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Billy the Kid-Suite

About the Work

Aaron Copland
Quick Look Composer: Aaron Copland
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: John Adams, conductor/Eric Owens, bass-baritone May 13 - 15, 2010
© Thomas May
Suite from Billy the Kid
AARON COPLAND  

"Copland's orchestral works are like pieces of Shaker furniture, simple to the point of being humble, but sturdy and effective and free of excess emotional baggage." So writes John Adams in Hallelujah Junction, his recent, highly engaging memoir (a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary music). Aaron Copland (1900-1990) had been a significant figure for Adams during his New England boyhood. Adams keenly recalls seeing Copland conduct Appalachian Spring at a Tanglewood concert half a century ago, "his thin Ichabod Crane body jerking awkwardly with the music."

The simplicity and directness of Copland's best-loved works from the 1930s and 1940s—including the iconic trio of ballet scores for Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring—can give the illusion that these scores represent almost spontaneous acts of expression. In fact, Copland carefully cultivated this so-called "populist" style only after an adventurous period of experimenting with his own brand of modernism (for example, the Symphonic Ode), as well as with "symphonic jazz" (as in the marvelous Piano Concerto). But as the Great Depression lingered, it intensified the desire that Copland felt, like many of his artistic peers, to communicate with a broader audience.

Another pragmatic basis for the development of Copland's forthright "American sound" can be found in the contexts for which he was writing. It was largely in tandem with collaborative projects involving specifically American subject matter, in the genres of ballet, theater, and film, that Copland evolved this sound. Billy the Kid marked a significant breakthrough, paving the way for the later ballets. Within a year of its premiere in 1938, he had made his entrée into writing film scores as well. The composer himself wrote that he approached the prospect of this "folk-ballet" with "a firm resolve to write simply," believing that as part of a stage work, "music should play a modest role, helping when help is needed, but never injecting itself as if it were the main business of the evening."

Yet in the process, Copland produced music that has indeed held its own as a beloved concert staple. The familiar orchestral Suite extracts some two-thirds of the original ballet score. The ambitious young impresario Lincoln Kirstein (1907-1996) had proposed the idea of Billy the Kid for his newly formed Ballet Caravan, a touring company that was a forerunner of the New York City Ballet. Playing a sort of American Sergei Diaghilev, Kirstein fixed on Copland as his Stravinsky, intent on establishing an indigenous ballet distinct from Franco-Russian traditions.

Billy the Kid was designed as a one-act ballet based on a semi-fictional treatment of the notorious outlaw, with choreography by Eugene Loring. Born Henry McCarty (1859?-1881)—a.k.a. William H. Bonney—Billy appears as a quasi-mythical figure, a romanticized emblem of the passions and dangers of the Wild West. Copland frames the story with widely spaced harmonies that vividly conjure a sense of the open prairie (along with its loneliness) and the vast scale of migration westward.

"Street in a Frontier Town," the most extensive section of the Suite, where we first encounter Billy as a boy of twelve, cleverly recomposes bits of cowboy tunes in a way that adds much more than "flavor." Copland essentially devises his own version of the montage technique Stravinsky had used for the crowd scenes in Petrushka to suggest the lively scene of the Southwest town. For example, he adds unexpected harmonic colorings and clashes of key, while metrical asymmetries and cross-rhythms build excitement until the scene erupts in chaos. During a drunken brawl, Billy witnesses his mother accidentally being shot in the crowd and instantly stabs those responsible. This sets the pattern for Billy's criminal career as an adult. The ballet then jumps to representative episodes. "Card Game at Night" establishes a lonely, reflective mood "under the stars." In dramatic contrast, violence erupts once more in the percussion-heavy "Running Gun Battle" as Billy is ambushed by his former friend, Sheriff Pat Garrett. In a local saloon, complete with out-of-tune piano, a tipsy crowd celebrates the outlaw's capture. The Suite omits the ballet's episode of Billy escaping from jail into the desert, where he romances his sweetheart, but cuts to the scene of Billy's death after he has been caught for the last time. A reorchestrated version of the opening prairie music—looking ahead to the bold rhetoric of the Fanfare for the Common Man—is meant, observes Copland, "to convey the idea of a new dawn breaking."