Classical Tyro

A Beginner's Guide to Great Music

Aaron Copland and Billy the Kid


Aaron Copland finished composing his ballet suite about Billy the Kid in 1938. The music portrayed the Kid in a sympathetic light, and I suspect that had Copland composed it a dozen years earlier, he would have used a different musical style and presented an entirely different version of the Kid's story. 

I say this, in part, because Copland had reinvented himself as composer during the decade after he left Paris and returned to America in 1924. After he finished his studies at the Fontainebleau School of Music, he came home determined to create music that was “as recognizably American as Mussorgsky and Stravinsky were Russian.” He then embraced modernist dissonance and tone clusters, composing avant-garde music that seemed intentionally designed to provoke audiences. His music may have sounded “American,” but it was music that would never find a wide — or let’s say, “democratic” — audience.

Photo of Aaron Copland, 1970
Not until 1936, when he composed El Salon Mexico, did Copland begin to develop the “populist” style for which he is so well known, a style that often incorporates the simplicity of folk songs.

The change in Copland’s compositional style came partially from the social and political changes stemming from the Great Depression, as well as the rise of fascism in Europe. He wanted to expand his audience and create music that was accessible and inspirational. He wanted to give Americans a sense of ownership and pride in their nation’s heritage. He wanted to help people feel good about being American.

Copland's change in philosophy should lead to an obvious question: If he was so determined to celebrate what was good about America, why did he choose to compose music about an outlaw like Billy the Kid?

To answer that question we must begin by understanding that music and art are a product of the time in which they are produced. Copland's version of Billy the Kid, in many ways, was nothing more than a product of its time.

Photo of Billy the Kid
When Billy the Kid was shot dead by Pat Garrett in 1881 (over fifty years before Copland's ballet), he was portrayed by the media as a black-hearted villain and cold-hearted killer. The Kid represented anarchy and lawlessness and throughout the late 1800s became a symbol for everything wrong with the American West. After he was killed, one newspaper even referred to him as the “devil’s meat." By the early 1900s, the Kid began to disappear from American media and history books, having become a character from the past who Americans wanted to ignore and forget. 

Then, in 1926, a Chicago journalist named Walter Noble Burns published
The Saga of Billy the Kid. Burns had visited New Mexico and heard firsthand accounts of the Kid that changed his view of the boy outlaw. Burns interviewed people who had known the Kid and used those interviews to write a book that was eventually listed as a main selection of the Book of the Month Club. In short, Burns had written a bestseller that resurrected and redefined the Kid in popular culture.

In
The Saga of Billy the Kid, Burns portrayed the Kid as a young boy fighting against a powerful and corrupt political machine. According to Burns, the Kid was a noble and charming champion of the oppressed. The Kid may have been a violent young man, but his actions were justified, and he personified a type of individualism that was disappearing in America. All told, Burns created a hero for an America that felt betrayed by the financial corruption of the 1920s and economic depression of the 1930s.

During the 1930s, the Kid was at the height of his popularity as a hero in popular culture. In 1930, MGM made a movie titled
Billy the Kid that showed the young outlaw fighting for the powerless and downtrodden, a heroic character at war with villainous bankers and big landowners. Preview audiences for the film reacted so negatively to the Kid’s death at the end of the film that MGM was forced to create a new ending, showing Pat Garrett shooting at the Kid and intentionally missing. The Kid then fled on horseback across the border into Mexico.

As for Aaron Copland’s
Billy the Kid, the music did nothing more than conform to the popular image of Billy the Kid that was widespread during the 1930s. Had Copland composed Billy the Kid in 1925 it might have been a dissonant portrayal of a villainous desperado. The version composed in 1938, however, provided a folksy depiction of a young boy who was muy simpático.

Today, Copland’s
Billy the Kid can be heard as a timeless piece of music, a composition that represents much more than a milestone in Copland’s evolving compositional style. It is also much more than an artifact of the 1930s. Despite the changes that are sure to come in how music is composed or how Billy the Kid is portrayed in popular culture, Copland’s Billy the Kid will remain an emotional and romantic portrait of an American icon.


Kevin Noe conducting the Michigan State University Symphony Orchestra

0:04 Part 1
— The story begins with Sheriff Pat Garrett leading pioneers westward across the open prairie.

3:38 Part 2 — The story shifts to Silver City, NM, a small frontier town where the young wide-eyed and innocent Billy lives with his mother. Toward the end of this section Billy’s mother is killed by a stray bullet during a gunfight (9:44). Billy then kills the man responsible for his mother’s death and goes on the run, living the life of an outlaw.

