I gained the ledge

Laura Jacobs

  • Aaron Copland’s ‘Appalachian Spring’ by Annegret Fauser
    Oxford, 144 pp, £10.99, November 2017, ISBN 978 0 19 064687 5

‘It seems that I have written miles of words,’ the choreographer Martha Graham wrote to the composer Aaron Copland in 1943. ‘But that is the way I work … to make a skeleton and then to be ready and willing to change when the music comes. The story is not so important … as the inner life that emerges as the medium takes hold.’ Copland had already written two ballet scores: Billy the Kid for Ballet Caravan in 1938 and Rodeo for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1942. But this new score, commissioned by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation in July 1942, was not for a ballet company but for Graham, America’s high priestess of modern dance. The ‘inner life’ that emerged was complex. The dance, a tribute to land and liberty, faith and fervour, had the look of a nativity play, but the newborn was America. Copland called his score ‘Ballet for Martha’; by the time it opened on 30 October 1944, Graham had given it the title Appalachian Spring.

During the war, a number of choreographers had attempted to frame American values. After her triumph with Rodeo, Agnes de Mille joined the Rodgers and Hammerstein project that would become Oklahoma! Her classical-comedic vision was integral to its success when it opened on Broadway in 1943. In April 1944, the 25-year-olds Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein premiered a cocky, jazzy ballet called Fancy Free, which brought down the house. Its three sailors returned eight months later in On the Town, a balletically free-form Robbins-Bernstein musical set in New York in 1944.

Appalachian Spring did not receive the twenty-plus curtain calls that had greeted Rodeo and Fancy Free. Few critics were at its premiere at the Coolidge Festival in Washington DC. Publicity had been so sparse that Copland, in a letter to his protégé Bernstein, wrote: ‘Martha Graham is supposedly doing a ballet of mine that weekend.’ Seven months later, when Appalachian Spring was performed in New York, the critical embrace was fierce. Copland’s score had just won the Pulitzer Prize for music, and Edwin Denby, the finest dance critic of the day, called the performance an ‘astonishing evocation of that real time and place’ – rural Pennsylvania in the mid-1800s. The cast was small but archetypal: a Bride (danced by Graham) and her Husbandman, a wise Pioneering Woman, a fiery Preacher and his four female Followers. ‘To show us our country’s ancestors and our inherited mores as real,’ Denby continued, ‘is a feat of genius no one else who has touched the pioneer subject in ballet has been able to accomplish.’

Audiences didn’t know, of course, just how far this ‘feat of genius’ was from Graham’s original plan for the dance. And they weren’t trying to untangle the aesthetic, political and global crosscurrents that influenced the way Appalachian Spring had developed since its inception. These are the subjects of Annegret Fauser’s book. Meticulously researched and impressively detailed, it explores the cultural zeitgeist, shows how Copland and Graham’s individual goals were reshaped by collaboration, and captures the way a dance can embody the ideas and ideals, even the ideologies, of its moment of composition.

Erick Hawkins as the Husbandman (1944)
Erick Hawkins as the Husbandman (1944)

The dance was given its final title only a month before its premiere, after Graham read Hart Crane’s epic poem ‘The Bridge’ – ‘O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge;/Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends’. Copland would stress, in programme notes and interviews, that the dance’s name had nothing to do with his score. Nevertheless, Fauser explains, ‘Appalachian Spring is not as removed from Appalachia as Copland and later commentators would have it.’ References to the region abound both in Graham’s scenarios and in her correspondence with Copland – evidence of Appalachia’s place in America’s cultural imagination at the time.

‘Especially during the 1930s,’ Fauser writes, ‘America’s regions became sites and symbols of progressive politics, all the more because left-wing regionalism embraced localised diversity.’ After the Second World War and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, regionalism flipped into nationalism, and folk ideals and the places associated with them were used to represent the nation as a whole. ‘Appalachia connoted not so much a folksy southern mountain culture,’ Fauser continues, ‘as the Civil War struggle at a frontier not simply between east and west, but also between north and south.’ The Appalachian Mountains were one of the safer routes used by the Underground Railroad, and Appalachian was said to be an early Indian term for ‘new world’.

Graham’s first scenario – sent to Copland in July 1942 with the title ‘Daughter of Colchis’ – transferred Medea to New England during ‘the time of a tale by Poe or Hawthorne’. Copland found this ‘too severe’ and suggested something more stripped-down, like Thornton Wilder’s metaplay Our Town (1938) for which he had written a film score in 1940. Graham was clear that she didn’t want to tell an actual story, so much as channel mythic America: ‘Some things happen to our mothers, some things happen to us, but it all happens to us.’ (When she later took the set designer Isamu Noguchi to look at Giacometti’s matchstick sculpture, The Palace at 4 a.m., she was showing him the primal dream of a place. This was the ‘quality of space’, she said, that she wanted for Appalachian Spring. Noguchi gave it to her, complete with the same angled ceiling beams, scant protection from the subconscious.)

When Graham and Copland met to talk about the collaboration in October 1942, both were in transition. Graham, the anti-ballet arch-modernist, was moving towards the mainstream. And Copland, who had just premiered his bumptious cowboy ballet Rodeo, didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a composer of denim-and-gingham Americana. He was, Fauser writes, ‘clearly in search of a different kind of dance project, one that connected progressive politics with American values and current wartime exigencies’. Copland had wanted ‘to compose “a Shaker one-acter” since 1941’ and probably convinced Graham to take up the subject. The aesthetic coherence of the Shakers – a Christian sect founded in England in the 1740s and transplanted to the American north-east – resonated with artists who were drawn to an elegant and entranced minimalism. A Shaker rocking chair ‘with a bone-like simplicity of line’ (Graham’s description) was written into her second scenario, this time called ‘House of Victory’.

