September 25, 2020

Music Monday: Appalachian Spring

Oneida Hill

Spring emerging on a hillside in Oneida, KY – April 2015

The fate of pieces is really rather curious…you can’t always figure out in advance exactly what’s going to happen to them.

• Aaron Copland, speaking about Appalachian Spring

• • •

I delight in listening to one of our most beloved pieces of classical music at this time of year: Aaron Copland’s orchestral suite, Appalachian Spring. The recording I have enjoyed most is on an album called, Copland: The Music of America, by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, conducted by Erich Kunzel. This wonderful collection includes other famous “American” pieces by Copland as well, including Fanfare for the Common Man, Rodeo, and Billy the Kid. But it’s Appalachian Spring that wins first place in my heart, especially when I have a chance, as I did last weekend, to drive through some of the lovely landscapes of eastern Kentucky as springtime is emerging.

The orchestral suite version of Appalachian Spring is an adaptation of the ballet which Aaron Copland completed for his friend, Martha Graham in 1944. The ballet premiered at the Library of Congress on October 30, 1944, and Copland was awarded the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his achievement.

The way in which the piece has come to be understood — as an ode to the beauty of springtime in the Appalachian Mountains — was not its original concept. The ballet tells the story of American pioneers in western Pennsylvania who are celebrating the completion of their farmhouse. “Spring” for them equates to a new beginning and the new home which they celebrate. Copland had no title for the piece, calling it simply, “Ballet for Martha.” It was Graham, who danced the lead role in the original production, who suggested “Appalachian Spring,” from a line in a poem by Hart Crane. It reads:

O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge;
Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends
And northward reaches in that violet wedge
Of Adirondacks!

The “spring” in this poem refers not to the season but rather to a source of water, and the location is the Adirondack Mountains. Copland was amused when people would lavish praise on him for capturing the beauty of the coming of spring to the Appalachian mountains in this piece. Nevertheless, the music does lend itself to that reading, with its lovely passages that evoke the dawning of light, color, and new life, and its joyous dances which seem to express the renewal of the earth and new beginnings.

This is a wonderful piece for Eastertide. I recommend listening to it while meditating on Psalm 104, which proclaims God as the source of creation and new creation.

You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,
giving drink to every wild animal;
the wild asses quench their thirst.
By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
they sing among the branches.
From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.

Lord, how manifold are your works!
    In wisdom you have made them all;
    the earth is full of your creatures.

Today, I will be driving down to Bardstown, Kentucky for a week of silence, refreshment, and writing at the Abbey of Gethsemani. I expect to see the earth’s renewal all around me there in that beautiful country just west of Appalachia, and it will be Aaron Copland’s simple, sublime music that will be my soundtrack.

Here is the “Shaker Melody” (Simple Gifts) portion of Appalachian Spring, played by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Bernstein:


  1. I’m not much for classical music, but that is the tune to a couple of worship songs that I enjoy. I like the original (and have it recorded by the Boston Camerata), but even more love Sydney Carter’s “Lord of the Dance” which also uses the tune. His version is still under copyright; I wish I knew if it was available under one of the licensing arrangements that churches customarily use.

  2. I love that Copland arrangement. It is adapted from the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts,” originally a dance tune.

    ‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free

    ‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

    And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

    ‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

    When true simplicity is gained,

    To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,

    To turn, turn will be our delight,

    Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

  3. Christiane says

    how beautiful ! the pictures, the music

    Chaplain Mike, I hope you have a blessed peaceful week of renewal in Christ. Thank you for all you do for us here at Imonk, as we have become something of a faith community ourselves who pray for one another’s needs.

  4. Klasie Kraalogies says

    I grew up with classical music – lots of lp’s. I inherited most of my dad’s collection- and one is a double album that has Simple Gifts performed by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. I am going to have to listen to it this morning- vinyl has such a special sound!

    • Klasie Kraalogies says

      After listening to that Bernstein version, I was struck by the deep influence such a relatively uncomplicated tune can have on the mind – I haven’t been having the greatest morning, but this definitely made a difference.

  5. Somewhat slightly different, but I was listening to Corvus Corax quite a bit this past weekend, good background music while cleaning.

    Also listened to Black Sabbath’s first album entirely through for the first time. There’s something special and unique about rock/metal produced during that time. There is a weight, an atmosphere, that only bands like Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin could produce. I’m guessing it’s because the drugs forced them to slow down and let their music breathe.

  6. Randy Thompson says

    Another beautiful piece of music based on Appalachia is Frederick Delius’ “Appalachia.” Gorgeous!

  7. Christiane says

    for them (including myself) what has never journeyed through Appalachia, I found this:

  8. Dana Ames says

    My son, the MM and Copland fan, told me that when Copland first started composing, his works were so off-the-edge avant garde that people found them unlistenable, even fellow avant garde musicians. He felt like he had to compromise his inner principles somewhat in order to compose things that people would actually listen to and enjoy. I’m sorry for his inner anguish over that, but glad that he was led somewhere from whence he could compose AS – I do love it, as well as his American Song set.. (Actually, I find much of his other work besides those tone poems we love very difficult to warm up to – they are logically complex in terms of music theory, but just can’t connect with them on any other plane than the theoretical.)

    Hope you have very good days at Gethsemani, CM.


  9. Have a wonderful vacation and a well-deserved rest, Chaplain Mike. I appreciate all of your work at this site more than I can say!


  10. Can’t think of a better finish to this week of remembrance than a trip to Oneida followed by a well-deserved break at Gethsemani. All blessings sent your way, CM. You rock!