Thursday, March 21, 2013

Ballet for Martha

Ballet For Martha

The Appalachian Trail traverses over two thousand miles of the eastern United States, criss-crossing quiescent mountains who hold their secrets close, revealing little of their history save a melancholic beauty that settles on the mind like the mist that drapes their pines.  The threshold of the trail is not far from us; we stop there nearly every Autumn on our annual foray to the mountains.  Much like Dorothy with one ruby-slippered foot poised above a yellow road, Edward and I have stood staring down this mysterious leafy tunnel as far as our eyes can travel, till all its scarlet gold coalesces in the distance to a fiery, beckoning gem.  Occasionally hikers pass us, all freshly pressed and smelling of soap.  I can only imagine the adventures they will encounter before, and if, they manage to arrive atop Maine’s Mount Katahdin at the end of the trail.

Being somewhat familiar with this part of the country that bears the name Appalachia, it is difficult for me to conjure up a piece of music that more accurately illustrates a landscape than Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.  I have often imagined Copland wandering this very same trail in the months of March or April when all around him drifts the golden green of spring.  Did he transcribe the bird song?  Did he hear the mountains sing in chorus?  He must have done, for to hear this work is to see, and experience, the countryside for which it is named.
Or so I thought.

Truth is, Copland wrote this piece of music never knowing the title at all.  He wasn’t thinking of Appalachia, he was merely composing a ballet for his friend, Martha Graham.  Indeed, his title for the work was Ballet for Martha - he only found out the name of the ballet the night before its opening.  It was to his great amusement that for years and years afterwards, he continued to be praised for so accurately capturing the spirit of a land he never gave thought to while composing his Appalachian Spring.  Call it serendipity, call it the Unseen Hand.  Call it the shenanigans of fate.  It is difficult to ignore the invisible assemblage that often orchestrates our days.  How little we see.  How little we know.

Just last week, a favourite neighbour came over for a visit and long chat.  Over tea and brownies, we discussed a cornucopia of subjects.  Being fifteen, her views and opinions were of delightful interest to me and I was tickled to see how closely entwined our conclusions were.  She shared with me how so often, when circumstances change or delay her plans, she wonders if perhaps there is a reason.  Was she spared an accident by being a few seconds late?  Did she happen upon a new friend by a slight altering of her schedule?  I loved it that she considers ideas such as these for it means she is living life with open eyes; open eyes that know, without seeing, that there is a benevolence surrounding us, orchestrating our lives for the good.  

If you’ve never been to Appalachia in springtime, 
close your eyes when you listen to this.
You’ll see it plain as day.


  1. Intriguing account of the composer and the ballet and how well he captured the Appalachian mountains, without them being his focus at the time he wrote the music.
    Your young friend is wise.
    BTW have you read the very funny A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson about his Appalachian Trail hike?

  2. A portion of the Trail runs through Burkes Garden, opposite end of my county. It's lovely as is our Cove throughout the seasons but I'm especially welcome of Spring this year. Seems Winter has been long, cold and drawn out.
    Yo-Yo Ma has a wonderful CD called Appalachian Spring.

  3. Pamela,

    The Appalachian Mts are indeed a beautiful sight, having just traveled through them myself last week I can tell you they are as beautiful in the Winter as in the Spring.

    As for the comments above, Bill Bryson's book is excellent, as is Yo Yo Ma's CD Appalachian Spring.

    Have a wonderful week, Elizabeth

  4. Ah, the "benevolence surrounding us, orchestrating our lives for the good." Thanks for the gentle reminder. It is something I believe in, though I have to remind myself to allay those pesky anxieties. As for the Appalachian mountains in spring, it is wonderful to watch it creep slowly upward. We live near the top, so can watch its procession any time we drive down the road. The shy ephemeral spring wildflowers that grace our woods with their delicate rare beauty are an annual joy. Nothing like coming across a pink lady's slipper in a mossy laurel grove. Then the more brazen flame azaleas compete with the blushing pink mountain laurel for the showiest display. It won't be long now before the bloodroot, the first harbinger of spring starts to show itself.

