Billy the Kid

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           If there ever was an American “composer laureate,” then Aaron Copland is surely he.   A native of Brooklyn, the son of Jewish immigrants of Lithuanian descent, he established what many call the “American sound” in art music.  He had gone to Paris, like so many during the 1920s, to study advanced composition, and his musical style when he returned was accordingly advanced, some would say “academic.”   It certainly was often dissonant, and in no way exhibited the popular tunefulness that later made him the darling of mainstream America.  But then, like so many other artists during the depression, he turned to a simpler, more accessible style, rooted in the populism of the time.  Thus we have such evergreen compositions as Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, Fanfare for the Common Man, and Billy the Kid.  Later, after the war, with the New Deal, the dust bowl, and the popularity of the communist party in America gone, he returned to the austere, more advanced musical style that previously had characterized his work.   Nevertheless, most audiences today think of his “depression era” musical style when his name is mentioned.

            First performed in 1938 by the Ballet Caravan Company, Billy the Kid contains lots of cowboy songs and other American folksongs, and in its eight sections roughly tracks some putative events in the desperado’s life.  It’s fairly easy to follow the action from the titles of the movements and the nature of the music.   The ballet opens and closes with the familiar “American sound” of the open prairie that depicts the loneliness of the landscape and the trekking of the pioneers.   The cowboy song, “Great Granddad,” is heard in the street scene of the second dance.  Later, one hears the fight between drunks in the trombones, playing “Git Along Little Doggies,” and “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” during the quietude of the card game scene.  The violence in the gun battle scene is relieved by the humor of the celebration, aided by Copland’s clever intimation of two different keys going at the same time.  As the little drama leads into Billy’s death, the whole orchestra ends in a heroic, if not defiant, affirmative mood.  We are left to muse over the enigmatic ending:  is Copland celebrating the resilience of the pioneers of the American West, or commemorating the tragedy of the common man that so concerned social activists around the world during the 1930s?

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan