Martha Graham and Appalachian Spring

Appalachian Spring by composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990), is one of, if not the most iconic and recognizable pieces of American music. Full Stop.  The vast majority of people these days don’t know the proper title and may just think of it as the old Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts.” Which, as a lover of both music and history, strikes me as a great injustice.1)I feel it’s not only an injustice to Copland’s composition and the true creation story of Appalachian Spring, both the ballet and the later symphonic version; it’s also an injustice to the original Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” which is profoundly beautiful in its original form and message. However, righting that wrong is not this article’s goal. Neither is pointing out the irony that Aaron Copland had no history with Appalachia, never once in his life set foot in Appalachia, and very likely couldn’t have found it on a map. That is, not before he was connected to Martha Graham.

The truth is my original inspiration for writing this article was, in fact, to point out the aforementioned irony. I started digging into the origins of this composition, which I first studied in former professor, choir director, and Chair of Maryville College Fine Arts Dr. Dan Taddie’s history of American music class some twenty-odd years ago (at which time I was not a Copland fan). I was filled with the righteous goal of exposing this Appalachian expropriator to the world. The reality turned out to be far more complex and eye-opening than I expected.

The true source and inspiration for Appalachian Spring was Martha Graham, a dancer and choreographer born in 1894 in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, the heart of Northern Appalachia.

Through friend and philanthropist Elizabeth Penn Sprague Coolidge, Ms. Graham commissioned Aaron Copland to write the performance music for her ballet company. That commissioning launched a long and energetic correspondence between Graham and Copland that resulted in the iconic Appalachian Spring.

Martha Graham seems to be largely forgotten these days (at least by those of us outside the world of modern dance). Her fascinating life story is significant and reaches far beyond the ballet stage. Her career spanned seven decades and included such honors as being the first dancer to perform at the White House (1938), receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1976); and she was among the first recipients of the National Medal of Arts (1985). People Magazine listed her as one of the icons of the century.

Martha Graham was the oldest of three daughters born to George and Jane Beers Graham.  Her father was a doctor who studied and treated nervous mental disorders through physical expression of emotional and mental distress. Agnes de Mille was Graham’s lifelong friend, student, and biographer. She wrote Martha’s biography, entitled Martha: the Life and Work of Martha Graham, and shared this story about Graham’s relationship with her father:

He used to tell Martha that he could always recognize when people were lying by the tension in the deportment of their hands, and he taught her to watch for this as he did.2)Agnes de Mille from her book Martha: the Life and Work of Martha Graham p 86-87. New York : Random House 1991, p. 16

Her father’s teaching would have a profound influence on her life’s work in creating modern dance.3)It is interesting to note that the Grahams were strictly religious and did not approve of dancing, music, etc.  Historians, along with friend and biographer Agnes de Mille, and even Graham in her own autobiography, suggest elements of life in the household’s early years leaned toward a certain progressive attitude and leniency toward this topic.

In 1909, the family moved to Santa Barbara, California, after one of Martha’s sisters developed asthma. A few years later, when she was sixteen, her father took her to Los Angeles to see a concert by international ballet star Ruth St. Denis. Martha reportedly “saw a great dancer and was astonished and moved and changed.”4)Agnes de Mille from her book Martha: the Life and Work of Martha Graham p 86-87. New York : Random House 1991, p. 21. When she was nineteen, she moved to Los Angeles and enrolled in the Cumnock School of Expression, where she studied elocution and dramatic arts. In 1914, Dr. Graham died of a heart condition. After her graduation from Cumnock in 1916, Martha enrolled in the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts, a new school established in L.A. by Ruth St. Denis and her husband Ted Shawn. Up to this point in her life, Martha Graham had never had a dance lesson.

Martha’s enrollment at the Denishawn school was the beginning of a groundbreaking and legendary seventy-year career.  Clearly, I can’t cover her entire career’s achievements in this article. For those who are interested, plenty of sources have already accomplished that feat. See the list of references below for some of them.

Ted Shawn moved a troupe of the Denishawn Company to New York City in 1921. By this time, Martha Graham had become a well-known lead dancer and teacher. Although the group had critical success, money was always scarce and members were pushed to take other work to support the performances. After Graham’s two-year stint in the Greenwich Village Follies, from 1924-1926, she’d had enough. She struck out on her own, set up her own studio, and taught students to pay the bills.

