In Praise of Aaron Copland

There can be no-one who doesn’t warm to Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. From its haunting, gentle beginning, suggestive of Grieg or Wagner, and the lovely passage about six minutes in right through to the Shaker melody that has found popularity elsewhere as the Lord of the Dance and segues into the tranquil beauty of the final bars, there is continual enjoyment. I relish the wonderful alternations between strings, woodwinds and brass, and for that matter the repeated moves from quiet to noisiness and back again, and what sound like happy bird calls. There’s a joyous, life-affirming quality to it. In fact, it’s almost disquietingly easy to like.

Is there a problem here? Much classical music is difficult and grows on you, whereas Copland is immediately accessible. And so I have wondered whether his work counts as serious music. (Perhaps the same question could be asked of his fellow Americans Gershwin and Bernstein.) But behind the attractiveness there is a depth to Copland. Recently I heard Glazunov’s Seventh (Pastoral) Symphony, a work of similar length composed at about the same time that is utterly pleasant, but I doubt whether repeated listening would yield anything you hadn’t heard the first time, in fact it struggles to hold the listener’s attention at the first hearing, whereas Copland draws me back. One particular consideration leads me to think that his composition is deeper than it may first seem to be. Most listeners have assumed the Appalachian Spring of the title is a season, but the phrase comes from a poem by Hart Crane that refers to a source of water, and the music was composed to accompany a ballet celebrating a wedding. This is certainly a work capable of more than one reading!

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