Orchestration: 3 flutes (2nd and 3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, orchestra bells, slapstick, snare drum, triangle, wood block, xylophone), harp, piano, celesta, and strings. First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 22, 1943 (excerpts), Alexander Smallens conducting.
“The whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking two questions: ‘Is there a meaning to music?’ My answer to that would be ‘Yes.’ And ‘Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?’ My answer to that would be ‘No.’”
– Aaron Copland, from What to Listen for in Music, 1939
The music of Aaron Copland is woven into the fabric of our everyday lives. The composer, who would have been 100 this year, is not just influencing programming in the concert halls. His Fanfare for the Common Man is almost as ubiquitous on Independence Day music as the national anthem. His orchestration and quotation of the Shaker song “Simple Gifts” in his ballet Appalachian Spring is no less prevalent, also finding its way into the popular media. Copland is seemingly everywhere.
The music from Rodeo is also popular, most recently associated with television commercials for beef, as the mellifluous and authoritative voice of Robert Mitchum proclaimed to us “it’s what’s for dinner” and then a new campaign tells us “it’s what you want,” all with the “Hoedown” from Rodeo in the background.
Aaron Copland’s America is rural, somehow softer and more manageable to our psyche than Bernstein’s West Side Story (even though Copland the composer was just as much a product of the city as Bernstein). Copland’s ballet Rodeo is a celebration of the American West and reflects an important image we have of ourselves.
The commission for Rodeo came, surprisingly enough, from the classically-oriented Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, with the music by Copland and the choreography and scenario by Agnes de Mille. The ballet was precedent setting – there were said to be 22 curtain calls at its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House on October 16, 1942 – and the success of this ballet insured that dance would thrive as an integral part of American musical theater. In 1945, Copland made a symphonic arrangement from the ballet, the Four Dance Episodes we hear on this program.
The genesis of the scenario is told by Agnes de Mille in her memoir Dance to the Piper. According to de Mille, the idea of doing a ballet for the Ballet Russe, a company with a decidedly 19th-century bent, did not immediately inspire Copland in their first meeting. Nor did Copland inspire her; instead, he laughed out loud at some of her ideas for a scenario. De Mille invited him to “go straight to Hell” – an inauspicious beginning, to say the least. Something in their bantering and frank exchange seemed to work, however, because the very next day he called back to see if she would meet him for tea that afternoon. Ultimately, their collaboration was momentous in American dance history.
The ballet’s scenario takes place at Burnt Ranch, where a Cowgirl finds herself competing with visiting city girls for the attention of the local cowboys, especially the Head Wrangler. Buckaroo Holiday bursts forth like a herd of wild horses. It quickly shifts to a lilting melody which announces the Cowgirl making her bid for the Head Wrangler, but she makes a fool of herself by trying to ride a bucking bronco and getting thrown. The American folk song “If He’d Be a Buckaroo by His Trade” (a trombone solo) is quoted by Copland in this dance. The jaunty Holiday ends with as much vim and vigor as it began.
Corral Nocturne is moody, yearning, and melancholy. The Cowgirl’s sadness is portrayed by Copland as he quotes the ballad “Sis Joe.” In this movement, the Western woman of Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose comes to this writer’s mind – the indispensable Western heroine who prevails against the harshest of circumstances, in spite of the violence and narcissism of the men folk.
The moodiness continues in the Saturday Night Waltz, as Copland quotes the song “Old Paint” and paints a picture of the Cowgirl’s isolation, but also gives us hope that her plight is only temporary.
Hoe-Down begins with dynamism and verve, signaling the Cowgirl’s rebirth: she has suddenly put aside her cowpoke duds and reappeared as the prettiest girl in the room. Copland borrows two square dance tunes – “Bonyparte” and “McLeod’s Reel” – to aid in this romp, a fanciful and uplifting take on the American square dance. We have a typical, stand-up-and-cheer Hollywood Western ending, too, as the girl gets the right guy for her, not the aloof and snooty Head Wrangler at all, but Another Cowboy who has shown her respect, kindness, and honor.
Of course, it is all a bit ironic, really, that two New Yorkers whose Jewish families immigrated from Eastern Europe – Bernstein and Copland – captured the soul of America, from sea to shining sea.
But it’s a classic story.
Long live the American way.
Composer Dave Kopplin, who holds a Ph.D. from UCLA, is a writer and program editor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl.