, and the rapid passing of material among the strings. The prestissimo coda is a delirious rush.

Instrumentation: two piccolos, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani snare drum, suspended cymbal, bass drum, triangle, large and small African drums, crash cymbals, wind whistle, celesta, cathedral chimes, orchestral bells, and strings.

 

Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2021