articles / Pop Culture

The Story Behind “Appalachian Spring,” the Ballet

You’ve probably heard Appalachian Spring as an orchestral work, but have you experienced it as a ballet? Born of the generosity of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, one of the foremost American patrons of the arts of the last century, Appalachian Spring was commissioned as a collaboration between Aaron Copland and Martha Graham. The work received its premiere in 1944 at the Library of Congress.

Charcoal drawing of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge by John Singer Sargent, 1923.

By the early 1940s, Copland had established a reputation as a leading composer of both serious concert works and film music, having been commissioned to score the Hollywood adaptations of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1939) and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1940). He had also previously composed successfully for dance, painting the American West in sound in the ballets Billy the Kid (1938, for Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan) and Rodeo (1942, for Agnes de Mille). His blend of open harmonies, straightforward melodies, and themes that evoked rural life inspired nostalgia for the wide-open spaces of American landscapes at the height of World War II.

Copland in a 1970 publicity photo for the Young People’s Concerts series, a collaboration between CBS and the New York Philharmonic. The series ran for thirteen seasons from 1958 to 1972 and was syndicated in over 40 countries.

Set in an antebellum Shaker town in western Pennsylvania, Appalachian Spring tells the story of a man and his bride. Danced by Martha Graham and her real-life partner Erick Hawkins, the couple prepares to begin a new life together on the frontier. The widespread opening notes of the music allude to wide-open spaces, the new land on the horizon. The choreography for the couple echoes this imagery; they often move with sweeping, wide turns and outstretched arms, gazing into the distance at their future. Their optimism is countered by the severe Pioneer Woman and the fire-and-brimstone Preacher. Throughout, the Preacher is surrounded by four female devotees, The Worshippers. In contrast to the couple, the Preacher, the Pioneer Woman, and the Worshippers often make sharp, clipped movements, dramatically clasping their hands in prayer or penance.

Martha Graham and Erick Hawkins in the first production of Appalachian Spring, 1944. Library of Congress, Music Division.

Renowned sculptor Isamu Noguchi’s minimalist set design highlights the movement of the dancers by removing all but the barest elements of structures—an exterior wall, a roofline, a fence, and the interior “woman’s space,” which is furnished with a single rocking chair. The ballet narrates the hardships and joys of the couple’s life on the frontier: whether to follow the Preacher in blind faith or trust their conscience; the bride’s misgivings as she considers what it may mean to become a mother; and the beauty of the ordinary days the bride and groom spend together.

Martha Graham and her company perform Appalachian Spring in a 1959 production presented by WQED Pittsburgh. Amazingly, Graham was in her 60s during the filming, and continued to dance until her 70s.

Although the scenario of Appalachian Spring may seem self-evident to us now, with the Shaker melody “Simple Gifts” as the thematic centerpiece of the work, it began as an amorphous project to capture an aspect of American life. In the early 1940s, Graham had been had been working on a series of ballets with American themes: Frontier, American Document, American Provincial. When the commission from Coolidge arrived in 1942, Graham was teaching in Bennington, Vermont, and Copland was in Hollywood, spurring a furious exchange of letters to determine how the music should fit with the dance. Graham first proposed setting the ballet during the Civil War, but later changed tacks, writing to Copland: “This is a legend of American living. This has to do with living in a new town, someplace where the first fence has just gone up.”

Copland, meanwhile, wanted to nail down the specifics of pacing, establishing timings for lyrical and fast sections. Copland didn’t compose with the title in mind whatsoever, giving the piece the working title Ballet for Martha. He said of his process: “I was really putting Martha Graham to music. I had seen her dancing so many times, and I had a sense of her personality as a creative office. I had—really in front of my mind I wasn’t thinking about the Appalachians or even spring. So that I had no title for it. It was a ballet for Martha, was actually the subtitle that I had.”

Graham preferred to rehearse without Copland present, so he didn’t see the ballet until the day before its premiere. Copland admired Graham’s choreography and asked what she had decided to call it. “Appalachian Spring” was her reply. Copland described their conversation: “‘Oh,’ I said, ‘What a nice name. Where’d you get it?’ She said, ‘Well, it’s the title of a poem by Hart Crane.’ ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Does the poem have anything to do with the ballet?’ She said, ‘No, I just liked the title and I took it.’ And over and over again nowadays, people come up to me after seeing the ballet on stage and say, ‘Mr. Copland, when I see that ballet and when I hear your music, I can just see the Appalachians.’ I’ve begun to see the Appalachians myself a little bit.”

So many years later, it still seems surprising that this music, with its evocative melodies, apparently should have nothing to do with Appalachia or spring at all. We can choose to see these images in it or nothing at all, simply a ballet for Martha.

We can also choose to see other American stories that emerge from others who worked on the project. Matt Turney was one of the first Black members of the company, joining the company in the 1950s. Elegant and tall, she became known for her statuesque portrayal of the Pioneer Woman and appears in the 1959 production for TV.

The set designer, Isamu Noguchi, and Yuriko Kikuchi, who played one of the Worshippers in the TV production, were both Japanese Americans who were interned during the Second World War. Kikuchi had been born in San Jose and was interned at the Gila River camp in Arizona. Upon her release, she went to New York in 1943 and joined the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1944, remaining with the company for 50 years.

Isamu Noguchi with his lighting designs, 1955. Photograph by Louise Dahl-Wolfe. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. © Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents.

As a legal resident of New York, Noguchi was not in an area where internment was mandatory. Instead, at the suggestion of John Collier, head of the Office of Indian Affairs, he went voluntarily to the Poston camp in Arizona to promote Japanese arts and crafts. He drafted plans for parks and recreational areas within the camp, but the War Relocation Authority did not implement them. The other internees were reluctant to trust him as an outsider. He applied for release and was given a month’s leave, but he never returned. He was later under FBI investigation for his allegedly traitorous activities. The charges were finally dropped when the ACLU intervened. If we look at the set with this history in mind, are the stark lines of the set echoes of the barbed wire and spare barracks of the internment camps?

Honouliuli Internment and POW Camp, early 1940s. Located in Waipahu, Hawaii, on Oahu, the camp is now a national historic monument maintained by the National Park Service.

In 1945, a year after the premiere, Copland won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for Appalachian Spring. He went on to arrange an orchestral suite and a full symphonic version of the work. Appalachian Spring continues to be popular as a stand-alone piece, and the Martha Graham Dance Company performs it regularly. Noguchi continued his work in multiple media, sculpting, making furniture and lighting, and designing for theater and public spaces. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1987.

The Martha Graham Dance Company dances Appalachian Spring in a 2018 Opéra national de Paris production.

Written by:
Holly Chung, Ph.D.
Holly Chung, Ph.D.
Published on 09.14.2023