The music of Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is woven into the fabric of our everyday lives. His Fanfare for the Common Man is almost as ubiquitous on Independence Day 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. 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.
Copland's ballet Rodeo is a celebration of the American West. 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.
The ballet 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. In the "Saturday Night Waltz," 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. "Hoedown" 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.
-- Composer and writer Dave Kopplin is Assistant Professor of Music at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.