Copland: Appalachian Spring, Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Benjamin Northey, conductor, Emma Matthews, soprano
ABC Classics 481 0863
Reviewed by , January 1st, 2015

The twelve poems of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) that Aaron Copland set to music in 1949-50 are quite extraordinary. Written in the first person, they speak directly and without artifice, resembling a personal diary, and one gets a very strong sense of the woman behind the words. She became a recluse in her thirties, maintaining friendships largely through correspondence. She only talked to visitors through closed doors, to avoid face to face contact. She did not wish to publish during her lifetime, but nowadays her work is well recognised in the American poetry canon. Copland spent months researching her life, and even visited the room where she had spent so many solitary hours. One can see why he chose these particular poems (from the 1800 she had written): “Nature, the gentlest mother”, “There came a wind like a bugle”, “The world feels dusty”, “Heart, we will forget him”, “Dear March, come in!”, “Sleep is supposed to be”, “Going to Heaven”, and “The Chariot”, as they have a wider appeal than many of her more cryptic verses and also reveal her gentle sense of humour.

At the time he composed the songs he had already consciously altered his style from modernist to a more accessible vernacular one that would appeal to a wider audience. He set them originally for soprano with piano accompaniment and a recording made in 1950 and 1952 with Copland accompanying Martha Lipton (mezzo-soprano) can be accessed at This original setting has more intimacy but his later orchestration was imaginative and adds another dimension to the songs, though it becomes more difficult to hear all the texts. One feels Dickinson herself is singing, such is the power of her words and the adroit way Copland’s music enhances them. Early in his musical career, he spent three years studying composition with the great Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and he claimed he developed his aesthetic of clarity and simplicity from her as well as developing eclectic tastes. Clarity is very evident in these wonderful songs and also in Appalachian Spring, a lesser work but very popular still.

Soprano Emma Matthews

Soprano Emma Matthews

This live performance from June 2013 by Emma Matthews with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Northey, is very satisfying. Her beautiful light clear soprano suits the songs well (except for an excessive vibrato on the lowest sustained tones). A fine actress, she brings all her expressive power to her clearly enunciated texts and she sings the angular leaps and high floating pianissimos effortlessly. What a pity the other four songs of the twelve Copland composed were not played too. The orchestra sounds wonderful. However I found the recording itself was not entirely satisfactory as the voice was not distinct enough against the orchestra.

Appalachian Spring Suite, the first version composed for a chamber orchestra of 13 instruments which premiered in 1944, is the other Copland work on the disc and it nicely complements the songs. It was commissioned for a ballet choreographed by the great Martha Graham and is about a wedding celebration in a Pennsylvanian pioneering family in the early part of the 19th century – a simple story but psychologically very powerful when danced by Graham herself on the spare set designed by Isamu Noguchi. One can view her historical performance on Youtube, and it is well worth the effort! Only 13 instruments fitted into the theatre where the ballet was staged and later on with the great success the piece enjoyed, Copland wrote an expanded orchestral version in 1954. Right up until its premiere the ballet had no name. The title “Appalachian Spring” was found at the last minute – a line in a poem by Hart Crane (that had nothing to do with the storyline of the ballet) appealed to Graham so she used it! Certainly Noguchi’s set had no mountains, but Copland’s use of the wind instruments in the opening section gives the impression of the great outdoors. Graham’s modernist style was spare and restrained, and she and Copland’s aesthetics were very well matched – “simplicity with originality” as Leonard Bernstein put it. It is basically a series of simple appealing tunes, some with a folksy feel with syncopated rhythms. It was written at a time of intense American patriotism and it seemed to reaffirm the solid virtues of the Puritan tradition. Copland even used a Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts”, in one section, which became immensely popular. The work was very successful and certainly put Copland on the map.

This performance is good with sustained rhythmic vitality and excellent ensemble playing. The 13 players are not named in the CD notes however – an unfortunate oversight. Whilst I think the later full orchestrated version is a better work, it is very interesting to hear this earlier sparser version played so well.

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