Appalachian Spring and the Prague Symphony program notes

Tuesday, July 27, 2021 , 6:30 PM

Copland: Appalachian Spring, Suite for 13 Instruments

Mozart: Symphony No. 38 in D Major, K. 504, “Prague”

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

Appalachian Spring, Suite for 13 Instruments

Composed: 1943-1944
Instrumentation: flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano, 2 first violins, 2 second violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, double bass

No stranger to complex, atonal composition, Copland turned to a more familiar, accessible style in the mid-1930s. This new approach drew on folk melodies and rhythms, creating a sound that to this day immediately signifies the openness and beauty of the American landscape. Later, he explained the reason for the shift:

I began to feel an increasing dissatisfaction with the relations of the music-loving public and the living composer. The old “special” public of the modern music concerts had fallen away, and the conventional concert public continued to be apathetic or indifferent to anything but the established classics. It seemed to me that we composers were in danger of working in a vacuum…. I felt that it was worth the effort to see if I couldn’t say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms.

His Wild West ballets Billy the Kid and Rodeo made use of this style to tremendous success. A few months after the premiere of Rodeo, Copland received a commission to compose a new ballet for Martha Graham. The two had been hoping to collaborate since the early 1930s, when Graham created a choreography to his thorny Piano Variations. Impressed, Copland wrote at the time, “Surely only an artist with an understanding of my work could have visualized dance material in so rhythmically complex and thematically abstruse a composition.” With Graham’s commission from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, which called for a score for chamber orchestra, the opportunity had finally arrived.

Copland composed the music for 13-piece chamber ensemble based on a scenario by Graham, who choreographed the work after the music was complete. The story was summarized at the premiere in October 1944:

A pioneer celebration in spring around a newly built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills in the early part of the [19th] century. The bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, their new domestic partnership invites. An older neighbor suggests now and then the rocky confidence of experience. A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end, the couple is left quiet and strong in their new house.

After it was nearly complete, Graham titled the work Appalachian Spring after a line from the iconic American poet Hart Crane’s epic poem “The Bridge” (which references a body of water, not the season). Copland was always amused by frequent comments made to him about how he captured the essence of the Appalachian spirit in the piece he wrote without Appalachia in mind at all. In fact, it was Graham herself who provided the musical inspiration for the work, as Copland later wrote:

When I wrote Appalachian Spring I was thinking primarily about Martha and her unique choreographic style, which I knew well. Nobody else seems quite like Martha: she’s so proud, so very much herself. And she’s unquestionably very American: there’s something prim and restrained, simple yet strong, about her which one tends to think of as American.

With the ballet’s enthusiastic reception, Copland put together an orchestral suite for full orchestra in 1945 that closely followed the original ballet, with one extended scene excised toward the end. The larger orchestra allowed for greater coloristic effects but lost some of the intimacy of the original music. Copland would later re-score the suite using the original instrumentation from the ballet, which is the version we hear this evening.

The simple introduction slowly unfurls an A major triad, as the characters are introduced “in a suffused light,” in Copland’s words. A scampering outburst then mixes with a more sustained chorale, depicting “a sentiment both elated and religious.” After a dance of “tenderness and passion” for the engaged couple, a series of country dances—alternately skipping and stomping—ensues with the arrival of the revivalist and his flock. Quick passagework in the violins introduces an extended solo dance for the Bride expressing the “extremes of joy and fear and wonder.” After a recollection of the opening, the suite features the now well-known Shaker melody “Simple Gifts.” Copland had come across the tune in 1940 and felt that it perfectly matched “the kind of austere movements associated with [Graham’s] choreography.” Copland’s variations on the tune accompany the Bride and Farmer as they go about their daily activities. The suite ends with a coda featuring a moving hymn in the strings and then the winds. The serene music from the opening returns to bring the work full circle, and “the couple is left quiet and strong in their new house.”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Symphony No. 38 in D Major, K. 504, “Prague”

Composed: 1786
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

Mozart’s opera buffa (or comic opera) masterpiece The Marriage of Figaro saw its first Prague performance in December 1786—just a view months after its Vienna premiere—where it was produced by Pasquale Bondini’s National Theater Company. Mozart had already become well known in Prague some years before with the production of his opera The Abduction from the Seraglio. However, this new opera caused a major sensation in the city, which had already been in midst of a kind of collective municipal obsession with Italian opera. The Society of Great Connoisseurs and Amateurs sent letters to Mozart urging him to visit Prague to attend one of these Figaro productions. In high spirits, Mozart made the journey from Vienna, staying in Prague for an entire month in early 1787. The day Mozart arrived, he was whisked off to a festive ball where he was surprised by the musical selection, as reported in a letter from that week:

I looked on with great pleasure while all these people skipped about in sheer delight to the music of my Figaro arranged for contradances and waltzes. For here they talk about nothing but Figaro. Nothing is played or sung or whistled but Figaro…. Certainly a great honor for me!

Mozart couldn’t have been happier with the reception he received in Prague, and he was duly impressed with the knowledge of the audiences and the talent of the performers. Conducting one of the Figaro performances himself, Mozart was embraced with great enthusiasm. Bondini commissioned Mozart to write another opera, which would become Don Giovanni, premiered by Mozart in Prague later that year. Mozart’s triumph in Prague was capped by a concert he gave that featured the symphony he had completed in Vienna just before his trip. The city quickly adopted the work as its own, and Symphony No. 38 became known as the “Prague” Symphony. Though composed of only three movements (the traditional minuet is missing), the work is among Mozart’s most complex, showing a masterful control of form and motive.

The Prague Symphony is in D major, but the lengthy slow introduction to the work (somewhat unusual for Mozart) lingers stubbornly in D minor. In fact, major/minor juxtapositions like this abound in the work, adding depth and poignancy. The beginning of the exposition does not resolve the tension of the introduction but instead presents a syncopated violin line accompanying ambiguous circular gestures in the lower strings. Mozart spins this motivic whisp into a more solid theme that soon asserts itself (he would revisit this circular gesture in his brilliant Magic Flute overture a few years later). The lyrical second theme recalls the introduction’s major/minor link in its two phrases. The development section is exuberant genius, maneuvering elements of the first theme in an effortless, compact, and exciting display. After an absurdly lengthy pedal point that only Mozart could pull off, the recapitulation presents a rewrite that is somehow both extensive and subtle, building enough dramatic momentum to the close that a coda is wholly unnecessary.

The main melody of the G major Andante (heard in the violins at the start) is actually an expansion and extension of the ubiquitous 16th-note motto from the first theme material of the first movement. Mozart also inverts this melody (turns it “upside down”) to form a subsidiary staccato theme appearing in the second phrase. The second theme also bears a resemblance to the second theme of the first movement, as it reaches up three scale steps. Mozart tricks the audience with a false return to the main theme in the unexpected key of C major, but this turns out to be the beginning of a modulatory development section that fleshes out the movement into sonata form.

The head motive of the finale’s first theme (a four-note staccato outline of a major triad) reappears throughout the movement. It is borrowed from a duet between Cherubino and Susanna in Figaro, as the former jumps out of the window to avoid being found. This little reference must have delighted the knowledgeable Prague audience at the time. The recurrent motive and the fleet pace of the movement suggest a rondo, but Mozart fashions the movement into a full-fledged sonata form. Syncopations in the first theme remind us again of the first movement, and chromatic wind interjections in the second theme, including ridiculous bassoon accompaniment figures, add humor to this exciting conclusion to the symphony.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi