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Frontier FiguresAmerican Music and the Mythology of the American West$

Beth Levy

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780520267763

Published to California Scholarship Online: September 2012

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520267763.001.0001

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Communal Song, Cosmopolitan Song

Communal Song, Cosmopolitan Song

(p.317) 12 Communal Song, Cosmopolitan Song
Frontier Figures

Beth E. Levy

University of California Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter first considers Aaron Copland's political engagement, particularly the geographical settings that agitated his political conscience and the impact which leftism had on his views about folk music. It suggests that Copland's biographical and emotional distance from western Americana opened up space for irony, comedy, and nostalgic displacement in such works as Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and The Red Pony. Copland's own biography supplies supporting evidence for the idea that the imagery of the American West offered a haven for social and sexual aberrance, but also a site where patriarchal visions of social and moral order could be vigorously upheld.

Keywords:   American music, composers, Aaron Copland, folk music, Billy the Kid, Rodeo, Red Pony, American West

Copland on the Left

At a time when Russian-Jewish immigrants were considered America's most likely Bolsheviks, Copland's voluntary association with the left probably came as no surprise. Elizabeth Bergman Crist has detailed the prevalence of communist and socialist ideals among Copland's associates and has persuasively situated Copland's own activities within the purview of the Popular Front.1 For my purposes, the most notable aspects of Copland's political engagement are the geographical settings that agitated his political conscience and the impact that leftism had on his views about folk music. As Bergman Crist has shown, Copland seems to have developed many of his populist ideals while visiting Mexico in the fall of 1932. He was deeply influenced by the example of his friend and colleague Carlos Chávez and by the opportunities offered under the country's quasi-socialist government, confiding in Chávez that he was “a little envious of the opportunity you had to serve your country in a musical way” and praising the Mexican composer's rapport with audiences.2 Equally distant from factories and sweatshops, Copland's most active engagement with communism occurred in rural Minnesota, where he gave an impromptu speech at a meeting of farmers near Bemidji. Copland's friend Harold Clurman noted this as a departure from the usual pattern when he wrote to congratulate Copland on his political awakening: “Some people go east to the U.S.S.R. to become ‘radicalized’ but you went west to the U.S.A.”3

Back in New York, Copland's musical attitudes were shaped in part by his involvement with the Composers' Collective (established by Cowell and Charles (p.318) Seeger as a branch of the American Communist Party's Workers' Music League). He shared their early ambivalence toward folk sources, considering the “large mass singing” of the international workers' chorus (not the folk song of rural localities) to be the appropriate proletarian antidote to the “poignant subjective lieder” of the bourgeoisie. When Copland's setting of “Into the Streets May First!” won the New Masses song contest in 1934, folk qualities were far from the judges' list of criteria. And although the title of The Young Pioneers (1935)—Copland's contribution to a collection of children's piano pieces—might seem in retrospect to be crying out for a folk interpretation, Copland was probably motivated less by the title's pastoral connotations than by its association with the Soviet youth organization of the same name. Gradually, however, under the revised Popular Front slogan “Communism is twentieth-century Americanism,” Copland joined most of his leftist contemporaries in embracing folk song as the true music of the people.4

The advocacy of Seeger and Elie Siegmeister solidified Copland's already substantial interest in popular culture and folk song. As Pollack has noted, it may also have channeled this interest in new directions: “The Popular Front's emphasis on Anglo-American folklore undoubtedly fostered a growing familiarity with and receptivity toward that particular repertoire” (HP, 280). Copland's first experiment with Anglo folklore appeared in The Second Hurricane, when high school students, stranded during their rescue mission, muster their courage by singing “The Capture of Burgoyne.” Copland borrowed the eighteenth-century song almost literally from S. Foster Damon's Series of Old American Songs (1936), making few changes to the tune or the text (HP, 308). More interesting is the song's placement in the operetta shortly after the solo for the only African American character, Jeff. Jeff 's jazzy number and the rousing British ballad sung by the teenagers are separated by a memorable soprano solo sung by Queenie, a student selected for the trip because of her nursing skills. Despite this lyric interlude, the musical contrast between “Jeff 's Song” and “The Capture of Burgoyne” strongly suggests that Copland was more comfortable with the syncopated idiom that had characterized his earlier music than with the foursquare rhythms of the British tune.

