Giacomo Puccini, COPLAND: Appalachian Spring / Rodeo / Billy the Kid

Lenny Kaye

By Lenny Kaye

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

One of the most recognizable pieces of heraldic music of the last century is Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," ranking slightly under "Thus Spake Zarathustra" as pure classical hook coupled with populist pomp and pageant, proving its metal-mettle at sports rallies and the on-stage arrivals of countless rock bands. Copland, a vernacular poet in his combine of folk and sophisticated orchestration, also wrote for the dance, and he created physical, accessible music; the rarefied airs of discordant dozen-tones that were so trendy among his peers aren't a bad compositional vantage point, but sometimes you want to get out of the lab.

The sound of America, from the mountains to the prairie.

Copland had completed his Eurocentric apprenticing, influenced as much by Diagelev's Ballet Russes in 1925 as Paris 'compositional dissonances, studying under Nadia Boulanger and experiencing jazz from a French perspective, more Bricktop than Louis Armstrong. But the America he returned to was on the verge of Depression, and despite its once-limitless reaches, communities like the cowboys, or even Appalachian dwellers from far western Pennsylvania, would be an endangered species within these months leading to another world war.

For Copland the west represented the most American of myths, an endless space to throw a body around in the great raw-bone outdoors; by this time, though, they'd been conquered enough to become their own vanishing way of life. In 1938, he wrote a ballet about Billy the Kid, its set scenes — "Street in a Frontier Town," "Card Game at Night," "Billy's Death" — like chapters of a Saturday morning serial (though he wouldn't get to that style until the ’50s). These works, including the four parts of Rodeo, are Copland's most uplifting, catching both the composer and the century in their ’40s, full of bronco-busting optimism, through trial and doubt and renewal, especially as that glorious sunrise opens Appalachian Spring in a Shaker community celebrating a marriage: it is the image of America at its best, and Copland himself, assimilated.

Rodeo was commissioned by choreographer Agnes DeMille, and it is the first time square dancing swings a partner into modern ballet, on its way to becoming Billy Lee Cyrus. For Appalachian Spring, in 1944 (it would win the Pulitzer Prize the next year), the physical narrative was propelled by Martha Graham, who choreographed these suites of song, and the music's sense of movement, through her own angularity and severe majesty, betrothing herself to Copland and his shining Americana. Both were so East Coast in outlook; it's very hard to imagine Copland riding a horse, though you could Graham. And Copland shied from Broadway. It would take his friend Leonard Bernstein to figure that one out with West Side Story.