  5. The mountains sound incredibly beautiful - truly worthy of a great music score. But sometimes I wonder how much meaning we layer onto artworks (music included) once we start to analyse it. I remember an author visited my daughter's school a few years ago, so the students could ask in depth questions as they were studying it for year 12 (our final school year) English. The author laughed and said "wow, I didn't think so deeply about it when I wrote it as you guys have - but it's great you can find all these layers of meaning which weren't intentionally put in." And so, do we apply meanings because they suit us? Fabulous discussion! x

  6. Pamela,
    I love Aaron Copeland...his music would work beautifully for so many of America's wonderful sites. I liked Bill Bryson's book, Appalachian Trail, it's interesting and very funny.
    Have a beautiful week, this first half-week of spring.

  7. Your young neighbor coming to the same entwined conclusions stands out in this informative post..and Bryson's book is a 'good read'

  8. What a beautiful way to start my day. I may now be a little late but I can confidentely say. "I was lost in Appalachia" xo

  9. Pamela - This is one of my all time favourites and I am astonished to find out that Copeland did not name it after the Apalachian trail. I close my eyes and can see the greenery.

  10. I'm listening to your link on YouTube while I do my work. A consummately lovely work...I knew the story, but your re-telling gives me a better context for the Mtns themselves. I'm from the Prairie - beautiful in its own.

  11. When I came to United States, feeling insecure and homesick, Copeland's music was one of the first new things I discovered and have loved ever since.
    I am also close to the Appalachian Trail and have been walking parts of it over the last twenty years.
    His music certainly fits the mountains.
    He is an American composer through and through!
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  12. Pameala...I want to see these hikers that are freshly pressed and smelling of soap..we do not get that kind of hiker in Vietnam!

    You know, I do not know much about the Appalachian Trail...and now you have me thinking. My daughter was talking about a summer job looking after part of the trail and was very exicited by the thhougt of it. Again, I am hearing about the Appalachian trail by way of music. I am intrigued...
    Best wishes Pamela and thank you for sharing this lovely piece... xx

  13. As always you tell a great story. I never knew this. I know the music. Speaking of Mt katihdin,
    we have had a foot of snow yesterday and today. I am dreaming of Spring. Can't dance Like Martha, but I will do a happy dance come Spring.

  14. P.S. Just wanted to add that I also loved Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods. I also recommend Notes from a Small Island about his walking tour of England before he moved back to the States. I listened to this as an audio book and thoroughly enjoyed it - perfect for an Anglophile. He pokes fun at some quintessentially English things while obviously relishing it all. You'd love it, Pamela.

  15. I've always loved Copland's music - so southern and peaceful, and brings the beauty of the Appalachian mountains closer to home here in North Carolina.

    Happy Spring Pamela.
    Fondly, Mary

  16. What a lovely piece of music, even if Copeland wasn't thinking of the AT when he wrote it. My son's dream is to hike the whole AT; he's done half of Maine and parts in other New England states. The "through hikers" we encounter in Maine, at the end of the AT, smell less fresh than soap!

    You are the perfect neighbor for that 15-year-old girl.

  17. I have always loved that piece of music and was simply amazed to learn the background of why he wrote it. It does indeed conjure up the Appalachians when I hear it. That's almost magic, isn't it. It doesn't work that way for authors, though, does it? I mean I don't think I could pull it off with a novel about, say, the Cayman Islands, never having been there, unless I did a lot of research. (But it doesn't sound like Copeland did any research. So it's magic.)

  18. Bill Bryson was my 1st thought.
    "a walk in the woods" is excellent, as are all his travel books...

  19. I am going to come back when I have a spare half hour to listen to Appalachian Spring, - I am fond of Copeland's compositions. Thank you for p;osting this, Pamela.

    BTW, my DIL borrowed your book and phoned to tell me how much she was enjoying it. Perhaps I will have to buy another for a birthday or Christmas gift.....

  20. I just adore this piece of music, and never knew the tale attached to it, thank you! How little we know and see, indeed!

    I do believe this young neighbour of yours has it right and I sincerely hope she long continues to live life with open eyes. What a blessing so young. xx

  21. It's been so long since I've enjoyed this piece! It was the perfect accompaniment to my morning stretching. I am currently on "spring break" from school, painted my toenails a "springtime pink" this morning, and listened to Appalachian Spring. All things "spring"...except the weather! Our lovely spring crocus and first bunch of snowdrops have gone back to bed under a fresh blanket of snow. That would be "spring" in Colorado! But it's near--the "wicka-wicka" courtship song of the flicker tells me so!


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