The split with Ted Shawn was rather acrimonious, and, as a result, she could no longer perform the well-known dances he had choreographed for her.5)He offered to sell her the performing rights for $500, something she was highly unlikely to do even if she had the money, which she did not. This split enabled her to start completely fresh and create her own style and expression without constraint. It led to the foundation of what would become the Graham Technique, taught world-wide. In this early period, she developed a set of guidelines that might now be considered a foundational philosophy:

First, never to become involved in any enterprise primarily for the sake of money. Second, to build her own company to perform her works. Third, to maintain a school that would train such a company. Fourth, to allow no one who had not trained in her teachings and style to perform her choreography. Fifth, to share a program with no other dance group (this meant that her works would not be performed in any other repertory).6)Agnes de Mille from her book Martha: the Life and Work of Martha Graham p 86-87. New York : Random House 1991, p.80.

Martha’s first year on her own was 1926. She had no backing or investors, so she set up her own independent dance studio. She took her students, created her own theatrical dance troupe, and
choreographed and staged their first show on April 18, 1926. The show consisted of eighteen pieces, including studies of pure movement and emotion. Although these early pieces were not widely appreciated at the time, they were the beginning of what made Martha Graham an international icon for more than fifty years.

Without a doubt, the early education of physical movement language Martha learned from her father had a profound effect on her work as a creator. She spent her life creating works that used movement to express emotions that human beings struggled to put into words. She was also very in tune with current events – sociopolitical and economic – and she addressed them in her work and in public statements. Agnes de Mille explains:

On October 16, 1927 she presented Revolt, to music by Arthur Honegger, her first piece of social comment. . . it did not advocate any given party line. She was speaking for the individual, for the outraged spirit – for her own spirit, in fact. In a sense she was like Kafka; she cried out. She would not accept formulae.7)De Mille, p 86-87.

In addition to Revolt, she created other pieces such as Fragilite (1927), Immigrant (1928), Poems of 1917 (1928), Adolescence (1929), and Vision of the Apocalypse (1929). In Heretic (1929) one can see a forerunner of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Martha Graham in Lamentation, 1940-1950, photog. Herta Moselsio – Picryl

Lamentation (1930) became one of her most iconic performances. The performance was made up of “grief-stricken postures… basic and searing.” She remained seated throughout the dance and her body, cocooned in fabric, twisted in movements. “It was a figure of unending, burning woe.”8)Agnes de Mille, 88

In the 1930s, Graham created dances in response to war. In late 1936 she created Chronicle as “a response to the menace of fascism in Europe” after refusing an invitation from Germany to participate in the International Dance Festival held in conjunction with the 1936 Olympics. It ‘was forty minutes in length, divided into five sections: “Dances before Catastrophe: Spectre–1914 and Masque,” “Dances after Catastrophe: Steps in the Street and Tragic Holiday,” and “Prelude to Action.”’  In 1937 she created Immediate Tragedy and Deep Song about the Spanish Civil War.9)From https://marthagraham.org/portfolio-items/chronicle-1936/

Martha Graham’s performances were minimalistic and stark, often rough, not beautiful, at least in a classic sense, and unflinchingly feminist. They were raw, emotional, and firmly grounded in the full range of women’s experiences in a male-dominated society. Lewis Segal, long-time dance critic of the LA Times, wrote “An Appreciation: Martha Graham: Modern Dance’s Feminist Rebel”  shortly after her death, where he celebrated this aspect of her work. In that article he wrote:

In “Night Journey,” her reworking of “Oedipus Rex,” Graham emphasized the predicament of Queen Jocasta, with Oedipus seen merely as the fatally seductive instrument of her doom. In “Clytemnestra,” her reworking of “The Oresteia,” the title character prowled the underworld demanding justice, needing to know why she, alone, is dishonored among the dead when male brutality and betrayal drove her to her crimes.

 

In such works as “Seraphic Dialogue” (about Joan of Arc) and “Letter to the World” (about Emily Dickinson), she celebrated innovative, self-reliant women without ignoring their conflicts. She also saw female victimization as partly self-imposed–most notably in “Errand Into the Maze” in which a terrorized Ariadne ultimately confronts and conquers her fear (symbolized as the bestial, unmistakably male Minotaur).

Graham’s Frontier (1935) was the first in a series of dances about American frontier life. The cross-country train trip in her youth, when her father moved them from Pittsburgh to California, made a deep and lasting impression on Martha. In her autobiography published shortly before her death, she wrote:

The train was taking us from our past, through the vehicle of the present, to our future. Tracks in front of me, how they gleamed whether we went straight ahead or through a newly carved-out mountain. It was these tracks that hugged the land, and became a living pan of my memory. Parallel lines whose meaning was inexhaustible, whose purpose was infinite. This was, for me, the beginning of my ballet Frontier.”10)Graham, Martha. Blood Memory. New York: Doubleday, 1991. p 44 https://archive.org/details/bloodmemory00grah

On the surface, Frontier is the story of a woman’s triumph over the challenges of the early West, but for Graham it was much more than that. She said of it:

Frontier is the barrier of my own country… When you reach the frontier, you’ve reached a barrier… I had the idea of Frontier in my mind as a frontier of exploration, a frontier of discovery, and not one of limitation.11)Graham, p.219

Appalachian Spring tells a similar story, of a young couple starting life in the Appalachian frontier. Graham based the Pioneer Woman character in the dance on her great-grandmother, who went from Virginia to Pennsylvania with her family “in search of good soil to till.” For Copland, however, it was Graham herself who was the source of his inspiration, not Appalachia. In fact, his working title for the piece was “Ballet for Martha.” He didn’t know the actual title until the final rehearsals for the debut performance.12)Martha got the name from a Hart Crane poem titled “The Dance”:

O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge;
Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends
And northward reaches in that violet wedge
Of Adirondacks!

The fact that people to this day, can hear and feel Appalachia in this music, is a testament to the depth of the connection between Graham and Copland. This collaboration developed entirely through the mail in written letters between them, a fact perhaps astonishing to us in this age of instant communication.13)The Copland/ Graham letters are currently housed in the Library of Congress. Through this correspondence Graham asked Copland to incorporate “Simple Gifts” into the score.

Through the researching and writing of this article, I have gained a profound appreciation of Martha Graham, of whom I knew almost nothing about. I have also gained a great deal more respect for Aaron Copland. Clearly neither could have created this amazing work without the other. The endurance of Appalachian Spring is a testament to the creative spirits of both Graham and Copland, and, perhaps, an example of Appalachia’s spirit manifesting through one of its daughters.

**Featured image of Martha Graham – Library of Congress, Picryl

 

The following sources were used in this article. Other sources are linked in the body of the article.
Martha Graham website:

Appalachian Spring (1944)

Library of Congress:
Britannica.com:
Biography.com:

References

References
1 I feel it’s not only an injustice to Copland’s composition and the true creation story of Appalachian Spring, both the ballet and the later symphonic version; it’s also an injustice to the original Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” which is profoundly beautiful in its original form and message.
2 Agnes de Mille from her book Martha: the Life and Work of Martha Graham p 86-87. New York : Random House 1991, p. 16
3 It is interesting to note that the Grahams were strictly religious and did not approve of dancing, music, etc.  Historians, along with friend and biographer Agnes de Mille, and even Graham in her own autobiography, suggest elements of life in the household’s early years leaned toward a certain progressive attitude and leniency toward this topic.
4 Agnes de Mille from her book Martha: the Life and Work of Martha Graham p 86-87. New York : Random House 1991, p. 21.
5 He offered to sell her the performing rights for $500, something she was highly unlikely to do even if she had the money, which she did not.
6 Agnes de Mille from her book Martha: the Life and Work of Martha Graham p 86-87. New York : Random House 1991, p.80.
7 De Mille, p 86-87.
8 Agnes de Mille, 88
9 From https://marthagraham.org/portfolio-items/chronicle-1936/
10 Graham, Martha. Blood Memory. New York: Doubleday, 1991. p 44 https://archive.org/details/bloodmemory00grah
11 Graham, p.219
12 Martha got the name from a Hart Crane poem titled “The Dance”:

O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge;
Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends
And northward reaches in that violet wedge
Of Adirondacks!

13 The Copland/ Graham letters are currently housed in the Library of Congress.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for this article. Stimulating work that makes me want to know more.

  2. Excellent piece, Tom. Extraordinarily informative!

  3. Thank you so much! Martha Graham was such a fascinating person, and there is so much to learn about her. I’ll be the first to admit that “modern dance” isn’t generally my cup-o-tea, but working on this has changed my perspective and I now have a much deeper respect for it.

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