Given the season of the year we are in, I thought it might be nice to share some music about springtime. Our music for this week is Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland. This is arguably the most well-known and widely-loved piece of music ever written by an American composer.
Two years after the premier of his amazingly popular Rodeo, Appalachian Spring was written in 1944 as a ballet titled “Ballet for Martha.” Dancer Martha Graham had been commissioned to choreograph the ballet, and Copland wasn’t sure what he was going to call it. A year later, after the ballet was met with widespread success (including winning a Pulitzer Prize for the musical score), Copland created the orchestral suite that you will hear.
Appalachian Spring evokes images of rolling Blue Ridge mountains, open prairie-lands, soaring northern peaks, and youthful exploration. It captures much of the adventurousness inherent in the American ideal. Ironically, Copland wasn’t even thinking about the Appalachians when he wrote the piece. As he said, “I gave voice to that region without knowing I was giving voice to it.”
While all of the melodies in Appalachian Spring are memorable and evocative, the highlight is the unmistakable “Simple Gifts” theme that begins at 23:27. Based on the Shaker hymn by the same name, this melody was Copland’s attempt to pay homage to the Shaker influence on American culture. Since they were writing for a ballet, Copland and Graham initially chose “Simple Gifts” because of its references to dancing:
When true simplicity is gained To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d To turn, turn will be our delight ’Till by turning, turning we come round right.
This week’s music is the fourth movement of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, nicknamed the “Scottish” Symphony.
Over the course of his life, Mendelssohn developed a deep attachment to Scotland. He would spend the academic year in Leipzig then escape to Scotland for the summers. Many of his greatest compositions were inspired by his adventures Scotland, including both the “Fingal’s Cave” Overture and the “Hebrides” Overture. During the summer of 1829, Mendelssohn departed on a walking tour of Scotland with his friend Karl Klingemann. He was inspired by a visit to historic Holyrood Chapel in northern Scotland to write what we now know as the Scottish Symphony.
You will hear the fourth and final movement of the symphony. (Those of you who have been with us for a while will remember that symphonies almost always have four movements). Listen for the elements of Scottish folk music – almost bagpipe-like – that Mendelssohn incorporates into this movement. (A good example is at 7:28).
On a completely unrelated note, I wanted to take this opportunity to explain the layout of the orchestra for those of you who may be joining us for the first time. When you see the orchestra from afar (for instance, at 7:30), you’ll see the violins on the left and the cellos on the right (with the double basses standing up behind them). That’s the easy part. The harder part is what’s behind the violins and cellos. Here’s how to think about it. There are two overall pieces to the orchestra’s structure – front and back. The front – which consists of the strings – is laid out in a half-moon shape. The back – which consists of the winds, brass, timpani, and percussion – is laid out in a rectangular shape. The half-moon includes the violins on the left, the violas in the middle, and the cellos and basses on the right. Notice how many more violins there are than cellos and violas – that’s because the violins tend to play more of the melody line. The rectangle includes the winds in front (flute, oboe, clarinet, piccolo, etc.), brass in the back (trumpets, trombones, etc.), and the timpani and percussion in the back left. If the composition calls for a chorus, the singers go behind the timpani. If a piano or harp is required, they are usually placed behind the violins. Hope that helps!
The seventh installment in our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music is the 1812 Overture by Pyotr Tchaikovsky.
Tchaikovsky wrote the overture in 1880 to commemorate the Russian army’s successful defense against Napoleon’s invading forces in 1812. Along with The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, the 1812 Overture has become one of Tchaikovsky’s most well-loved and widely-performed compositions. As you will see from the video, it is often performed with much fanfare at Independence Day celebrations around the world.
Despite the fact that it rocketed him to international fame, Tchaikovsky disliked the 1812 Overture. He defined it as “very loud and noisy, but without artistic merit, because I wrote it without warmth and without love.” The success of the overture convinced him that the world cared more about theatrical fanfare than it did about the deep personal expression that he put into his other compositions. (I personally find it hard to believe he wrote it without love; some of the folk songs that he weaves into the earlier parts of the overture are stunningly beautiful).
The context for the overture (the 1812 defense of Russia) gives it an amazing storyline. Tchaikovsky introduces Russian folk songs through the piece, and they trade places with the French national anthem multiple times. At the 11-minute mark, the Russian folk songs, along with artillery fire and an ample dose of timpani, drown out the French national anthem at the close of the overture. The overture ends with the French anthem morphing into the Russian anthem “God Preserve the Tzar.” The symbolism is unmistakeable.