Sample of the opening movement in Copland's ballet
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In 1945, Copland rearranged the ballet work as an orchestral suite, preserving most of the music. The ballet and orchestral work were well received. The latter was credited as more important in popularizing the composer. In 1972, Boosey & Hawkes published a version of the suite fusing the structure of the orchestral suite with the scoring of the original ballet: double string quartet, bass, flute, clarinet, bassoon, and piano. All three versions continue to be performed in full. In 1954, Eugene Ormandy asked Copland to expand the orchestration for the full score of the ballet. This version was recorded by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra for RCA Victor in May 1999.
Originally, Copland did not have a title for the work, referring to it simply as Ballet for Martha. Shortly before the premiere, Graham suggested Appalachian Spring, a phrase from a Hart Crane poem, "The Dance" from a collection of poems in his book "The Bridge."
O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge;
Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends
And northward reaches in that violet wedge
Because he composed the music without the benefit of knowing what the title was going to be, Copland was often amused when people told him he captured the beauty of the Appalachians in his music, a fact he alluded to in an interview with NPR's Fred Calland . Little known is that the word "spring" denotes a source of water in the Crane poem; however the poem is a journey to meet springtime.
The story told is a spring celebration of the American pioneers of the 1800s after building a new Pennsylvania farmhouse. Among the central characters are a newlywed couple, a neighbor, a revivalist preacher and his followers.
The orchestral suite is divided into eight sections. Copland describes each scene thus:
The original ballet version is divided into 14 movements. The movements that do not appear in the orchestral suite all occur between the 7th and last movement as variations on the Shaker melody Simple Gifts (1848). The second variation provides a lyrical treatment in the low register while the third contrasts starkly in a fast staccato. The last two variations of this section use only a part of the folk tune, first an extraction treated as a pastoral variation and then as a majestic closing. In the ballet, but not the suite, there is an intermediary section that moves away from the folk tune preceding the final two variations.
Known as the Shaker Melody, Shaker Song, and the Shaker Hymn, the music Copland based his ending variations on, was actually called Simple Gifts. This same song is a widely recognized hymn entitled "Lord of the Dance".(cf. Lord of the Dance (hymn)). Copland published independent arrangements of this section for band (1958) and orchestra (1967) titled Variations on a Shaker Melody.