Copland and modern pioneering

It’s abundantly clear to me that I would have made a terrible pioneer. The notion that my forebears eked out an existence here—especially here!—in eighteen-something-or-other inspires both tremendous awe and sheer terror in me. Had I been the one forced to find and/or kill my food and to rely on my questionable dexterity to create warmth and shelter, I suspect things would have quickly come to an ignoble end.


If I had any desire to remedy this (which I decidedly do not), there is, not surprisingly, an app for that. I hope you will appreciate the century-defying irony in the fact that on your smartphone or tablet, you can download a publication called Modern Pioneer. With passable wi-fi, every month you’ll learn about ancestral practices of homebuilding, vegetable preservation, irrigation techniques, wilderness hunting tactics and more. The app store tells me that, “It’s more than a magazine. It’s the past brought to life.”


For those of you planning to brush up on your 19th century canning techniques, let me suggest a soundtrack to be played on your surround-sound home entertainment system while you labour: Appalachian Spring by the “Dean of American Composers”, Aaron Copland.


Appalachian Spring is one of the great masterpieces of the last century, and it captures maybe better than any other piece of music the ethos of the North American pioneer. Written as a ballet for the iconoclast Martha Graham and her company, Appalachian Spring tells the story of a pioneer celebration around a newly-built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills in the early 1800’s. The bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, both joyful and apprehensive, their new domestic partnership invites.


That this piece became Copland’s most enduringly popular work was no surprise. Copland recognized that so-called “classical” music of the 20th century was becoming increasingly disconnected from the audiences for whom it was intended. With Appalachian Spring, along with works like Billy the Kid and Rodeo, he made a conscious shift to a simpler, more direct musical vocabulary. Copland was still able to write a highly sophisticated score bubbling over with astounding rhythmic intensity and inventiveness while placing a renewed emphasis on unabashed tunefulness. This demonstrates why he deserves a place among the great composers of the last century.


It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how a composer can depict an era or a physical environment. Appalachian Spring has no lyrics and, aside from the descriptive title, there’s nothing in the score that indicates specific places or actions. And yet when you listen to this music, with its folksy charm and touching hints of nostalgia, your imagination really does conjure up images—albeit somewhat idealized ones—of horse-drawn wagons and barn dances on the windswept plains. Somehow Copland manages to transport us to this place in the distant past that none of us knows but to which so many of us seem to connect.


As winter inevitably closes in on us once again, I will think on those hardy pioneers, modern and otherwise, with the greatest respect. I will tip my hat, as I turn on my Netflix, turn up my decorative gas fireplace and order takeout.