Mark O’Connor’s Appalachia Waltz is a string trio for violin, cello, and string bass. A uniquely cohesive texture is created because all of the instruments are stringed instruments of the same family. Since each instrument is designed in a similar way and makes use of the same types of products to create sound, they all sound very similar, albeit with different ranges. This type of ensemble allows composers to easily weave voices together and transfer melodies seamlessly between instruments.
O’Connor makes use of this harmoniousness throughout the piece, and gives all voices equally strong roles although the string bass has less of a melodic role than do the violin and cello. The violin most often carries the true melody, while the cello and bass have accompaniment, but the intricacy of the cello part leads to the instruments working together to create the melodic figures. This is achieved by placing similar rhythms in all voices at the same time while giving different voices complimentary notes and harmonies. The interplay of the notes in different instruments causes the melody to be more complex than a single line. Yes, the melody would still be a melody without the exchange with other instruments, however it would be more simple and less enchanting.
The interplay of voices, as well as several other elements reveal the style of music from which this piece was inspired. The music of the Appalachian Mountains regularly uses string instruments, such as fiddle, and it also employs such exchanges of melody and harmony as can be seen in this piece. Appalachian fiddling frequently “[achieves] drones and double-stopped intervals via frequent playing on two (and sometimes three) strings simultaneously,” and is often played with little vibrato and in first inversion; all of these elements are employed throughout the piece by the violin and sometimes the cello.
The reason for “Appalachia” in the name is obvious, but the piece does not feel like a waltz, as might be inferred by the second word in the name. There is no obvious ‘1, 2, 3’ feeling, but a waltz is not limited to that description; a waltz is a smooth, progressive ballroom dance in triple time and has been described as a “sliding or gliding dance.” Appalachia Waltz is in triple time, although not obviously so, as many waltzes are, and it does have a gliding effect, and so the piece is appropriately named “Appalachia Waltz.”
The way in which O’Connor develops his original melody is unique as well. At first it is repeated with different notes in the harmony, and then fragments of the original melody are expanded, given to different instruments, started on different notes, augmented, and more. The same type of contrapuntal feel is maintained throughout – the voices are rarely in pitch unison, and although they have similar rhythms, they fill one anothers gaps with moving notes and are therefore never in complete unison. This again leads to an Appalachian and fiddling feeling; in these genres of music, the general feeling and style remains the same throughout which causes continuity, but also produces a slightly less powerful climax.
The ending is very similar to the beginning in content; the violin has a very similar line with the cello and bass in supporting roles, however at the end, the cello and bass are much quieter and the so the single melody stands out more. This allows the piece to naturally decrescendo first in instrumentation and then in dynamics. The closing is also aided by placing the melody down a fifth which gives it a slightly lower energy feeling and leads into to the final decrescendo.