Copland had already tried to reconcile his interest in African American music with the rhetoric of folk-based musical nationalism. In 1925, around the time of Music for the Theatre and the Piano Concerto, one such attempt was documented in a newspaper report given the telling title “Jazz as Folk-Music.” Here, the writer conveyed Copland's belief that “distinctively national” music required “a literature of folk music as a background.”

“If we haven't a folksong foundation, we must invent one,” he said. “I began by thinking—what is a folksong after all? And I came to the conclusion that in my case it was the songs I heard when I was a child—rather commonplace jazz tunes (p.319) and music of the “Old Black Joe” variety. These, then, are my material, and I must accept them for what they are. If we have only these elements as essentially American, our music must make the best of it and do the work so well that something worth while will come from the effort.”5

Judging from Copland's emphasis on the effort needed to refine this raw material, building a national music on such rudimentary material was no easy task. By 1929, he was even more pessimistic. With an air of resignation, he dismissed the possibility that jazz could solve the problem of an American composing style: “Five years ago I felt the need of some tradition and at that time I used jazz in my compositions. But no matter what one does with jazz, it is essentially limited. … Jazz, at most, means either the excitement of New York City or the super-sensuality of the Negro blues.”6 Noting that the United States could neither build upon the centuries-old musical traditions of a nation like France nor rely on the indigenous folk traditions of a country like Russia, he voiced his frustration: “And so one comes to a cul de sac. … We have Indian songs, Kentucky mountain songs, the Negro songs, jazz,” he observed, “and we have had many attempts to use these songs in our music. But what, for example, do the songs of the Indians mean to me, an American of New York and the twentieth century?”7

With attitudes like these, Copland's stint with Anglo or any other folklore might have been a passing fancy had it not been for an earlier but more substantial (and far more successful) foray into the folk sphere. Fortunately, he did discover folk materials that spoke to him—but he found them south of the border. After a trip in 1932 to Mexico City's most famous dance hall, El Salón México, he began thinking about how to shape his sonic impressions of the nightclub and the nation. The resulting work, El Salón México, was not completed until 1934 and not orchestrated until his second trip to Mexico in 1936. This long gestation period gave Copland ample time to ponder his approach. He later recalled: “It seemed natural to use popular Mexican melodies for thematic material; after all, Chabrier and Debussy didn't hesitate to help themselves to the melodic riches of Spain. There was no reason I should not use the tunes of the hispanic land on our southern doorstep. My purpose was not merely to quote literally, but to heighten without in any way falsifying the natural simplicity of Mexican tunes” (VPAC1, 245).

Acquiring appropriate Mexican tunes was the easy part: though his inspiration was the live music of the dance hall, Copland found the melodies for the work in two published collections: Rubén Campos's El Folklore y la Música Mexi-cana of 1928 and Frances Toor's Cancionero Mexicano of 1931 (HP, 299). The more difficult stages involved finding ways to “heighten” the tunes without corrupting their “natural simplicity.” The resulting struggle helped him formulate his ideas about using folk materials: “If quotation of folk tunes is a sure way for a composer (p.320) to translate the flavor of a foreign people into musical terms, it also presents a formal problem when used in a symphonic composition. Most composers have found that there is little that can be done with such material except repeat it. In El Salón México I decided to use a modified potpourri in which the Mexican themes or fragments and extensions thereof are sometimes inextricably mixed” (VPAC1, 246). The potpourri approach outlined here would prove typical of Copland's treatment of folk song in his instrumental music. Its most obvious corollary was the notion that simple quotation or literal repetition was aesthetically insufficient: fragments, extensions, motivic work, and musical mixture were part of his recipe for success. Underlying this surface consideration, one can still sense a palpable insecurity about melodic borrowing. Copland was well aware of the many, many precedents for such borrowing in his own work and elsewhere— Debussy and Chabrier were hardly the most famous precedents he could have cited—but he could not ignore the fact that a wide spectrum of music reviewers (including some of his harshest critics and some of his dearest friends) already thought he was overly inclined toward borrowing.

While Bergman Crist understands Copland's El Salón México as a successful rendering of “communitarian vision,” I find equally striking the anxiety that the piece seemed to provoke in Copland about his status as a musical outsider.8 “Despite Chávez' enthusiasm,” he recalled, “I still felt nervous about what the Mexicans might think of a ‘gringo’ meddling with their native melodies” (VPAC1, 246). In this instance, Copland was soon reassured by the warm applause he received from Chávez's orchestra at a rehearsal before the premiere and the appreciative critical reception that followed. “They seemed to agree,” he later remarked, “that El Salón México might well be taken for Mexican music—‘as Mexican as the music of Revueltas,’ which was like saying at that time, ‘as American as the music of Gershwin’” (VPAC1, 247).

