Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo

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            Aaron Copland is a man who is hard to pin down.  Clearly America’s most well-known and respected “classical” composer, he was the creator of some of the country’s most beloved compositions that brought the “American” style to the concert hall.  Yet, for all that, he was a musician with a remarkably broad range of personal interests and musical styles.  His deep intellect and discerning tastes probed and were influenced by about all of the important composers and approaches to composition of the twentieth century.  He spent time in his early maturity in France, where he immersed himself in the European musical avant-garde; he was interested in and was influenced by jazz; he maintained a life-long interest in the music of Latin America; he participated fully in the burgeoning interest on the part of the arts community in American folk elements and nationalism during the 1930s and 40s; and later in his life explored the dissonant musical idioms of the European avant-garde, yet again.  But, he was not an artistic chameleon, rather a man who saw vitality, authenticity, and artistic possibilities in most of what his probing mind and “big” ears encountered.

            During the Great Depression difficult economic conditions, as well as other political and social factors, led American artists to ally themselves with public intellectuals in a variety of sectors in celebrating and promulgating the American common experience.  It was perhaps the dominating artistic paradigm of the times, and even today remnants may be seen in such unexpected places as Post Office lobbies where the WPA commissioned murals on populist themes.   Copland’s compositions from this time—the ballet, Billy the Kid (1939); Our Town (1940); Fanfare for the Common Man (1942); and A Lincoln Portrait (1942)—all are signature works of the man and the era.  And in the same fecund year as the latter two works came the ballet, Rodeo.

            The American choreographer, Agnes de Mille, was commissioned in that year by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (then in the US) for a ballet on cowboy themes of the American west.  She responded with an apparently simple story:  Awkward Cowgirl strives for the affections of the Head Wrangler, who is more interested in the winsome and feminine Rancher’s Daughter.  She tries to be a “real cowboy” by competing with the men on their own grounds, but only attracts the attention of the Champion Roper.  Finally, she wins the day with the Head Wrangler by revealing her femininity and donning a dress for the Hoedown.

            The first movement—“Buckaroo Holiday”—begins energetically, followed by subdued music for the cowgirl.  Real galloping rodeo music ensues, followed shortly by the big entrance of the boisterous cowboys, accompanied by the traditional “Sis Joe” railroad tune.  “If He’d be a Buckaroo” figures prominently along with “Sis Joe” as the movement develops.  The second movement is quiet reflection by the cowgirl, entitled “Corral Nocturne,” in which she considers her frustration at failing to impress the men, and her love interest, specifically.  Gentle woodwind solos accompany her contemplation of awkwardness.   “Saturday Night Waltz” brings all the principals together in a social showdown to the tune of “I Ride an Old Paint.”  The Cowgirl loses the affection wars to the Rancher’s Daughter and is left with the Champion Roper.  Finally, the exuberant and familiar last movement—“Hoedown”—comes, opening with a literal quotation by Copland of the fiddle tune, “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” made famous by the Kentucky fiddler, William Stepp, in a 1937 Library of Congress recording.  Other traditional songs heard are “McLeod’s Reel” and “Gilderoy,” as the Cowgirl finally wins her man, the Head Wrangler, at the big dance.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan