Aaron Copland: An American Classic
May 21, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
The man some consider the quintessential “American” composer, Aaron Copland, was born in Brooklyn in 1900, the son of Lithuanian Jews. His mother Sarah, a pianist and singer, took charge of Copland’s early musical training, and she gave all of her five children the opportunity to take music lessons. Copland was fortunate to have good teachers, but he also worked on his own, studying works from the Western classical music canon. With encouragement from his teachers and friends, Copland traveled to Paris to study composition. He eventually found his voice with the help of famed educator Nadia Boulanger, who was the subject of last week’s blog. Boulanger supported Copland’s development of a style that reflected his background, a uniquely American sound. Copland, though, could be said to have lived on the fringes politically, an extra-musical life that was perhaps not so evocative of middle-American values: he was a first-generation American whose political views leaned to the far left, but that in itself is a testament to the diversity of the American experience. Copland’s American sound is nowhere more apparent in than in his ballets Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1944) for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. I’d like to talk about each of these American classics in turn.
Billy the Kid was commissioned by New York impresario, Lincoln Kirstein and choreographed by Eugene Loring for the Ballet Caravan Company. The ballet premiered in 1938 in Chicago. Two pianists, Arthur Gold and Walter Hendl, played a two-piano reduction of the score. At the New York premiere in 1939, a fully orchestrated version was conducted by Fritz Kitzinger. The story of Billy the Kid concerns the life and exploits of William H. Bonney. The ballet opens with a song called “The Open Prairie,” that depicts the westward movement of the pioneers. The wide-spaced harmonies—a Copland signature—seem to suggest the wide open spaces of the frontier. The second section is called “Street in a Frontier Town,” and in it Copland quotes some cowboy tunes like “Goodbye Old Paint” and “Git Along Little Dogies.” The composer fully integrates these themes into his musical fabric. In the action of the ballet, young William’s mother is killed by an outlaw. William avenges his mother by killing her murderer, but now he is an outlaw too. In the next section, ten years have passed and Billy is still on the lam. He and his outlaw buddies play a card game, and Copland sets the tune “Oh Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” as part of the scene. Pat Garrett leads the posse that interrupts the card game and captures Billy the Kid. The gun battle on stage is represented with percussion. The townspeople celebrate Billy’s arrest with a jaunty melody, which becomes quite dissonant at certain points. The prisoner escapes, but is ultimately shot by Pat Garrett. The ending of the ballet is much like the beginning, with the wide-spaced chords and the open prairie.
Rodeo was choreographed by Agnes de Mille for Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and premiered in 1942. Copland wasn’t sure about writing another western-themed ballet, but Agnes de Mille convinced him and even danced the part of the Cowgirl—the lead—at the premiere. The audience was so taken with her performance, she reportedly received twenty-two curtain calls. And afterwards, Rodgers and Hammerstein, who were in the audience, asked de Mille to choreograph a new musical they were working on called Oklahoma!
Rodeo consists of a series of connected vignettes about a Cowgirl who wants to find love. There are five sections, “Buckaroo Holiday,” “Ranch House Party,” “Corral Nocturne,” “Saturday Night Waltz,” and “Hoe-Down.” Agnes de Mille drew upon square dancing for some of the choreography, but also devised movements based on cowboy gestures and activities like roping and riding. Copland later created a suite from four of the five musical sections. For the suite, he cut “Ranch House Party,” and made some subtle changes to “Saturday Night Waltz” and “Hoe-Down.” As with Billy the Kid, Copland borrowed folk and cowboy tunes, and part of that was de Mille’s influence on the score. The Cowgirl, who has her own musical theme, encounters the Head Wrangler, who only has eyes for the Rancher’s Daughter. The Cowgirl is something of a tomboy and her movements are more similar to those of the other cowboys, but she seems attracted to the Head Wrangler. “Corral Nocturne” portrays the Cowgirl’s feelings of lovesickness. In “Ranch House Party” there is a piano theme representing the party, but there is also lonely music to portray the music of the evening. The Head Wrangler chooses the Rancher’s Daughter, and the Cowgirl ends up by herself. In the subsequent section, the men and women at the party pair up, and the Cowgirl pairs up with the Champion Roper rather than the Wrangler. This pairing is sealed by the end of “Hoe-Down.” The Cowgirl makes something of a transformation in this ballet, as she shows off her tomboy ways at the beginning, but wears a fancy dress at the end. Agnes de Mille said of the character, “She acts like a boy, not to be a boy, but to be liked by the boys.”
Appalachian Spring was commissioned by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation and written for Martha Graham’s dance troupe. It dramatizes a simple scenario: a newly married farm couple celebrates their life together. They raise a farmhouse and define their roles as members of the community. Martha Graham danced the role of the Bride at the premiere. Copland created a suite for orchestra from the original music, entitled Appalachian Spring Suite, and this version became very popular. There are eight sections in the suite, the first and last share an austere and dignified mood. The hymn-like opening and closing music has a spare texture and outlines harmonies that suggest a wide-open landscape, and the gradual lightening of the sky. The music of the intervening sections is sometimes quiet and pensive, but always straightforward and direct. The purity of the new marriage is reflected in the suite’s most famous section, the theme and variations on the Shaker tune, “Simple Gifts.” The tune is first played on the clarinet, and is then arranged for the different sections of the orchestra. The final variation involves the entire ensemble in a version that seems grand and noble in its simplicity.
Copland, who grew up in Brooklyn, somehow came to write music not of the city, but of the prairie, the ranchers, and the farmers. There is a purity to this music, an innocence that marks these three ballets as parts of the same whole. They were written in quick succession, and although they are all unique, there is a spirit that pervades them all. It is interesting to look at them in chronological order, with the historical ballet first. It is darker than the others, and filled with more action. Rodeo is a love story with a woman at the center. And finally, Appalachian Spring celebrates family and community. Copland was, in 1945, at the midpoint of his life. He had many years left to go, many more avenues of composition to travel, but these works display some of his most inspired creations, and ones that live on, both on the stage and in concert halls.