Copland's apparent satisfaction in his role as the Gershwin of Mexico offers an unexpected but instructive vantage point on the vagaries of musical nationalism. However curious, the analogy is apt: like Porgy and Bess, for example, El Salón México involved a cross-cultural engagement that was far deeper than voyeurism but was still captivated by the exotic nature of the subjects it depicted. Copland freely confessed that he would have considered it “foolish for me to attempt to translate the more profound sides of Mexico into musical sounds—the ancient civilizations or the revolutionary Mexico of our own time—for that, one really had to know a country well” (VPAC1, 245). He would find no such relief back home, for it was abundantly clear that being “as American … as Gershwin” would do Copland little good. If Copland was troubled by his “gringo” status in Mexico, he had equal but opposite reasons for concern at home. South of the border, his whiteness marked him as a foreigner; in his native land, his non-whiteness was the greater source of concern.

(p.321) It is no wonder, then, that Copland was cautious when he cast his lot with Anglo folklore and crossed the Rio Grande. His Norton lectures at Harvard (1951–52) are circumspect, acknowledging that “the composer must have in his background some sense of musical culture and, if possible, a basis in folk or popular art,” but balancing this desideratum against the importance of technique.9 Departing from his brief historical survey to speculate on larger aesthetic questions, Copland wrote: “What, after all, does it mean to make use of a hymn tune or a cowboy tune in a serious musical composition? There is nothing inherently pure in a melody of folk source that cannot be effectively spoiled by a poor setting. The use of such materials ought never to be a mechanical process. They can be successfully handled only by a composer who is able to identify himself with, and reexpress in his own terms, the underlying emotional connotation of the material.”10 Harris could only have seconded Copland's denigration of the mechanical and his call for identification with the material. Yet he might have bristled at the emphasis on professionalism that emerged as Copland continued: “A hymn tune represents a certain order of feeling: simplicity, plainness, sincerity, directness. It is the reflection of those qualities in a stylistically appropriate setting, imaginative and unconventional and not mere quotation, that gives the use of folk tunes reality and importance. In the same way, to transcribe the cowboy tune so that its essential quality is preserved is a task for the imaginative composer with a professional grasp of the problem.”11

The composer must identify with the material, but he must also refashion it in a way that is “imaginative and unconventional.” Inventing autobiographical connections with the American folk would have been impractical for the “Brooklyn Stravinsky.” Instead of mourning this separation, he chose to treat the folk sphere with a professional's detached respect. Copland's biographical and emotional distance from western Americana thus opened up space for irony, comedy, and nostalgic displacement in such works as Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and The Red Pony.

An American Allegory

Though the idea bears a certain geographic neatness, it would oversimplify matters to suggest that cowboy song provided the perfect compromise between the Mexican music Copland found so moving and the Anglo American songs that had won approval from Seeger and others back home. For one thing, Copland had other musical models to follow when it came to cowboy materials, including, of course, Thomson's Plow That Broke the Plains. For another, Copland's initiation into the world of western heroes came courtesy of other artists. While it is not common knowledge that The Saga of the Prairie got its title from an audience member, it is well known that both his “cowboy ballets” were commissions from prestigious urban ballet companies with East Coast or European ties: Billy the (p.322) Kid for Lincoln Kirstein in 1938, and Rodeo for Agnes de Mille in 1942. Racial and ethnic considerations surely prevented Copland from claiming cowboy songs as his artistic inheritance, but so did the circumstances under which he wrote his western works.

