Graham Debuts with Copland Score Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Martha Graham’s choreography for Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring represented the climax of her exploration of American themes and solidified her stature as a dance artist; the score garnered a Pulitzer Prize for Copland.

Summary of Event

When Martha Graham received a commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation in 1944 to create three dances for the Library of Congress Library of Congress , she was already a force in the modern-dance world. Fifteen years previously, she had opened her studio, selected a company, and begun to give annual performances in New York. She was on the staff of the Bennington School of the Dance from 1934 to 1942 and was an artist in residence at its prestigious summer season until 1944. She had received attention for Heretic Heretic (Graham) (1929), which had introduced her radical dance movements of the contraction and release, and further acclaim for Primitive Mysteries Primitive Mysteries (Graham) (1931), which had revealed her powerful individual dance skills. Still, her work was not always understood or appreciated. Appalachian Spring (Graham and Copland) Choreography;modern dance Modern dance Music;classical [kw]Graham Debuts Appalachian Spring with Copland Score (Oct. 30, 1944) [kw]Appalachian Spring with Copland Score, Graham Debuts (Oct. 30, 1944) [kw]Copland Score, Graham Debuts Appalachian Spring with (Oct. 30, 1944) Appalachian Spring (Graham and Copland) Choreography;modern dance Modern dance Music;classical [g]North America;Oct. 30, 1944: Graham Debuts Appalachian Spring with Copland Score[01280] [g]United States;Oct. 30, 1944: Graham Debuts Appalachian Spring with Copland Score[01280] [c]Dance;Oct. 30, 1944: Graham Debuts Appalachian Spring with Copland Score[01280] [c]Music;Oct. 30, 1944: Graham Debuts Appalachian Spring with Copland Score[01280] Graham, Martha Copland, Aaron Noguchi, Isamu Horst, Louis Hawkins, Erick Cunningham, Merce O’Donnell, May

With her solo Frontier Frontier (Graham) (1935), followed by American Document American Document (Graham) (1938) and Letter to the World Letter to the World (Graham) (1940), Graham began to explore American themes in her work. A Pennsylvania-born Presbyterian, she was transplanted to California as an adolescent, and the westward movement of the early settlers, as well as their Puritan sensibility, fascinated her. Frontier presented Graham as a pioneer woman, taming a portion of an infinite land, delighting in the challenge and unafraid of the future. The work marked the first of many successful collaborations with the sculptor Isamu Noguchi; he was a particularly innovative choice as designer, since at the time most designs for dance depended upon the artistry of painters, not sculptors.

American Document was based on events in American history, with recitations of historical texts incorporated into the work. The content illustrated Graham’s preoccupation with the Puritan sensibility in conflict with sensuality. Erick Hawkins, the first male dancer in the company, made his debut in this piece. The poet Emily Dickinson was the subject of Letter to the World. Once more, Graham explored the American past, in particular the talent and passions of a woman confined within a repressive New England household.

These pieces, which combined Graham’s interest in American themes with her sensitivity to female psychology, were in a sense preparation for the explosion of creativity that would infuse Appalachian Spring (1944). The latter piece was inspired by a section of Hart Crane’s Crane, Hart 1930 poem The Bridge Bridge, The (Crane) that tells of an Indian maiden, her lover, and their love of the land. Graham transferred the passions of Crane’s characters to nineteenth century settlers in the mountains of Pennsylvania. In the dance, it is spring; there is a sense of new life and rebirth, and it is a magical time. A young bride, originally danced radiantly by Graham herself, and the husbandman, originally danced with confidence and strength by Hawkins, take possession of their new house and lands. The bride’s movements reveal the variety of emotions within her: She investigates her new situation tentatively; she presses herself passionately upon the ground in an expression of love for the land; she sits on a bench, tiny fluttering gestures revealing a joy that she is almost afraid to admit.

The husbandman runs his hand over the surface of the house, communicates with his neighbors with decorum, and places a gentle hand protectively on his wife’s shoulder. They join in a warm, lyrical duet, expressing their hopes for their wedded life. A community surrounds them; nearby, a stern revivalist, originally danced in soaring phrases by Merce Cunningham, reminds them fervently of religious obligations and the discipline to which they must submit. His four adoring followers cup their hands to applaud and then pray with him.

A pioneer woman (originally May O’Donnell) conveys support and wisdom in large, muscular gestures, as one who has faced and overcome the obstacles that lie ahead for the newlyweds. At the end, the young couple are welcomed into the community and accept the challenge of the land and their union. Appalachian Spring is a celebration not only of wedded life but also of a young country and the spirit that developed it.

Modern dance had conceded little to audience expectations or tastes during its early years. Audiences had struggled to find meaning in the new radical movements, to understand on some level what the dancers were trying to communicate. Meanwhile, the artists themselves had spent much time and energy trying to discredit ballet, as they fought to achieve recognition on their own terms, to establish modern dance as not secondary to the music but as a separate art form. They committed themselves to a more honest vocabulary of movement that evolved from natural body rhythms. These movements were not always graceful or aesthetically pleasing, and audiences were often puzzled. The dancers persisted, however, deliberately eschewing commercial success in preference to artistic integrity.

As the years had progressed, however, dance criticism had evolved alongside modern dance. By 1944, several dance critics sympathized with the goals of the artists and served the art by educating the public through intelligent analysis, praise, and enthusiasm. Edwin Denby Denby, Edwin spoke of “the mysterious coolness and freshness” of the piece as well as of Graham’s “genius”; Appalachian Spring, declared Denby, was “a truly beautiful work.” For once, the public agreed.

The work was remarkable, because it was easily accessible to the audience’s perceptions. The movements were organic and recognizable. Who could fail to understand the love of the bride and the husbandman, or the warnings of the revivalist? Who could not feel the couple’s excitement in their home or their hopes for the future? Who did not identify with a rush of affection with this universal human experience?

With the enthusiastic reception of the premiere, Appalachian Spring became one of the staples of Graham’s 1944 season, which included the earlier works Letter to the World, Salem Shore (1943), Deaths and Entrances(1943), and Herodiade Herodiade (Graham) (1944), which was the second work on the program at the Library of Congress performance. As the years passed, Appalachian Spring became one of the most beloved works in the Graham repertoire and was successfully performed all over the world.

The 1944-1945 season was the most successful to date for Martha Graham, not only because the New York public was supportive and appreciative but also, and most important, because the impresario Sol Hurok Hurok, Sol offered to represent the Graham company on a national tour the following year.

The Hurok organization was a commercial producing company; Sol Hurok was highly regarded as a shrewd businessman. To book a tour nationally with a modern-dance company was a daring move on his part, as well as a marvelous opportunity for the Graham works to travel beyond the college and university audiences into the commercial theater. Most important, a tour represented a major step toward the acceptance of modern dance. Public resistance and antagonism persisted; the tour the following year was not an unqualified success. Critical comment, though, was far more positive than it had ever been outside New York City, and the way was paved for other artists to follow.

Those who had collaborated with Graham on Appalachian Spring were equally inspired by the simple tale and the ideas expressed in it. Aaron Copland’s score, especially commissioned by Graham, went beyond appropriate complement to become an independent work of art in itself. Originally scored for thirteen instruments of a chamber orchestra, it was later arranged by the composer as a concert suite for full symphony orchestra. It was fresh, lively, and melodious, with suggestions of American fiddle tunes and country dances, and it concluded effectively with five variations on the Shaker hymn “’Tis the Gift to Be Simple,” "Tis the Gift to Be Simple" (traditional)[Tis the Gift to Be Simple] heard against a background of silence and space. The work was awarded the Pulitzer Prize Pulitzer Prizes;music for music in 1944.

Isamu Noguchi designed a spare and economical set with a sculptor’s knowledge of three-dimensional form. The frame of a house with a peaked roof, a bench, a six-foot section of fence, a tree stump as a pulpit for the revivalist, and a thin sculpted rocking chair were the few pieces on the stage. Others contributed their special skills. Jean Rosenthal, Rosenthal, Jean Graham’s trusted lighting designer for several decades, provided brilliant lighting to enhance the dance movements. Edythe Gilfond created the simple costumes, and Louis Horst conducted the orchestra.

Appalachian Spring was the final offering on the evening of October 30, 1944, at the Library of Congress, and the piece was immediately accepted and enjoyed. The audience, it is reported, left the theater in a state of euphoria. John Martin commented in The New York Times that “nothing Miss Graham has done before has had such deep joyousness about it.”


