Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
Billy the Kid (Suite)
Arguably the greatest American composer of the last century and without doubt one of its most unmistakable voice" Aaron Copland was also a distinguished pianist, conductor and writer Although perhaps best known for his three ballets Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1943-44), he produced major works in a variety of genres including two operas, The Second Hurricane (1936) and The Tender Land (1952-54), film scores, symphonies, concertos, choral and chamber 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 Goldmark Continuing his studies with Goldmark unti11921, he then became a student of Nadia Boulanger 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 American debut 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 can write 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 Serge Koussevitzky, who was to become a key supporter of the composer, not only commissioning and performing his works but also appointing Copland assistant director of the Berkshire Music Center where he taught from 1940 to 1965 The Organ Symphony secured another Boston commission for Copland, the five-movement suite Music for the Theatre (1925). Both the latter work, the jazz-influenced Piano Concerto (1926), which received a critical mauling, and the Symphonic Ode (1928-29), which Copland regarded as one of his most important works, were all given their first performances under Koussevitzky. Copland"s next compositions such as the Piano Variations (1930) and the Short Symphony (1932-33) adopted a more austere, abstract style. Then, at the instigation of the Mexican composer Carlos Chivez, he made the first of several visits to Mexico in 1932, a country which made a deep impression on him and inspired his first international success, the delightful and immediately accessible orchestral work El salon Mexico (1933-36). Throughout the late 1930s and 1940s his reputation steadily grew with the composition of the aforementioned ballets, film scores and patriotic works such as the Lincoln Portrait and Fanfare for the Common Man (both dating from 1942). With the composition of the Piano Quartet (1950) Copland entered yet another stylistic period, employing his own highly personal application of the twelve-note technique which he used in such major works as the Piano Fantasy (1955-57) and the orchestral works Connotations (1961-62) and Inscape (1967).
As well as being the first composer to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship (1925-27) Copland was also the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 1945 for his ballet Appalachian Spring, generally acknowledged as his most popular work, whilst his conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1958 saw the start of an international career that was to last more than twenty years (he actually composed little after 1972).
Copland composed his hugely popular one-act ballet Billy the Kid in Paris and Peterborough, New Hampshire, in the summer of 1938. Written for Lincoln Kirstein"s Ballet Caravan, and with choreography by Eugene Loring and decor by Jared French, the work was first perfoffi1ed in an arrangement for two pianos (the soloists were Arthur Gold and Walter Hendl) on 6th October 1938 in Chicago. The orchestral version was first performed in New York the following year and in 1940 the seven-movement orchestral suite from the ballet was given its first perfoffi1ance by the NBC Symphony Orchestra under William Steinberg, once again in New York The scenario centres upon the chief episodes in 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 a frontier town: during a drunken brawl guns are drawn and Billy"s mother is accidentally shot and killed In a rage, Billy, then a boy of only twelve, draws a blade from a cowboy"s sheath and stabs his mother"s killers - so begins his life as an outlaw Several scenes from his later life are depicted including a night-time card game, a gun battle between Billy and his former associate Pat Garrett, and the celebrations that follow Billy"s capture. After his escape from prison and a pas de deux with his girlfriend in the desert, both omitted from the orchestral suite, Billy finally meets his demise.
Copland"s Third Symphony (1944-46), his most imposing orchestral work, was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and dedicated "to the memory of my dear friend Natalie Koussevitzky". Unlike traditional symphonic first movements, usually cast in sonata-allegro form, the opening movement, marked Molto moderato, presents three distinct themes in an 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 Allegro molto, is much more typical of the classical symphonic model, consisting of three statements of the principal theme in part one, separated by episodes, a contrasting Trio section, and a veiled recapitulation of the principal theme. In the composer"s programme note for the premiere he described the slow movement, with the direction Andante quasi allegretto, as being the "freest of all in formal structure. Although it is built up sectionally, the various sections are intended to emerge on from the other in continuous flow, somewhat in the manner of a close-knit series of variations?. The final movement, Allegro deloberato ? Allegro risoluto, the most substantial 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 a complete statement of the stirring original version for brass and percussion. The Third Symphony earned Copland the New York Music Critics? Circle Award for the best orchestral work of the 1946-47 concert season.