The western United States was by and large unfamiliar ground for Copland. As Jessica Burr has pointed out, Copland had in fact visited the American West long before undertaking such works as Billy the Kid.12 Having written to Boulanger in 1928, “I suppose it is good for me to see America a little,” he made a brief stopover in Santa Fe while en route to the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, where he was to perform his Piano Concerto.13 But his first impressions of the region make it seem unlikely that he would ever return to the West—either musically or in person. Burr uncovered correspondence between Copland and his friend Gerald Sykes that reveals just how strongly he reacted against this unfamiliar territory: “What a country this is!” he exclaimed. “Sickly looking parched earth inhabited by he-men cow-punchers. I should have gone to Finland.” Though he later expressed a cautious admiration for the region's diverse people, for him the scenery left much to be desired: “Whatever it was I expected reality proved different—very. I am still trying to acquire a taste for the landscape—it still seems frightfully austere. I can't get used to these barren hills—they remind me of the war-scarred battlefields I saw in France.”14 So remote were the western deserts from Copland's idea of natural beauty, that he did not even venture an analogy between their lonely expanses and other naturally desolate landscapes. Instead, his experiences called to mind a wasteland of human invention, emptied by modern technology and brutal warfare. After almost two months in this new environment, Copland came to admire its impressive vistas and diverse inhabitants, but he still bore a powerful sense of the western landscape's foreignness. He wrote to Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky: “Here I am after seven weeks in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It's certainly far from Paris! But this country is truly magnificent with tall mountains practically without vegetation—which give the country an austere and somewhat horrifying effect. The people are also extremely curious and very diverse—there are Mexicans, cowboys, Redskins, artist-painters, American-pioneers, tourists, etc. In Santa Fe, you get the impression of being more in Spain than in America.”15 As these letters make plain, Europe was still the primary playground for Copland's imagination.

One can only guess how daunting it must have been when Lincoln Kirstein approached Copland with the scenario for Billy the Kid in 1938. Though Kirstein may have approached Copland in part because of the popularity of El Salón México, there were significant differences in the challenges presented by the two scores. In Mexico City, despite his anxiety about musical borrowing, Copland had felt a real sense of identification with the Mexican people. His descriptions of Santa Fe reveal instead his powerful impressions of sterility and social (p.323) alienation. To make matters worse, the disclaimers he had been able to make for El Salón México were not ones he wished to repeat in his native land. Though not necessarily “profound,” Billy the Kid still represents an adventure in mythmaking with serious historical and national implications.

When Kirstein showed choreographer Eugene Loring a copy of Walter Noble Burns's Saga of Billy the Kid (1925) and exhorted him to “make a ballet out of it,” he was asking him to create in dance a legend that had already been recounted in many different formats.16 Burns's treatment of the subject was new in its sympathy for the outlaw hero—an aspect that Loring and Copland chose to reinforce. Paraphrasing historian Robert Utley, Pollack writes that “Burns's popular Saga appealed to readers as a coming-of-age story twice told: as a study in the development from adolescence to manhood and from frontier wilderness to industrial society. Indeed, Billy emerges as a barely disguised symbol for America; his frontier lawlessness must be crushed by a changing world. Unlike previous books about Billy, Burns struck an interwar note of nostalgia for a lost innocence and a bygone America.”17 Given this allegorical potential, it is not surprising that none of the ballet's creative contributors were overly concerned with accuracy of historical detail. The true identity of the outlaw-hero is a fundamental case in point. Although Kirstein was mistaken when he identified Billy by his outlaw alias “William H. Bonney” rather than his given name, William Henry McCarty, the happy coincidence that both “Bonney” and Copland were born in Brooklyn seems to have outweighed any desire to set the record straight. (McCarty grew up in Indiana, Kansas, and Colorado before ending up in the desert Southwest.) Copland later went so far as to suggest that knowing the facts of Billy's life was not merely superfluous, but that it might actually have hindered his creative response. “I didn't think of the story in a realistic sense,” he remarked. “If I had, I would never have touched it as I wouldn't have considered it a proper musical subject. Anyway, my knowledge of the actual historical facts was rather vague, and I thought of Billy the Kid as a legendary character, a young innocent who went wrong, part of the picturesque folklore of the Far West.”18

Loring shared Copland's preconceptions about the West, but he had even less firsthand knowledge. To make matters worse, the standard fare of western literature and film was difficult to translate into dance, and Loring recalled being unable to envision staging Billy without horses, guns, and other frontier paraphernalia. The solution he crafted to this balletic impossibility was ingenious: “I thought if you did it like a child playing make-believe that you had guns and horses and cards and all that—that would be a feasible way to do it. But I wasn't sure that adult audiences would take to that.”19 Like Loring, Copland located his personal experience of the West in childhood recollections, justifying his attraction to western folklore by recalling that, like most youngsters, he had enjoyed playing “cowboys and Indians” with his friends.

