The Kennedy Center

Billy the Kid Suite

About the Work

Aaron Copland Composer: Aaron Copland
© Thomas May

Dance was a significant force on Aaron Copland (1900-1990) as a budding composer. After high school he earned money playing in dance bands - a practical experience that, writes biographer Howard Pollack, seeded important friendships and "brought him in further touch with the kind of popular music that he would eventually absorb" into his own musical style. Pollack also notes that Copland's "recollections of growing up Jewish typically involved music, especially the dance music at traditional Jewish weddings and the singing of Hebrew chant, both of which impressed him."

The simplicity and directness of Copland's best-loved works from the 1930s and 1940s - a period that saw the creation of his iconic trio of ballet scores: Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring - represent a "populist" style at which the composer arrived only after an adventurous period of experimenting with modernism and the then-fashionable "symphonic jazz." But the lingering Great Depression intensified Copland's urge, shared with 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, including dance. 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, which premiered in 1938, stands as a major breakthrough that paved the way toward the later ballets.

The idea for Billy the Kid was pitched by the ambitious young impresario Lincoln Kirstein (1907-1996) 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 the Stravinsky with whom he would partner to establish a thriving indigenous ballet that held its own in comparison to the standard Franco-Russian traditions of the time.

Yet Copland was initially reluctant to take on the project, expressing uncertainty, as a Brooklyn-bred artist, about his "capabilities as a ‘cowboy composer.'" Still, the musical possibilities suggested by Billy the Kid's scenario soon gripped his imagination, and Copland began working out the sound world for the ballet's "frontier town" while summering in the distant milieu of Paris.

Billy the Kid was designed as a one-act ballet with choreography by Eugene Loring. Based on a semi-fictional treatment of the notorious outlaw Henry McCarty (1859?-1881) - also known as William H. Bonney - the ballet presents Billy 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 (and, importantly, its associated sense of loneliness), all set amid the context of westward migration.

"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 jump cuts 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, according to Copland, is intended "to convey the idea of a new dawn breaking."

Copland recalled 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 he produced music that has held its own as a beloved concert staple.