Aaron Copland wrote a ballet about one of the most famous western gangsters in history: Billy the Kid. The work was written in 1938 and remained popular for over a decade. Unfortunately, his works are no longer
heard or performed often enough today. In my opinion, Copland is one of the greatest American performers in music history, but he is not given the recognition he deserves by today’s society. By looking at Copland’s works
and analyzing his Billy the Kid, the necessary proof of his greatness will, without question, show the fact that he is one of the greatest American composers of all time.
Aaron Copland, whose family name was changed from Kapland by immigration officials in New York, was born on November 14, 1900 and died December 2, 1990. His parents were of Lithuanian Jewish descent. His parents emigrated from Russia to the United States. His father owned a department store and they did not live lavishly. As he explained, I was born on November 14, 1900 on a street in Brooklyn that can only be Geruso 2 described as drab. It had none of the garish color of the ghetto, none of the charm of an old New England thoroughfare, or even a pioneer street….He began to take piano lessons at the age of fourteen under the tutelage of his sister Laurine.
Soon he wanted more professional lessons. Despite the fact that his four elder siblings had taken lessons with no success, he convinced his parents to pay for lessons. I distinctly remember with what fear and trembling I
knocked on the door of Mr. Leopold Wolfsohn’s piano studio on Clinton Avenue in Brooklyn, and-once again all by myself-arranged for piano lessons. The idea of composing music was not connected…with my family or with my
street. By the age of 18 he had graduated high school and decided to devote all his time and energy to music.
Under the direction of Rubin Goldmark he studied the theory of harmony and the works of Chopin, Haydn,
Beethoven, Wagner, Hugo Wolf, Debussy, and Scriabin. Finally his studies led him to France at the age of 21, where he studied under Paul Vidal for a short period of time and then under Mlle. Boulanger for three years. Before
returning to America, in 1924, Mlle. Nadia Boulanger asked Mr. Copland to write her a piece to perform on an American tour. He accepted and wrote Symphony for organ and orchestra, with Walter Camrosch as conductor and
Nadia Boulanger as soloist…. Also during this time, he wrote The Cat and the Mouse and a Passacaglia which made him known to a large and influential public and definitely established his position in American
His musical career took off from there with invitations to write original pieces for concerts, tours, and such groups as the Boston Symphony. In 1938, Copland wrote a ballet about William Bonney. William grew
up in Brooklyn, New York, Aaron’s hometown. At the age of 12 he saw his mother shot by a wayward bullet during a street brawl. Following this he stabbed the man responsible for his mother’s death. This is the first of
several murders William commits. Later in life he is accused of cheating during a card game and kills the accuser. Finally, he is captured after a showdown and jailed. To flee from prison, he slayed his jailer and escaped.
William then meets his lover in the desert and is murdered by his boyhood companion-turned-sheriff Pat Garrett. All of these actions gained young William the nickname Billy the Kid. Copland’s rendition includes many
classic cowboy tunes. For example, in the first scene, entitled Street in a Frontier Town, Copland used such tunes of the Wild West as Goodbye, Old Paint; The Old Chisholm Trail; Git Along, Little Dogies; The Streets of
Geruso 4 Laredo; and Great Grand-Dad. The songs throughout the piece are slightly changed, providing for great musical adaptation and amazing listening. But the composer decked them out with poly-rhythms, polytonal
harmonies, and dissonance made more striking because they fall on accent beats. The result is a music of powerful rhythmic thrust and vigorous physical activity, bursting with energy and excitement as it mounts to a
Copland’s style brings about vivid pictures of colorful images of cowboy’s on horseback riding into town. The ensuing brawl is animated colorfully by the volume and intensity of the music. The point at which Billy kills his mother’s murderers is so beautifully depicted one can see Billy raising the knife and slaying the guilty men.
Listening to the music alone, one can envision the entire ballet from its picturesque beginning to the awe-inspiring conclusion. Copland once described a great symphony as a man-made Mississippi down which we irresistibly flow from the instant of our leave-taking to a long foreseen destination. Though this
may be true, Copland’s Billy the Kid may also be described in this fashion. The beginning captivates the audience and holds their focus all the way to the spectacular finale. For those who know the story, the music alone
will bring Geruso 5 about auditory pleasure; for those who do not know the story, the story along with the entrancing music will undoubtedly arouse enjoyment. Copland’s works have effected music in many ways, as is evidenced by his numerous awards. These awards include the New York Music Critics Circle Award, a Pulitzer Prize, an Academy Award, a Congressional Medal for patriotism, the Boston Symphony Award of Merit, and his Third Symphony was singled out by the Music Critics Circle as the most important new orchestral
work by an American composer. His greatness can also be seen in the way others talk about his work. In 1946, Dr. Serge Koussevitzky described Copland’s Third Symphony as the greatest American symphony-it goes from the
heart to the heart. The fact that his contemporaries thought so highly of him shows, in effect, that he was one of the greatest composers of his time.
The fact that his contemporaries gave him many awards proves that he was one of the greatest composers of his time. Still, the strongest point in proving his greatness is that fact that he was able to adapt to the changes around him. By his own admission, …an entirely new public for music had grown up around the radio and phonograph. It made no sense to ignore them and to continue writing as if they did not exist. I felt that it was worth the effort to see if I couldn’t say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms. His success in changing to the times speaks volumes about his ingenuity. Many people have an extremely difficult time dealing with
change and adapting to it. Copland’s fluidity dealing with change was amazing. The fact that he kept up with the changing times and did it with great success is amazing; he didn’t miss a beat”