(p.324) Given the absence of concrete props, direct personal experience, or detailed historical information, Billy the Kid instead staged a regression into childhood and the world of make-believe in ways that many critics found illuminating. In his dance column for the New York Times, John Martin readily identified the ballet's paradoxical union of realism and abstraction. “There is no scenery,” he commented.

Jared French has designed a simple back cloth which serves simply to hide the back wall and to suggest a region of sand and cactus. For the rest the dancers themselves make the locales of the many episodes out of their movement and their mood. No scenery of paint and canvas was ever half so genuine. Similarly, when Billy and his bandits crouch with their open hands in front of their faces, it is quite certain that nobody else on stage can see them. It is the stuff of legend, freer and far more eloquent than fact.20

Though Loring had wondered about their suitability for “adult audiences,” his mimetic choreography appealed to viewers of all ages. For Edwin Denby (dance critic and the librettist for The Second Hurricane), these were the most innovative and effective elements of the ballet's choreography: “Looking at the pantomime movements that Loring invented for Billy, I find them more interesting when they tend to be literal than when they tend to be symbolic. The storytelling gestures— those of the cowboys riding or strolling, the gun play, the sneaking up on the victim, Billy's turning away from his sweetheart or lying down—all this has more life as dancing than gestures meant as ‘modern dance.’”21 From this perspective, the power of Billy the Kid lay not in what was self-consciously “modern” but in its attitude toward representation; its message was best conveyed through a type of imaginary or remembered realism. As Martin put it, “Above all [Loring] has wooed his spectators into the technique of make-believe, where with the genuine, basic magic of the theatre he has led them into creating for themselves the Billy and the Old West that they would like to believe.”22 Like Music for Radio, Billy the Kid gained at least some of its success by allowing listeners room for make-believe. In this case, though, traces of the creators' own attitudes are readily visible. By aligning their spectacle with a remembrance of things past, Loring and his cocre-ators reinforced their psychologically sympathetic portrayal of the youthful Billy and the popular conception of the West as a site of irrecoverable innocence.

The Open Prairie

Compassion for the outlaw hero and an impetus toward allegory were not the only things Loring and his collaborators drew from Burns's Saga of Billy the Kid. The ballet's striking initial sequence also takes as its model the evocative descriptions of westward expansion that serve as a leitmotif in Burns's book. In situation (p.325) after situation, his text launches into a litany of city names, each successively more remote from refined East Coast culture. The perilous migration of a family piano from the Atlantic Seaboard to its new home in New Mexico forms one of the comic episodes in the text. Even passages that could be static description take on the narrative function of signaling westward travel: “Mockingbirds still sing in the towering branches of the survivors of these old trees that have seen pass beneath them, as along a king's highway, the pageantry of the frontier past— pioneers, Indians, soldiers of the old army, descendants of Spanish conquerors, Kit Carson, Billy the Kid and his outlaws, Pat Garrett and his man-hunters, John Chisum the cattle king, and the multitude of forgotten men who played their part in building civilization in the Southwest.”23 Such pomp and circumstance was too good to be true, but too hard to resist, and a similar parade found its way into the ballet. Loring's scenario calls for an opening processional designated “Introduction: March into a new Frontier from an old, Gone are the days. … (empty stage fills with men and women pioneers, Indians, Mexicans)” [ellipsis in the original]. The scenario also specifies a “Coda: based on Introduction … March on.”24

The frontier processional in the coda frames the ballet's action in significant ways. According to the scenario, “What takes place between the introduction and the coda. … is merely a single episode typical of many on the long westward push to the Pacific” (HP, 318). Among the many reviewers who also picked up this interpretation, Walter Terry of the New York Herald Tribune offered the most evocative summation:

“Billy” commenced with a powerful dance procession, a stream of humanity which hastens toward the sunlight of the West. There are pioneers and their wives, prospectors, homesteaders, adventurers. Their movements are quick and strong, space-covering, and they are movements which tell of a vast, uncrowded land and of the sturdy, questing citizens, American citizens, who are searching for new thresholds, new frontiers to cross. Out of this westward march comes a story, an episode in the march itself, the story of Billy the Kid. It is a tale of romance, of danger, of lawlessness and of death and when it is over, the march resumes and the beholder again views the westward procession heading toward yet another frontier.25

With its motley crew of participants and its mingling of optimism and nostalgia, the frontier processional allows its diverse participants to be unified chiefly by their westward momentum.

