Copland’s score for this 1944 Martha Graham ballet is beloved for its distinct Americanism—from the tender opening notes that yearn for the uncharted frontier, to the Shaker “Simple Gifts” tune that seems to affirm freedom itself. Originally calling for only 13 instruments, Copland later rescored the piece for full orchestra in a version that is now the most often performed. Surprisingly, Copland decided on the title after he completed the score, and the “Spring” in “Appalachian Spring” is more likely a water source than a season. Nevertheless, Copland’s music embodies the beauty and renewal that make spring such a welcome relief from the icy grip of winter.
This tone-poem, a brief but captivating journey through a Finnish spring landscape, is one of Sibelius’s lesser-known works. After he composed it in 1894, Sibelius subtitled this piece “The Sadness of Spring”. It’s by no means a tragedy (in fact, the brass-heavy ending is some of Sibelius’s most optimistic music), but there is certainly something wistful about the piece’s lyrical 16-measure theme.
The audience at the premiere didn’t much enjoy it, but Stravinsky’s groundbreaking ballet is now often hailed as one of the most influential compositions in the repertoire. Here, Stravinsky uses primal melodies and rhythms to portray a pagan sacrifice. Thanks to Stravinsky’s vast orchestral palette, the Rite has some of the most organic, earthy-sounding music ever written. He even emulates the sounds of musically untrained villagers by writing melodies in bizarre ranges for each instrument–most notably in the high bassoon solo that opens the piece. The piece concludes with a groove (albeit an unsettling, asymmetrical one) with a frenetic vitality that puts listeners on the edge of their seats.
The composer himself perhaps describes his first symphony best in a letter to conductor Wilhelm Taubert:
I should like the very first trumpet entry to sound as if it came from on high, like a summons to awakening… I should like the music to suggest the world’s turning green, perhaps with a butterfly hovering in the air… and to show how everything to do with spring is coming to life!
While his orchestration is sometimes berated by critics, no one denies that Schumann’s “Spring” Symphony is a passionate and joyous tribute to the season.
Ravel begins this suite from his 1912 ballet with the musical image of a spring morning. As birds excitedly chirp, portrayed by the orchestra’s flute section, the morning sun rises with a crescendo that builds for nearly five minutes until it eventually overwhelms the listener with its searing light. The beginning section has some of the typical haziness of impressionism (a term often applied to Ravel, and to fellow Frenchman Claude Debussy,) but the “Danse generale” at the end of the suite reveals Ravel’s knack for brilliant clarity.