10:37 Part 3 — The scene shifts to several years in the future. Billy is an outlaw living in the desert, playing cards with his companions at night. The solo trumpet (12:41) portrays the Kid as a lonely character.

14:09 Part 4 — Billy finds himself in a gunfight with a posse charged with arresting him. Billy is captured and taken to jail.

16:11 Part 5 — People celebrate the capture of Billy the Kid. During the celebration, the Kid kills two guards (18:30) and escapes from jail.

18:45 Part 6 — Billy, alone on the prairie, is hunted by Pat Garrett and shot dead.

20:28 Part 7 — The opening theme returns with Sheriff Pat Garrett leading pioneers westward across the open prairie.

Support this blog by using the links below to purchase books and recordings from Amazon. The book Catherine's Son is a novel written by the author of this blog and tells the story of Billy the Kid during the years he lived in Silver City, NM.




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The American Sound in Classical Music


When listening to Chopin’s
Polonaise in A Major we are told the music represents the sound of Poland. We are also told that Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 provides a musical slice of Hungarian culture, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture takes us into the sound of Czarist Russia. But what classical composer best provides the sound of America? What is the sound that best represents the United States? These are not easy questions to answer.

Since the 1890s, when Americans were beginning to develop their own traditions in classical music, composers have recognized the dilemma of creating the American sound. In 1892 the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák became the director of the newly formed National Conservatory of Music in New York City and was paid a sizable wage to help create an American school of composition. The problem confronting Dvořák stemmed from the absence of a unified American culture. Quite simply, there were too many different types of people living in the United States to create a sound that was distinctly American. (Like Dvořák, Gustav Mahler, the great Bohemian composer and conductor, also believed the United States was too culturally diverse to be represented by one type of music.)

Dvořák’s solution to the problem can be heard in the cultural diversity evident in his
Symphony No. 9 in E minor ("From the New World"). The symphony includes original themes that sound somewhat like Stephen Foster tunes, African-American spirituals, and Native American music. Although From the New World has been accused of having too much of an eastern European accent to truly sound American, Dvořák did get the process of creating an American sound started, a process that has been forced to consider the diversity of American culture.

Antonín Dvořák, Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Fourth Movement (1893)


After Dvořák left the United States in 1895, various classical composers have been associated with the creation of an American national sound — most notably Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, and Elliot Carter.

Charles Ives (1874-1954) is best known for composing his memories of a pre-industrial, small-town America. Although his music ranks with the greatest composed by any American, the nationalism in his music did not acknowledge the tremendous ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity that defined the United States. Ives looked at America primarily through the eyes of someone who grew up in a small New England town in the late nineteenth century.

Charles Ives, Country Band March (1903)


Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is probably most associated in the public's mind with the American sound, creating music that defined an ideal America. Copland’s music romanticized the United States and celebrated the best in the American Spirit. In general, he also avoided the complexities and diversity of the American experience.

Aaron Copland, Appalachian Spring, "Simple Gifts" (1944)


The composer, in my opinion, who best captures the complexities of America — and therefore the true American sound — is
Elliot Carter (1908-2012). I make that declaration, however, with a confession that I don't always understand his music, and I cannot overstate the challenges of listening to his compositions.

Photo of Elliot Carter
Carter was an intellectual composer, and the music he created is among the most cerebral that any of us will ever confront. Although he composed in a variety of musical styles, he was best known for the masterworks that did not romanticize the American experience and seemed designed to avoid any desire to evoke emotional reactions from listeners. His music is best understood on a purely intellectual level.

What helps me understand Carter’s compositions is to think about the diversity of American culture and the reality of what that diversity should sound like when represented musically. I think about the “salad bowl” of humanity that defines the United States — the variety of religious, cultural, and philosophical beliefs, as well as the cultural gaps too often separate the American people according to their ethnic, racial, and other differences. I think about how America is home to almost all types of people. I then think about what all those various types of people would sound like if they were all expressing their differences at the same time.

That, in a nutshell, is how to think about Carter’s music. It’s a type of music that celebrates democracy, freedom, and diversity. It's classical music's version of Martin Luther King's "Beloved Community," a society in which people of all types live together in peace.

In describing the complexity of his music, Carter used these words to describe his
Variations for Orchestra:

I have tried to give musical expression to experiences anyone living today must have when confronted by so many remarkable examples of unexpected types of changes and relationships of character uncovered in the human sphere by psychologists and novelists.… The old notion of unity in diversity presents itself to us in an entirely different guise than it did to people living even a short while ago."

Carter's music may not be easy listening, but it challenges us to recognize the prodigious diversity that defines American culture.

Elliot Carter, Variations for Orchestra (1955)


Elliot Carter, Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano (1961)


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