The actions of the westering crowd further enhance its allegorical potential, for as dance historian Marcia Siegel has pointed out, they engage in “canonic movements abstracted from frontier activities like roping and riding, scouting, cradling babies, praying.”26 Denby made similar remarks about the historical pretensions of the opening March: “The energetic horizontal arm thrusts with open palms look as if our ballet dancers were mimicking ‘pushing back the frontier.’ (p.326) The ‘Come on out West’ gestures back to the electricians offstage, the praying, digging, running, housekeeping, ever westward, ever westward are meant as a frieze of history; but it is history like that shown us in the slick-paper ads.”27 Linking the processional to ancient Greece and modern mass media in a single breath, Denby recognized this moment's power to overstep the boundaries of the stage, as the invisible electricians are invited to join in the history-transcending action of westward migration.

But the flat frieze and the glossy magazine covers that Denby called to mind also suggest another, more modern media reference: the silver screen. Siegel notes the ballet's evocation of specific film techniques such as close-up, montage, flash-forward, and even slow motion, and she argues that Loring's cinematic vision shaped the opening frontier processional as well. Loring had the dancers move straight across the stage rather than taking a more typical (and longer) diagonal route. As a result, “their figures remain flat, in the same perspective, like the flat images on film or an unfurling olio in a music hall. They can use only a few feet of the stage depth, and that way their numbers look dense, crowded, and by inference, desperately in need of elbow room.”28 The peculiar flatness of perspective gives the participants in the procession a striking but potentially alienating aspect. Unlike the offstage electricians Denby envisioned, actual audiences remain removed from the ballet's westering impulse. The dancers, with their mechanical gestures, do not approach us, and we can only watch from a distance.

Copland's “maestoso” soundtrack for this epic march remains a haunting model for musical evocations of the Great Plains (example 46). It has become a critical commonplace to link Copland's stark intervals with America's wide open spaces.29 But of course there is more at work here than the famous open fifths: registral range, sparse scoring, and (only in the original two-piano score) echo effects that Copland seems to have transplanted from the mountains to the prairies. As Jessica Burr has noted, the unusual timbre of the opening bars—low oboe underneath high clarinets—suggests the tremendous loneliness that Copland experienced so viscerally on his first trip to Santa Fe.30

The downstage dancers loom large against this sonic horizon. While timbre is a key element in the score's suggestion of alienated observation, its rhythmic and metric elements mirror the dancers' gestures, and by extension suggest the actions of the westering crowd. When he called their opening procession a “march,” Loring seems to have been aiming for a patriotic tone. But Copland's frontier-bridging march sports a number of atypical features—most notably its triple meter. According to Pollack, Loring was taken aback by the composer's decision, but apparently Copland reassured him by citing “My Country' Tis of Thee” as an example. This may seem a less than inspired rejoinder, but at least it reflects the Americanist aspirations of their project. From a somewhat more speculative angle, one might argue that the rhythmic asymmetry of a march in triple time makes (p.327)

Communal Song, Cosmopolitan Song

EXAMPLE 46. Billy the Kid, “The Open Prairie,” arranged for two pianos, mm. 1–24 (London: Boosey & Hawkes, 1946)

(p.328) the dancers' progress seem unusually labored or unwieldy—as if they were limping or needed an extra beat to catch their breath after each pace.

Working in tandem with the march's peculiar meter is the rhythmic ostinato that characterizes most of the “Open Prairie” music. Introduced gradually, the ostinato is fully in place by bar nine and continues unrelieved through the entire section, except for a four-measure respite at rehearsal number 2. As noted in previous chapters, such ostinato figures were a favorite space-generating (p.329) mechanism for both Harris and the Indianists (as well as for composers with other geographical preoccupations). Insistent repetition heightens our awareness of the passage of time and, metaphorically, suggests the extent of a vast space devoid of distinguishing topographical features. Harris had put these associations to bleak use in his 1935 elegy Farewell to Pioneers, in which autogenetic melody is dwarfed in the hostile environment of repetitive figuration. Copland's prairie ostinato operates a bit differently. First, its mechanical regularity and the fact that it involves the small-scale repetition of measure-long units make it more intense and less leisurely than Harris's landscape painting. Second and more importantly, in Billy the Kid, the opening ostinato is linked, by analogy to the dancers' repetitive gestures, as much to people and their epic efforts as to the wilderness in which they wandered. Copland's layered ostinato produces contrasting accents on and off the beats; horns and upper strings are echoed by bass, piano, and percussion as if the lower group were out of step or staggering along behind.

