Did Aaron Copland accidentally invent the American sound in his expansive 1944 ballet Appalachian Spring?

You’d be hard-pressed to name a piece of music more quintessentially “American” than Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Since its Washington premiere in 1944, Copland’s balletic collaboration with choreographer Martha Graham has come to embody the American spirit arguably more than any other work. Music historians frequently laud its critical role in defining the American style and, along with a handful of his other “patriotic” works, it earned the composer an oft-repeated, and rather enviable epithet: “dean of American composers”. At a time of global conflict, its straightforward and light-hearted aesthetic gave people much-needed respite from the bleak reality of war, and reason to hope for a better future.

Yet what is it exactly about this enduringly popular work that is so American? Considering many of his contemporaries were also penning emblematically American works at that time, could Copland’s masterly work have been solely responsible for the development of the American sound? And just why has Appalachian Springendured while so many other “Americanist” works of that time have fallen into obscurity?

Aaron Copland’s background is as far from Appalachian as you could imagine. The...