But Graham was also influenced by Memorial Day: Dances for a Democracy in Crisis (1938), an unfinished work by her close friend Lincoln Kirstein – writer, impresario and co-founder of the New York City Ballet. Kirstein’s scenario was a response to the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937, in which the Chicago police shot and killed ten unarmed demonstrators. His dance was structured episodically: it included a runaway slave, scenes from Harper’s Ferry and John Brown’s execution, and a play within a play of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Graham incorporated all of these elements into her scenario. She also added biblical quotations to link the episodes. The first two lines read: ‘This is a legend of living in the AMERICAN PLACE. It is like the bone structure of a people’s living.’ She later changed the second line to read: ‘It is like the bone structure, the inner frame that holds together a people.’

She and Copland were now collaborating by letter, since Copland was in Hollywood working on a film score. This distance – America’s vastness – seems to find its way into the music and the dance. Copland’s response to the new scenario was positive, but he didn’t like the Civil War scenes, the play within a play or the biblical quotations which Graham planned to speak aloud. You see why – there’s too much to unify. Graham gave it another go and sent a revised scenario, now unnamed, that took out Uncle Tom’s Cabin, left in the runaway slave, and added a Pocahontas figure who would be ‘like a tree or a rock in her relationship to the place’. Copland approved the new scenario – in truth, he’d already started his composition.

Graham was overcomplicating things because she was still searching for her dance. But she was beginning to give clear cues. On the fifth page of the ‘House of Victory’ scenario she wrote, ‘A front porch/a doorway/a rocking chair/a swing’ – each element on its own line. The list was repeated with slight alterations in the next two scenarios: ‘a doorway/a porch/a rocking chair/a small fence’. She told Copland what she admired in his Quiet City and Lincoln Portrait: they seemed to have ‘been woven on this country’s loom without seeming to use any folk material really’. The image of a loom survived into Noguchi’s set – which has the quality of a cat’s cradle, with triangles and rectangles strung in air.

‘I was really putting Martha to music,’ Copland said later. ‘Martha Graham, by personality, suggests a kind of Shakerism.’ In the late 1930s, Kirstein, who commissioned Billy the Kid from Copland, and whom everyone was reading at the time, said Graham’s work was ‘like a piece of exquisitely realised Shaker furniture’ and her person had ‘the surface-finish, economy and suavity of Shaker architecture and wood-carving’. Graham wasn’t keen on Copland adding a Shaker tune to his score; he went ahead anyway and placed at its centre Joseph Brackett’s ‘Simple Gifts’, a Shaker song from 1848, using it as the basis for a theme and variations for the bridal couple. ‘’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,’ the song begins, ‘’tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.’ Graham duly simplified: she cut her historical digressions and focused on a group of people gathered together one afternoon. And still, to her Appalachian plot she was able to bring Yankee stoicism, Puritan spine, Protestant fervour and Modernist gravity.

Fauser gives an engaging explanation of what’s happening musically and of Graham’s response, although she’s less confident in discussing the choreography; she often relies on critics of the time to describe the dancers’ movements and proceeds to analyse their images and expression. On Copland’s musical strategies and structures, his sly allusions, especially at the score’s beginning and end, Fauser is authoritative. She calls Appalachian Spring’s shimmering opening measures ‘a highly modernist sound world, if one rooted in long-standing (some would say, timeless) elements of tonal music and using topoi such as the drone of the musette or the shepherd’s flute, both symbolising the pastoral’. Again, America and Greek myth are fused. Fauser describes the dance’s last section as ‘a hymnlike passage’. Copland called this his ‘favourite place in the whole piece’ and in a taped rehearsal of Appalachian Spring the care he takes with conducting the passage is evident. He wants it ‘organ-like, it should have a very special quality … not distant, quietly present … no diminuendos … like an amen.’

Though the ‘spring’ of the dance’s title is usually taken to mean springtime, Hart Crane was referring not to a season but a water source. Both meanings are at play in Graham’s choreography. Spring’s renewal – the planting of roots, new beginnings – comes alive in the Husbandman’s solos, with their wide-straddled A-shapes and movements that suggest the wielding of tools: a crosscut saw, an axe. The Bride is besotted with her husband (as Graham was with Erick Hawkins, who danced opposite her) and full of dreams, yet anxious about motherhood. The Pioneering Woman is a calming influence, soothing the turbulence roused by the Revivalist, who invokes the body’s springs, ecstatic feelings that can lead into light or swerve towards darkness. The Revivalist’s giddy Followers flow through Appalachian Spring like a dancing brook – burbling, splashing, stilled, then rising, circling, cresting. Graham outdid herself with these young women, who often dance as one. Before the Revivalist begins his fire-and-brimstone solo, for instance, they stand in a tight circle facing inwards, their arms raised high; he places his broad-brimmed hat on their fingertips and the position, which they hold throughout his solo, suggests a holy well. Seeming to read his every need, the Followers later kneel down and make a bed with their bodies for the Revivalist to lie back on, an arrangement that catches the sexual component of spiritual ardour, but also suggests the way believers are lowered into water for baptism.

‘What exactly is Appalachian Spring?’ Fauser asks midway through the book. The question isn’t really answerable, but the score, used and misused in politics, has become identified with an unspoiled American goodness. I like to think of Appalachian Spring as Graham did, as a place – a living spring within the culture, and, in Copland’s words, quietly present.