Appalachian Spring has been termed “the greatest national hymn of American dance,” a phrase that pays homage to the cultural origin of the work as well as to its celebratory nature. Premiering during the final year of World War II, Appalachian Spring was a lyrical reminder to a war-weary audience of the enduring value of family and community and of the pioneering spirit that developed America.

For Martha Graham, then fifty years old, in the prime of her creative powers and a legend in the modern-dance world, the work represented a culmination and a transcendence of her individual, sometimes painful, inquiry into the past and its shadows. It was a turning point, an affirmation of a joyous present. Many years later, she wrote to Aaron Copland, “Appalachian Spring has been one of the pleasures of my life—a kind of keystone and I treasure every note of it and the experience I had to be able to choreograph it.”

Copland for his part was delighted to receive the Pulitzer Prize in music for his score and very pleased and surprised to receive also an award for dramatic composition from the Music Critics Circle of New York. Both awards brought him increased public recognition. He noted, however, that it was “Martha’s admiration for the music that held the most meaning for me.”

Appalachian Spring influenced the careers and the styles of everyone in the original cast. Merce Cunningham, Erick Hawkins, May O’Donnell, and Pearl Lang later formed companies of their own and choreographed and performed independently. The other three, Nina Fonaroff, Marjorie Mazia, and Yuriko, disseminated the Graham technique to the next generation of students in classes at the Graham Studio and at other schools. Beyond these direct connections, dancers and choreographers who attended performances of the piece recognized its combination of authentic modern dance with audience accessibility, and the power of that combination influenced the course of dance for decades. Appalachian Spring (Graham and Copland) Choreography;modern dance Modern dance Music;classical

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Copland, Aaron, and Vivian Perlis. Copland: Since 1943. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. A fine autobiography beginning during World War II, with interviews from friends, family, and colleagues from the music and dance world interspersed. Contains an engrossing chapter devoted to the creation and response to Appalachian Spring, with anecdotal remarks from Martha Graham, Erick Hawkins, Pearl Lang, and May O’Donnell. Photographs, notes, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Denby, Edwin. Dance Writings. Edited by Robert Cornfield and William MacKay. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986. A voluminous collection of Denby’s critical reviews and essays compiled from the New York Herald Tribune, Dance Magazine, Modern Music, and other writings. Comments relating to Graham’s work occur throughout; of interest is Denby’s changing perspective and increasing admiration through the decades. Index and sketchy notes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jowitt, Deborah. “Group Spirits” and “The Heroines Within.” In Time and the Dancing Image. New York: William Morrow, 1987. A readable, scholarly history, by a dancer and dance critic, of nearly two hundred years of dance, with perceptive discussions of the evolution of modern dance and of the significance of the Graham works. Photographs, notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McDonagh, Don. Martha Graham. New York: Praeger, 1973. A detailed, thorough biography of Martha Graham, slightly dated. Paints the goddess as temperamental and volatile but human. Also includes a valuable “Choreochronicle” of 155 of Graham’s dances, with locations, dates, designers, and cast members. Photographs, index, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mazo, Joseph H. “Martha Graham: Casta Diva.” In Prime Movers: The Makers of Modern Dance in America. New York: William Morrow, 1977. An analysis of the work of nine modern dancers from Loie Fuller to Twyla Tharp, with the longest chapter devoted to Martha Graham’s works, her technique, and her style. Biographical material is secondary. Photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mellers, Wilfrid. “Skyscraper and Prairie: Aaron Copland and the American Isolation.” In Music in a New Found Land: Themes and Developments in the History of American Music. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965. Copland continues essential American themes initiated by Charles Ives. The chapter discusses the technical composition of Appalachian Spring and other Copland works. Several appendixes and a valuable discography are included.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roseman, Janet Lynn. Dance Was Her Religion: The Sacred Choreography of Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, and Martha Graham. Prescott, Ariz.: Hohm Press, 2004. Scholarly study of three of the most influential women in modern dance; analyzes the role of religion in the work of all three choreographers. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stodelle, Ernestine. Deep Song: The Dance Story of Martha Graham. New York: Schirmer Books, 1984. An elegantly written biography, sensitive and perceptive in description, with excellent word pictures of the major works and extensive photographs of Graham in performance and in private life. A thorough bibliography, index, and chronology of 179 works are included; missing is a cast list.

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Categories: History