Having watched Copland’s Appalachian Spring after Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, I can’t help but interpret it by comparing it to the latter. The two ballets are strikingly different, particularly in their instrumentation, affect, and choreography.

In The Rite of Spring, the instrumentation was, most of the time, very full, especially since it featured a lot of percussion, whereas the instrumentation in Appalachian Spring seemed very sparse. Even during dramatic moments, such as when the preacher “warns of the dangers on the frontier” in part 3 (3:00-4:33), only a few instruments play at a time. Compared, for example, with the sacrificial dancer dancing to death in The Rite of Spring (around 32:00-end), where timpani, brass, woodwinds, and strings are all featured, Copland’s soundscape is very sparse, which creates a sense of openness and possibility–much like the settlers’ feelings in the ballet.

On a similar note, the overall affect of Copland’s ballet is very different from Stravinsky’s: while the latter is urgent, primal, and harsh, the former is hopeful and happy. To give two examples, the dancing in Stravinsky’s ballet begins with a pounding dissonant chord (4:00-5:05) that foretells the mania to follow, while Copland’s ballet opens with slow, bright melodies (0:00-2:10) that sound hopeful and cheerful (they made me think of a sunrise). Part of this difference stems from the instrumentation, but Copland’s piece also has much smoother and steadier rhythms than Stravinsky’s and uses dissonance much less extensively. A prominent example is Copland’s use of the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” in part 3 (0:04-2:53) & part 4 (3:21-3:45): the melody and rhythm are very straightforward, the harmony is completely consonant, and the overall affect is happiness and hope. Moreover, using “Simple Gifts” and other American tunes (e.g., the dance at 1:28-2:00) creates a distinctly “American” soundscape (much like Ives’ “The Things Our Father’s Loved”), which fits the distinctly American scene portrayed in the ballet–obviously contrasting with the violent ancient ritual portrayed in The Rite of Spring.

One last difference I noticed was how the choreography related to the music itself. In Stravinsky’s ballet, the dancing matches the music very closely–the dancers move jerkily and completely in sync with the orchestra’s rhythm (e.g., during the opening scene or the sacrificial dance at the end), while in Copland’s ballet, the dancers move relatively independent of what the orchestra is doing. For me, then, a lot more emotion came from how the dancers were moving compared to Stravinsky’s ballet. For instance, when the preacher warns the settlers in part 3, the music is sparse and doesn’t often rhythmically fit what the dancer is doing; however, his facial expressions and violent movements clearly tell you that he’s concerned about something, and the music serves more to accent those effects.

To sum up, Copland’s sparse instrumentation, simpler and sweeter melodies, and relative independence between the dancers and orchestra shifts your attention to the story the dancers are acting out, and creates a distinctly “American pioneer” atmosphere of hope and uncertainty.

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