Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
Billy the Kid (Suite)
Arguably the greatest American composer of the lastcentury and without doubt one of its most unmistakable voice" AaronCopland was also a distinguished pianist, conductor and writer Although perhapsbest known for his three ballets Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942)and Appalachian Spring (1943-44), he produced major works in a varietyof genres including two operas, The Second Hurricane (1936) and TheTender Land (1952-54), film scores, symphonies, concertos, choral andchamber music, as well as a significant contribution to the solo piano repertoire.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, on 14th November 1900,Copland began theory and composition lessons in 1917 with Rubin GoldmarkContinuing his studies with Goldmark unti11921, he then became a student of NadiaBoulanger in Paris and under her guidance produced his first orchestral score,the one-act ballet Grohg (1922-25), inspired by F.W Murnau's film Nosferatu.
Of even greater note, Boulanger asked Copland to write a work for her Americandebut as organist resulting in the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra
(1924), first performed by the New York Symphony Orchestra under Walter Damrosch(who jokingly remarked of its dissonance - 'If a young man at the age of 23 canwrite a symphony like that, in five years he will be ready to commit murder').
The work was also performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under SergeKoussevitzky, who was to become a key supporter of the composer, not onlycommissioning and performing his works but also appointing Copland assistantdirector of the Berkshire Music Center where he taught from 1940 to 1965 The OrganSymphony secured another Boston commission for Copland, the five-movementsuite Music for the Theatre (1925). Both the latter work, thejazz-influenced Piano Concerto (1926), which received a criticalmauling, and the Symphonic Ode (1928-29), which Copland regarded as oneof his most important works, were all given their first performances underKoussevitzky. Copland's next compositions such as the Piano Variations
(1930) and the Short Symphony (1932-33) adopted a more austere, abstractstyle. Then, at the instigation of the Mexican composer Carlos Chivez, he madethe first of several visits to Mexico in 1932, a country which made a deep impressionon him and inspired his first international success, the delightful andimmediately accessible orchestral work El salon Mexico (1933-36).
Throughout the late 1930s and 1940s his reputation steadily grew with thecomposition of the aforementioned ballets, film scores and patriotic works suchas the Lincoln Portrait and Fanfare for the Common Man (bothdating from 1942). With the composition of the Piano Quartet (1950)Copland entered yet another stylistic period, employing his own highly personalapplication of the twelve-note technique which he used in such major works asthe Piano Fantasy (1955-57) and the orchestral works Connotations
(1961-62) and Inscape (1967).
As well as being the first composer to receive a GuggenheimFellowship (1925-27) Copland was also the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in1945 for his ballet Appalachian Spring, generally acknowledged as his mostpopular work, whilst his conducting debut with the New York PhilharmonicOrchestra in 1958 saw the start of an international career that was to lastmore than twenty years (he actually composed little after 1972).
Copland composed his hugely popular one-act ballet Billythe Kid in Paris and Peterborough, New Hampshire, in the summer of 1938.
Written for Lincoln Kirstein's Ballet Caravan, and with choreography by Eugene Loringand decor by Jared French, the work was first perfoffi1ed in an arrangement fortwo pianos (the soloists were Arthur Gold and Walter Hendl) on 6th October 1938in Chicago. The orchestral version was first performed in New York thefollowing year and in 1940 the seven-movement orchestral suite from the balletwas given its first perfoffi1ance by the NBC Symphony Orchestra under WilliamSteinberg, once again in New York The scenario centres upon the chief episodesin the short-lived career of the American outlaw William H. Bonney (1859-1881)The action, framed by depictions of the open prairie, starts in the street of afrontier town: during a drunken brawl guns are drawn and Billy's mother isaccidentally shot and killed In a rage, Billy, then a boy of only twelve, drawsa blade from a cowboy's sheath and stabs his mother's killers - so begins hislife as an outlaw Several scenes from his later life are depicted including anight-time card game, a gun battle between Billy and his former associate PatGarrett, and the celebrations that follow Billy's capture. After his escapefrom prison and a pas de deux with his girlfriend in the desert, bothomitted from the orchestral suite, Billy finally meets his demise.
Copland's Third Symphony (1944-46), his most imposingorchestral work, was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation anddedicated 'to the memory of my dear friend Natalie Koussevitzky'. Unliketraditional symphonic first movements, usually cast in sonata-allegro form, theopening movement, marked Molto moderato, presents three distinct themes inan arch-like form the first stated by strings, the second by oboes and violas,and the third by trombones and horns. The form of the Scherzo, marked Allegromolto, is much more typical of the classical symphonic model, consisting ofthree statements of the principal theme in part one, separated by episodes, acontrasting Trio section, and a veiled recapitulation of the principal theme.
In the composer's programme note for the premiere he described the slowmovement, with the direction Andante quasi allegretto, as being the'freest of all in formal structure. Although it is built up sectionally, thevarious sections are intended to emerge on from the other in continuous flow,somewhat in the manner of a close-knit series of variations'. The finalmovement, Allegro deloberato - Allegro risoluto, the mostsubstantial of the symphony, adheres more strictly to the sonata-allegro model.
The rousing introductory fanfare is based on Fanfare for the Common Man,an initial pianissimo version for flutes and clarinets followed by acomplete statement of the stirring original version for brass and percussion.
The Third Symphony earned Copland the New York Music Critics' CircleAward for the best orchestral work of the 1946-47 concert season.