Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and Manifest Destiny

I’m currently reading An Indigenous People’s History of the US by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, and one of the main takeaways is that settler-colonialism is an ongoing process, not a relic from our past. The conflict over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which infringes on the sovereignty of Indians in the Standing Rock reservation and threatens their water supply, demonstrates that fact dramatically. And as families all over the country sat down to commemorate a holiday celebrating a fantasy of Pilgrim-Indian collaboration, the world was stunned by the spectacle of non-violent protesters being brutally repressed with tear gas, rubber bullets, dogs, concussion grenades, batons, and water cannons in subzero temperatures. The ideology of Manifest Destiny has to go. The problem is – what to do we do about all of the groundbreaking, masterful works of art that served to justify, celebrate or shape this genocidal ideology?

I’ve loved Appalachian Spring, Aaron Copland’s landmark Pulitzer-Prize winning ballet, for years. It’s an extremely influential and popular piece, and its impact can be felt in popular film scores, classic and modern, from Elmer Bernstein’s To Kill a Mockingbird to Thomas Newman’s Little Women, and especially John Williams’ Lincoln. I was planning on posting an analysis of Appalachian Spring this month when my growing awareness of the #NoDAPL Movement prompted me to think about the piece in a completely different way.

Here’s a video (in 4 parts) of the entire ballet performed by Martha Graham’s company in 1959. You can also:
-Listen to the full original score for chamber orchestra here on Spotify or here on Youtube.
-And check out the orchestral suite here on Spotify or here on Youtube.
-Or watch and follow along with the score here on Youtube.

The celebrated 1944 ballet, a collaboration between Copland and choreographer Martha Graham, depicts life in an early settler community in Pennsylvania, complete with a spring celebration and a sermon by an itinerant preacher. Copland, perhaps more than any other composer, captured what was considered to be an “American” sound, especially the sound of the American West. Considering he was a Jewish, Brooklyn-born son of immigrants, Copland’s vision of the “West” was surely a product of Hollywood, making this piece only one link in a long chain of cultural artifacts building on each other and recycling ideas about history that probably have more to do with the previous links in the chain than with the truth.

That “American Sound” that people ascribe to Copland certainly must refer to the broad intervals, the “unpretentious” return to diatonic and tonal harmony, and the melodies and rhythms that evoke square dances and country fiddle tunes. All of those musical elements feature prominently in Appalachian Spring, as well as in other pieces by Copland such as Fanfare for the Common Man, Billy the KidRodeo and more. Musically, what really shines in the work as whole is Copland’s clear, startlingly simple orchestration, and his subtly modern take on traditional diatonic, tonal harmony. Fans of this work and his other famous populist masterpieces will be surprised to know that he through a significant atonal/serial phase earlier in his life – check out his Piano Variations (1930) for a piece that sounds like the exact opposite of Appalachian Spring.

In the ballet, musical and visual elements work together to contribute to and promote this one-sided mythology of the “American Pioneer”. For the premiere, Martha Graham wrote:

Part and parcel of our lives is that moment of Pennsylvania spring when there was “a garden eastward of Eden.”

Spring was celebrated by a man and woman building a house with joy and love and prayer; by a revivalist and his followers in their shouts of exaltation; by a pioneering woman with her dreams of the Promised Land.

Check out An Indigenous People’s History to see how this concept of a Promised Land – a term explicitly based in the Judeo-Christian concept of a divine covenant – was expressed in the Calvinist faith of the first huge wave of settlers. These settlers, predominantly poor Scots-Irish laborers and farmers displaced by English imperialism, settled the “frontier” in huge waves in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their brand of Calvinism decreed that success and prosperity were a result of God’s will, and that the settlers had a divine mandate to conquer, “enclose,” and cultivate the land that had been promised to them. The winners of history were divinely blessed, and the losers condemned. And America was considered a terra nullius, or a land without people, a pristine wilderness whose only occupants were savages. The reality was, of course, that there was a vast infrastructure of towns, roads, governments and federations of hundreds of sovereign Indian nations. The divine mandate persists today, albeit in a different form. It largely became secularized through John Locke, among others, and manifests now into our “nation of laws”, rooted in a constitution that we hold sacrosanct, at the expense of those the laws exclude or neglect.

We can see the marks of this philosophy, or its modern distillation, all over the music and choreography for Appalachian Spring. The broad intervals and sparkling harmony, full of hopeful, yearning major triads, convey the wide open expanses of the terra nullius and the promise of a brighter future for a young US. (Keep in mind that the piece was written during the dark days of WWII). About his intentions for the piece, Copland wrote: “After Martha gave me this bare outline, I knew certain crucial things – that it had to do with the pioneer American spirit, with youth and spring, with optimism and hope.” While hope was certainly in the hearts of the US settlers, so was the conscious, deliberate determination to cleanse the land of its indigenous inhabitants. Dunbar-Ortiz writes about how men in settler communities were often required to enlist in local militias whose purpose was to raze and destroy Indian communities and collect scalps. (The practice of scalping, contrary to popular belief, seems to have been predominantly practiced by US settlers, after being popularized by the British in their imperialist war of attrition against the Irish. It was monetized by the US government, creating an informal army of mercenaries.)

Needless to say, none of that inconvenient history appears in the ballet, which features only settlers. I did find out that several characters “were deleted from the action, including a fugitive slave and a Pocahontas-like Indian girl.” But even these token characters were scrapped, leaving a spotless, optimistic portrayal of non-violent, friendly “pioneers” simply celebrating springtime and a wedding!

The choreography throughout the ballet is filled with kneeling and clasping of hands, religious gestures portraying the hope for God to deliver the settlers prosperity and safety on their newly discovered (conquered) land. The ballet also contains a section normally omitted from the stand-alone musical arrangements. It is an extended fire-and-brimstone sermon delivered by the itinerant preacher, urgent and foreboding, and was probably omitted due to its departure from the overall mood of the piece. The sermon can be interpreted as a warning of the dangers of sin and temptation…or of the untamed frontier, full of “savages.” Of course, here the music turns dissonant and explicitly non-Western, evoking thundering drums and slashing, primitive violence over a simple, machine like beat. The revivalists flock respond to the sermon with pleading prayers to God for deliverance.

The most memorable and popular part of the ballet is Copland’s “Variations on a Shaker Melody” or his arrangement of the 19th century Shaker song “Simple Gifts.” During the variations, the audience witness scenes from rustic rural life, which conclude with the Revivalist congregation joining the itinerant preacher in prayer. The song originally contained the lyrics:

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

What history has taught us, however, is that the settlers Copland portrayed did not receive the “gifts” of freedom or the “place just right”, but rather took them by force, and at the expense of millions of other people. They were the foot-soldiers in a movement lasting till the present day, with the goal of “cleansing” the land of its native inhabitants and obtaining the maximum amount of land for the nascent US. This movement has lasted because it is predicated an ideology deeply ingrained in all of us, and an ahistorical mythology about the founding of this country that erases indigenous people from the narrative. I myself, a settler on Tongva land, loved this piece for years without for an instant considering what a native person would feel about a celebrated Pulitzer-prize winning work rejoicing in the theft of their homeland.

At the very end of the Copland’s ballet, after busy day of work on the farm, the settler couple sits and the wife stretches her hand out to the future. Possibly west, towards land yet to be conquered, towards the setting sun. We need to now consider the people outside of the frame and excluded from the myth, the people the sun is always setting on, but who have continued miraculously to survive and resist.

#NoDAPL Resources:

  1. Standing Rock Syllabus
  2. #NoDAPL Solidarity
  3. How You Can Help the Standing Rock Sioux


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