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Appalachian Spring Eternal: The Story Behind "Ballet for Martha"

Library of Congress
Erick Hawkins in the first production of Appalachian Spring, 1944. In the background, left to right: the four Followers, Martha Graham, May O'Donnell

In the midst of World War II, a collaboration between choreographer Martha Graham and composer Aaron Copland gave birth to an enduring American classic. WRTI’s Meridee Duddleston hears Appalachian Spring in a new way.


Two great American artists came together to produce Appalachian Spring. In the early 1940s, with dancer and choreographer Martha Graham on the west coast, and composer Aaron Copland working in Mexico, the two melded their talents, largely through letters. Graham guided Copland in telling this American story of courage, community and innovation, portrayed through the aspirations of a newly married couple settling in Pennsylvania.  

Graham and Copland's joint project was commissioned by the Library of Congress' Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, and first performed on October 30, 1944 in the 511-seat Coolidge Auditorium. The relatively small size of this acoustically pristine performance space required Copland to accomplish his vision of the music with just 13 instruments. After that first performance, Appalachian Spring was heralded as an immediate success - and earned Copland a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1945; its popularity endures throughout the U.S. and around the world. Fascinating articles, photos, letters, programs and newspaper clippings about Appalachian Spring on the Library of Congress website.

Loras John Schissel, is a Senior Musicologist in the Music Division of the Library of Congress. Hear excerpts of his interview touching on Martha Graham’s preeminence as a choreographer and dancer, the woman behind funding the co-commission of this masterpiece and Aaron Copland’s difficulty during the McCarthy era.

Excerpts of an interview with Edward Latham, Ph.D. Associate Professor at Temple University’s Boyer College of Music and Dance on the musical language of openness and tension expressed by Aaron Copeland in the context of the times.