(The following is an article written by Raymond White, senior music specialist in the Music Division, for the September-October 2014 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. You can read the issue in its entirety here.)
When “Appalachian Spring” debuted at the Library of Congress on Oct. 30, 1944, the one-act ballet made dance history. Set in rural Pennsylvania during the 19th century, the idyllic story of newlyweds building their first farmhouse evoked a simpler time and place that appealed to a nation at war abroad. Rooted in Americana, the ballet has continued to resonate with audiences during the 70 years since its first performance.
The confluence of several creative forces, each at the top of their game, is a key ingredient to the work’s success. These included choreographer and dancer Martha Graham and her dance partner Erick Hawkins; composer Aaron Copland and artist and set designer Isamu Noguchi. But others played a pivotal role: music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who commissioned the work, and the Library’s Music Division chief, Harold Spivacke, who served as impresario.
The story behind the original commission of “Appalachian Spring” began in June 1942 with an idea of Hawkins, a Graham company dancer (and Martha Graham’s future husband). He wrote to Library benefactor Coolidge, suggesting she commission work by the renowned choreographer and dancer Graham.
Mrs. Coolidge, whose 150th birthday will be celebrated with a concert at the Library on Oct. 30, 2014, was a composer and pianist. Although her musical interests were extremely wide-ranging, her greatest musical love was chamber music, and her chief musical passion was the composition and performance of new works in the Library’s concert auditorium, built with her financial support. Since its establishment in 1925, the Coolidge Foundation has commissioned more than 100 works in various musical genres, including four ballets. “Appalachian Spring” is by far the most well- known and most significant of Mrs. Coolidge’s Library commissions.
Graham came to prominence in the 1930s as director and, often, as a principal dancer of her own company. From 1934 on, the woman known as “the mother of modern dance” relied almost entirely on original scores written for her dances (as opposed to creating choreography for pre- existing music). However, she was limited in the choice of composers for her commissions by a perennial shortage of available funds. Thus, when presented with the prospect of a program of new works with scores by composers of the first rank and commissioned by the Coolidge Foundation, Graham wrote to Mrs. Coolidge with excitement: “It makes me feel that American dance has turned a corner, it has come of age.”
The idea took hold, and prompted a flurry of correspondence among Coolidge, Graham and Spivacke. Graham was officially commissioned to create the choreography and Copland to compose one of the scores.
By the early 1940s, Copland was widely regarded as the dean of American composers. He was hailed for works in a variety of genres, many of which are still regularly played today, including his “A Lincoln Portrait,” “El Salón México” and ballets “Billy the Kid” and “Rodeo.” In his letter to Mrs. Coolidge in reply to the offer of the commission, Copland said, “I have been an admirer of Martha Graham’s work for many years and I have more than once hoped that we might collaborate.”
Although he is best remembered as an eminent music librarian and administrator, Spivacke was a key force in bringing “Appalachian Spring” to the Library’s stage. When Mrs. Coolidge expressed concern that her first-choice composers might be unwilling to accept her commissioning fee of $500, Spivacke encouraged her to make the offer regardless, arguing that Graham’s reputation would serve as adequate enticement.
The original schedule was for the premiere performances to be held in 1943, but for a variety of reasons the concert was delayed. It was Spivacke who pressed Graham and the three composers for progress reports, and he ultimately suggested rescheduling the concert for Oct. 30, 1944–Mrs. Coolidge’s 80th birthday.
Mrs. Coolidge left it to Graham to devise the ballet scripts. Graham ultimately supplied the initial story line and scenario for what would become “Appalachian Spring” for Copland. Letters between Graham and Copland reveal the give-and-take between choreographer and composer that resulted in the final course of the ballet.
Its evocation of simple frontier life appealed to Copland and, in the words of Coolidge biographer Cyrilla Barr, “drew from him some of his best expressions of Americana in the form of hymnlike melodies and fiddle tunes, ending appropriately with variations on the Shaker hymn tune ‘Simple Gifts.'”
Copland referred to the work in progress as “Ballet for Martha.” It was Graham who suggested the final title, a phrase from a Hart Crane poem titled “The Dance”:
O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge;
Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends
And northward reaches in that violet wedge
Mrs. Coolidge herself had very definite ideas about the new score. She wanted it to be “true chamber music, which is to say for an ensemble of not more than 10 or 12 instruments at the outside” to suit the acoustics of the Coolidge Auditorium as well as its small orchestra pit. In the end, the performance featured a chamber ensemble of 13 wind and string instruments along with a piano, which would allow Graham to tour the work with her company.
At long last, and more than a year later than its originally scheduled premiere, “Appalachian Spring” was presented for the first time as part of the Library’s Tenth Festival of Chamber Music. Graham danced the role of the bride, Erick Hawkins was the husbandman, Merce Cunningham was the fire-and-brimstone preacher and May O’Donnell played a pioneer woman. The two other works that made up the evening’s program were “Herodiäde” (Mirror Before Me) with a score by Paul Hindemith, and “Jeux de Printemps” (Imagined Wing) with a score by Darius Milhaud.
The performance was well- received. New York Times critic John Martin observed that the tone was “shining and joyous. On its surface it fits obviously into the category of early Americana, but underneath it belongs to a much broader and a dateless category. It is, indeed, a kind of testimony to the simple fineness of the human spirit.”
But the story doesn’t end there. Copland’s score received the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1945. That same year he arranged an orchestral suite of the music for concert performance, and in 1954 he orchestrated a fully symphonic version of the complete score; all three versions of the score remain popular today as concert pieces. “Appalachian Spring” remains a staple in the performing repertoire of the Martha Graham Dance Company.
(The Martha Graham Company in New York City celebrates the 70th anniversary of Graham’s “Appalachian Spring” with a performance of the work on Oct. 30. More information can be found here.)