When I come to the end of my life and think back on all the soul-stirring music I’ve heard over the course of many years, I believe my mind and memory will cause me to hear, over and over again, Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.”
I first heard the piece when I was in high school and it mesmerized me nearly from the first note. If the piece came on the car radio I’d drive around aimlessly until the last bars faded. I played my LP recording of it until the vinyl grooves curled off. And one wonderful summer I heard Copland himself conduct “Appalachian Spring” at the Hollywood Bowl. He was nearing the end of his own life, but the piece animated him on the podium as if he were a young man.
It is such a subtly stirring piece of music—lyrical and exuberant by turns, filled with embracing phrases and cadences, evocative of great beauty, strong and enduring love, and home. And, dare I say, the promise of redemption.
At its core is Copland’s setting of the old Shaker song “Simple Gifts,” a quiet and heartfelt declaration of bedrock faith. Copland’s arrangement of the song was performed Wednesday in Washington, D.C. during the Mass of canonization for Blessed Junipero Serra.
The words set to music are few, pointed and, yes, simple:
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight
Till by turning, turning we come ‘round right.
In those few homely words, framed by the lovely music, we can hear—and feel—the vision of Pope Francis, experiencing viscerally his hope for a more just world based on our mutual interdependence and our search for the right, the beautiful and the holy.
That this thoroughly American expression of faith should have found its way into the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Wednesday was a gift in itself.
Note: There are numerous recordings of “Appalachian Spring” by various orchestras and conductors. However, one of the most haunting and memorable takes on “Simple Gifts” was recorded as a duet between cellist Yo-Yo Ma and singer Alison Krauss. It can be heard online at www.youtube.com/watch?v=baNueuDCue0.