A tune of sorts frames and enlivens this stark ostinato. In its first incarnation, this material seems to function as an introductory figure (mm. 1–7). Its division of the measure into two dotted quarter notes foreshadows the ostinato's rhythmic limp; its halting phrases are divided between oboe, clarinet, and bassoon, rather than forming a single melodic utterance. In bar 14, once the ostinato is in place, this tune takes flight to a more conventional melodic register and scoring (for flute), clearly distinguished from the repetitive accompaniment below. One might expect this melody to be associated with the pioneer processional since it is the aspect of the soundscape with the greatest forward momentum, but Copland has reversed the usual division of labor which would make the ostinato responsible for landscape depiction and use the melody to signal subjective human presence. Instead, the melody seems strangely impassive, like the landscape out of which it emerged.

This emotional detachment becomes easier to explain as the movement continues, for when the melody comes to a cadence (m. 20), it is interrupted by birdsong. Strident woodwind figures (mm. 20–22) rupture the ostinato, suggesting that even the laboring marchers have finally stopped to listen to their surroundings. What they hear sheds new light on the preceding melody and its remarkable preoccupation with thirds. The cuckoo call of the opening bars may have gone unrecognized up to this point, but in retrospect its avian connotations seem all but confirmed. The striking low oboe/high clarinet sonority that resurfaces here suggests that the birds may have been singing all along.

The interjection of birdsong brings the grinding ostinato of the march to a temporary halt, causing a startling orchestral silence and offering up the opportunity for an echo effect. A solo French horn sounds the call, but the only response is a gradual resumption of the familiar melody as the ostinato-laden mass (p.330) of humanity parades impassively toward the Pacific. The break in the ostinato at measures 23 through 26 also marks the beginning of a twofold orchestral crescendo that shapes the rest of the section to great dramatic effect. This intensification seem at odds with Loring's processional, however, in which the marchers do not actually approach the audience. While the dance emphasizes the uniformly distant march of history, the music gives this journey direction, moving it not only westward (stage right) but also toward the audience, preparing us for the scene change and opening up the possibility of emotional identification with these characters, and ultimately with Billy himself.

“Something Different a Cowboy Song in Paris”

At the climax of the prairie processional, the ominous mood is shattered like a shot. The weary ostinato falls away like a curtain to reveal the bustling activity of the “Street in a Frontier Town” and Copland's very first quotation of a bona fide cowboy song. Freed from the historical burden of embodying westward expansion, the dancers leap into action, accompanied by the tune “Great-Granddad,” which Copland borrowed from Lomax's Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. With the benefit of hindsight, it is all too easy to spot the varied forces (Lincoln Kirstein chief among them) making cowboy song Copland's folklore of choice.31 Nonetheless, the western turn came as something of a surprise for the composer and his contemporaries.

Copland may have enjoyed both roles while playing “cowboys and Indians” as a child, but where music was concerned, he thought that the “wranglers” had a clear advantage over the “redskins.” In his Norton lectures, he quickly dismissed Indianism as ineffective: “Despite the efforts of Arthur Farwell and his group of composer friends, and despite the Indian Suite of Edward MacDowell, nothing really fructifying resulted. It is understandable that the first Americans would have a sentimental attraction for our composers, especially at a time when the American composer himself was searching for some indigenous musical expression. But our composers were obviously incapable of identifying themselves sufficiently with such primitive source materials as to make these convincing when heard out of context.”32 Copland believed that Native American music's strangeness kept even well-meaning composers from achieving the requisite level of identification with the material. He recognized—in ways that Cadman and Farwell did not—the paradox of building a national music through exotic borrowing. Furthermore, he seems to have realized that using Indian material might entail unwelcome anthropological burdens. “The Indians of today,” he commented, “produce a music that is difficult to authenticate. How much of what they do is the result of oral tradition and how much acquired from the (p.331) circumstances of their post-Conquest environment is difficult to say.”33 This concern for the purity of indigenous materials stands in sharp contrast to the freedom and flexibility with which he approached jazz and other folk musics.

