Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring


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Appalachian Spring, by Aaron Copland is a piece for full orchestra and is based off of the common Shaker folk tune ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple.’ Unlike many compositions, the name has little to do with the music, but was an afterthought. In other words, neither the Appalachians, nor the Spring season inspired Copland, as many people believe, but rather a simple folk song.

The piece is one large set of hairpin dynamics with smaller dynamic ranges inside. Additionally, each section before the climax constantly adds to the tension and the build up, whereas all sections after the climax gradually lose energy. The piece starts off with a very soft chord in the strings, followed by a simple iteration of the melody in the clarinet, punctuated by harp, bongo, xylophone, and flute. Compared to future repetitions of the melody, this one is relatively soft and mellow.

When the melody is played for the second time, multiple instruments play together; the bassoon is paired first the oboe, and then with the clarinet. Within each pairing, the interval of a fifth is maintained. Although the instruments are of a similar dynamic to the clarinet at the beginning, the fact that there are two instruments playing the melody and are constantly a fifth apart makes this one stronger.

The third repetition of the melody is played by a French Horn choir while strings and winds move more rapidly underneath. In the percussion, various pitched instruments join the winds for the eighth notes, but some of them move constantly while others maintain on or offbeats. By having a mixture of rhythms that overlap, the texture does not entirely change for every note, which causes continuity while keeping a sense of motion. In the second section of this melody, the strings join the melody, but they start the beginning of the melody a few beats after the horns start the second phrase, creating a canon. The melody has not yet changed at all, so putting it in a canon adds a new musical component to the piece while leaving the melody alone. When the strings reach the second phrase, the French Horns repeat the first phrase so as to continue the canon.

In the fifth repetition of the melody, the string canon being the fourth, the trumpets join the horns while the accompaniment fades away. Along with the trumpets comes the characterization of their motto “Higher, Faster, Louder.” Indeed, the trumpet melody fits each of these classifications, and is made strong by them, however there is also strength in the sudden lack of accompaniment because this causes the melody to stand out even more. While in the first phrase of this fifth melody the horns play counterpoint, the second phrase makes use of counterpoint through inversion. As the trumpets play the original melody, the horns play the intervals in an inverted fashion, so every motion of the trumpets is met by motion in the other direction by the horns. When changing intervals are played only high brass who play the same rhythm, the effect is that of a fanfare, causing the simple melody played by solo clarinet at the beginning to sound regal.

Following a brief woodwind interlude, the melody, in its sixth iteration moves to a unison in nearly the entire brass section with the addition of upper strings. The rest of the woodwinds, brass, strings, and percussion play a simple downward progression of chords that puts all emphasis on the melody.

At this point the piece moves on to a quieter section quickly, but not abruptly. The last chord of the previous melody ends with a taper and release and leaves the trumpets holding the final note of the melody until they fade into the strings taking over with a more lyrical section. All strings move together in a simple pattern of changing chords which is then repeated with the addition of winds. The smooth voice leading gives a flowing feel to the music with few lines jumping more than a third at a time. Strings are added to the third repeat of this melody, and so it crescendos by virtue of having more instruments play.

This section morphs into a new one in which strings play quiet chords while first a flute, and then a viola move in slow arpeggiated figures on top of them. From here, the piece descends into a final decrescendo, over which a clarinet plays the figure played by the flute before the first clarinet solo – Do, Mi, Sol, Mi, Sol – ending on Sol rather than Do, as occurred in the beginning. The final string chord decrescendos to the end, bringing the piece full circle to where it began.



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