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The symbolism of Aaron Copland (1900-1990) having been born in the first year of the 20th century is perfectly clear in light of the long love affair the Brooklyn-born composer had with the American public: A new era of pride in native artists seemed to have been born along with the new century. It must be said, however, that America's acceptance of Copland was not all that inevitable. In fact, had he not become Americanized, so to speak, following his training in Paris with the famous composer-maker Nadia Boulanger, he would probably be regarded still as just another one of those fellows who wrote difficult music.
Copland's Americanization came about with his determination to communicate to a large rather than a limited, esoteric audience, to see if "I couldn't say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms." The results of his effort were nothing short of amazing, and in almost no time at all Copland had developed a style that, in its incorporation of various folk materials, was as American as plains and mountains and prairies, cowboys and mountain folk, yet, in its informed skill, was compositionally sophisticated and artistically tasteful. In short, a minor miracle. That much of the miracle was ballet-oriented, beginning with Billy the Kid in 1938, and going on to Rodeo in 1942 and Appalachian Spring in 1943, was in keeping with the 20th century's dance music preoccupation, which started with Stravinsky's triumvirate of balletic masterpieces, The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913).
Billy the Kid was written for the Ballet Caravan at the suggestion of its director, Lincoln Kirstein, who authored the book. The ballet, with choreography by Eugene Loring, was first performed in Chicago, in October 1938. The score is prefaced by the following remarks:
"The action begins and closes on the open prairie. Billy is seen for the first time as a boy of twelve with his mother. A brawl turns ugly, guns are drawn, and in some unaccountable way Billy's mother is killed. Without an instant's hesitation, in cold fury, Billy draws a knife from a cowhand's sheath and stabs his mother's slayers. His short but famous career has begun. In swift succession we see episodes in Billy's later life. At night, under the stars, in a quiet card game with his outlaw friends. Hunted by a posse led by his former friend, Pat Garrett, Billy is pursued. A running battle ensues. Billy is captured. A drunken celebration takes place. Billy in prison is, of course, followed by one of Billy's legendary escapes. Tired and worn in the desert, Billy rests with his girl. Starting from a deep sleep, he senses movement in the shadows. The posse has finally caught up with him."
There is something uncanny about Copland's evocation of the old American scene, and also very puzzling: Is his depiction of the past really authentic, albeit updated, or is it that his singular musical vocabulary and unique flair have conjured a counterfeit so striking that we take it to be the genuine article? I suspect Copland has invented an old-American musical consciousness, but no matter - it is a magnificent invention, for which, in Billy, he quotes such authentic cowboy songs as "The Dying Cowboy," "Git Along, Little Dogies," "The Old Chisholm Trail," and "Old Paint." These tunes, as well as the purely original music, come out of Copland's Americana cuisinart thoroughly mixed with jaunty, irregular rhythms; spicy dissonances; simple, triadic harmonies; intimate and/or grand orchestral textures; and tons of spirit. A heady mix indeed.
- Orrin Howard served the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association as Director of Publications and Archives for more than 20 years. He continues to contribute to the program book.