Classical IV: Spring Celebration
With this concert, we celebrate the arrival of Spring with a famous work by Aaron Copland, an elegant work featuring the cello by Tchaikovsky, and an exciting work by young Robert Schumann, inspired by his young bride, Clara.

Aaron Copland
(November 14, 1900-December 2, 1990)

Appalachian Spring

Written by one of America’s favorite native composers, Appalachian Spring is one of several pieces (e.g., Lincoln Portrait, Fanfare for the Common Man, and Rodeo) from the late 1930s and 1940s, Aaron Copland’s most popular period of composition. During this time, he experimented with folk music and other recognizable “American” styles in more contemporary and classical contexts; he was very concerned with nationalist themes, and he moved toward music that combined socially relevant and musically accessible ideas.

Appalachian Spring was first a ballet scored for a thirteen-member chamber orchestra, commissioned by choreographer and dancer Martha Graham. It was premiered on October 30, 1944, at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, with Graham dancing the lead role. Copland was awarded the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his achievement. In 1945, Copland rearranged the ballet work into an  orchestral suite and later created a full orchestra version. Originally, Copland titled the work Ballet for Martha, but Graham herself suggested Appalachian Spring, from a poem by Hart Crane, “The Dance.”

The ballet story is a spring celebration by 19th-century American pioneers after building a new farmhouse. While the ballet has 14  movements, the orchestral suite is divided into eight sections. Copland describes the eight scenes as follows: “1) Introduction of the characters, one by one, in a suffused light; 2) Sudden burst of unison strings starts the action—both elated and religious; 3) Duo for the Bride and her Intended—tenderness and passion; 4) The Revivalist and his flock. Folksy feeling, with suggestions of square dances and country fiddlers; 5) Solo dance of the Bride—forethoughts of motherhood: joy, fear, and wonder; 6) Transition scene to music reminiscent
of the introduction; 7) Scenes of daily activity for the Bride and her Farmer husband—five variations on a Shaker theme “Simple Gifts”; 8) The Bride takes her place among her neighbors. At the end, the couple is left ‘quiet and strong in their new house,’ with music reminiscent of the opening.”

Pyotr Il’ych Tchaikovsky
(May 7, 1840–November 6, 1893)
Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33

The 1870s was an important decade for Tchaikovsky. He found his footing as a composer and the result was an outpouring of music that included operas, symphonies, ballets, major piano works and songs. Tchaikovsky’s Variations are a part of this surge in attention and momentum for his compositional career, appearing after his Third Symphony and Swan Lake but before his Fourth Symphony and opera Eugene Onegin. The “rococo” attribution is used more in its generic sense of elegant ornaments and gestures, however it is also true that Mozart was Tchaikovsky’s musical idol from a very early age, so it is possible that Tchaikovsky was inspired by his hero for this work. The piece was written for German cellist Wilhelm Fitzhagen, a friend and colleague at the Moscow Conservatory, who had participated in premieres of several of Tchaikovsky’s chamber works. The variations were completed in 1876, and premiered in November 1877, with Fitzhagen as soloist and Conservatory director Nicolai Rubenstein conducting.

The piece is a staple in the ‘cello repertoire and, as variations go, has a rather unique form. Instead of the predictable format of one variation following another, he takes a freer approach, with surprising variety between the variations, and sprinkling orchestral interludes, cadenzas and ritornellos throughout, to create a surprising and satisfying result. The theme is elegant, and the sequence of variations includes ornamenting the melody, a conversation between soloist and orchestra, a slower melancholy variation in minor, more ornamentation, a meditative respite, and a final build from graceful theme to dramatic ending. Several cadenzas appear in different variations, adding to the opportunities for soloists to show off their skills. This piece does not have the same depth of expression or seriousness as his symphonies, but the craftsmanship and suave treatment of the theme and form are quite remarkable.

Robert Schumann
(June 8, 1810–July 29, 1856)
Symphony No. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 38

In many ways, Schumann is the epitome of the Romantic artist. A performing musician, composer and critic, he demonstrated not only the range of expression of the time, but also a remarkable imagination in everything he did. As a composer, his interest in literature influenced his musical choices. His intuitive nature led to great success with more intimate scenarios like solo piano music and art songs; working in miniature allowed his ideas to have focus. When confronted with larger structures—symphonies, for example—this nature led him to stretch ideas to extremes, with long sections that appear almost improvised. His passion for music and expression is undeniable, distinct, and enjoyable to experience on its own terms.

Schumann’s compositional career tended to progress by genre. In 1840, his focus was on art songs, but his interest shifted to orchestral music in 1841. Schumann’s First Symphony appeared in a whirlwind—a draft was completed within four days (January 23-26) and then orchestrated by late February. It was premiered at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on March 31, conducted by Mendelssohn. The symphony was reportedly inspired by an unpublished “spring” poem by German poet Adolph Böttger:

Loud-Spirit, dreary and heavy, you fly
with menace over land and sea
Your grey veil covers Heaven’s clear eye,
Your waves of mist rise from afar and
night conceals the Star of Love:
Cloud-Spirit, dreary and moist, why did
you dispel all my happiness,
Why do you bring tears to my face and
shadows into the light of my soul?
Oh change, change thy course—In the
valley, spring blooms forth!

Originally, each of the four movements had its own title, “The Beginning of Spring,” “Evening,” “Merry Playmates” and “Spring in Full Bloom,” but Schumann withdrew the titles before publication. The first movement begins dramatically with a fanfare, and a slow introduction underscores the heaviness expressed at the start of the poem. The mood is definitely lightened, however, with the arrival of the first theme, a bright, energetic blossoming of excitement. Fanfare figures propel the music forward, with occasional smoother contrasting moments, finally arriving at a monumental climax that harkens back to the beginning. The recapitulation revisits the musical materials, settling on a final extended section of the smoother, calmer music. In the end, however, the celebration of the arrival of Spring is confirmed with the return of the energetic fanfares to close the movement.

The second movement begins with a lovely, lush melody befitting the “Evening” inspiration, featuring the strings and winds. There are occasional ebbs and flows but the mood set at the beginning is consistent throughout, reminiscent of a pleasant spring evening, with a gradual descent into night. The third movement has a rollicking mood. The contrasts presented by the trio sections are surprising, and the use of brass highlights the merry-making mood. A brief moment of rest and reflection brings this movement to a surprising close.

The fourth movement returns to the bright energy of the first movement, once again inspired by the energy and optimism of Spring. The celebration moves forward with a sense of gathering all the musical materials and energy together—the fanfares, lyrical melodies, celebratory figures, and finally a sense of completion—confirming that Spring is in full bloom.

This symphony also can be seen as a metaphor for Schumann’s life at the time—his personal life and work were blossoming thanks to his growing love of Clara and the energy that came from her encouragement.