Although in 1929 Copland had posed the rhetorical query “What do the songs of the Indians mean to me?” it was evidently unnecessary to repeat the question with regard to cowboy tunes in 1938. Like most Americans of his generation, he had plenty of exposure to cowboy heroes. Copland's problem with cowboy song was not so much a matter of sympathy as of musical substance. His first impressions were decidedly lukewarm: “I have never been particularly impressed with the musical beauties of the cowboy song as such. The words are usually delightful, and the manner of singing needs no praise from me. But neither the words nor the delivery are of much use in a purely orchestral ballet score, so I was left with the tunes themselves, which, I repeat, are often less than exciting” (VPAC1, 279). What sacrilege such words must have seemed to Harris! But for Copland, using western folk song was not a foregone conclusion, even in a cowboy ballet. “As far as I was concerned,” Copland claimed,

this ballet could be written without benefit of the poverty-stricken tunes Billy himself must have known. Nevertheless, in order to humor Mr. Kirstein, who said he didn't really care whether I used cowboy material or not, I decided to take his two little collections with me when I left for Paris in the summer of 1938. … Perhaps there is something different about a cowboy song in Paris. But whatever the reason may have been, it wasn't very long before I found myself hopelessly involved in expanding, contracting, rearranging and superimposing cowboy tunes on the rue de Rennes in Paris.34

With an ocean separating Copland from Billy's natural habitat, the composer developed a new fondness for American folk song. Pollack has pointed out the parallel between this passage and Copland's claim that he only warmed up to American jazz after his arrival in France. Taken together, these instances suggest it was not personal proximity but certain kinds of distance that allowed him to feel “at home” with his material.

Although he admitted eventually becoming enthralled by western folk song, Copland still chose to emphasize the technical tinkering required to bring a cowboy ballet to life: “It's a rather delicate operation—to put fresh and unconventional harmonies to well-known melodies without spoiling their naturalness. … one must expand, contract, rearrange and superimpose the bare tunes themselves, giving them something of one's own touch. That, at any rate, is what I tried to do.”35 Copland's rhetoric suggests that he would find ways of calling attention to his creative manipulation of borrowed materials. While Harris chose to let the folk songs he borrowed emerge in a seemingly natural or unimpeded manner, Copland preferred to make his cowboy songs sound comic, surprising, (p.332) or strange. This is not to say that Copland was incapable of keeping a tune intact; his virtually verbatim orchestration of the square dance tune “Bonyparte” for the “Hoedown” dance episode from Rodeo is a case in point.36 The most literal quotation in Billy the Kid features “The Dying Cowboy” from John White and George Shackley's The Lonesome Cowboy—a different version of the tune that Harris used in his Folksong Symphony (1940). Copland retained both the meter and (for the most part) the melody in Billy's nocturnal scene “Prairie Night” (“Card Game at Night”).37 Even in this case, however, Copland alters the rhythmic values of the melody—lengthening certain notes and calling for relaxed duple eighth notes against the underlying triplet pulse.

Copland's relatively elaborate approach to folk materials in Billy the Kid led some reviewers to claim that the ballet used no borrowed material at all. In reality, Copland's quotations are obscured (perhaps even disguised) through two main procedures: first, he placed borrowed materials in contexts full of contrasts and rapid juxtapositions. No tune holds the spotlight for very long, and cowboy songs or their fragments intermingle with newly composed material. Like Cadman, Copland did not make a strong distinction between original and borrowed melodies—Virgil Thomson later remarked that Billy the Kid “even has folklore in it that doesn't stick out like a sore thumb and that doesn't make the original melodies sound silly either.”38 Second and somewhat less frequently, Copland altered the original tunes—not just through fragmentation, but also through melodic, rhythmic, and timbral changes.

Both procedures are present in full force from the beginning of Copland's cowboy career and his initial western adventure on the “Street in a Frontier Town.” As befi ts the stage action depicting the hubbub of frontier life, the music is a pastiche of new and borrowed material. To set the whole western carnival in motion, Copland chose a clear reference to the cowboy sphere—the tune “Great-Granddad” played “nonchalantly” on piccolo (and tin whistle in staged performances). At first his treatment of the melody is relatively literal, with only rhythmic alterations and occasional note substitutions, usually to eliminate repeated notes—C-B♭ instead of B♭-B♭ in bar 3, F instead of E♭ in bar 4, and so on (see examples 47a and 47b). The tune's ending is more substantially altered to avoid closing on the tonic.

After this initial statement, Copland begins what might be considered a catalog of the many available options for folk song manipulation. As the tune reaches its natural close in the piccolo, Copland inserts a transitional episode or extension based on a three-note fragment of the tune (drawn from bar 2). When the tune reasserts itself in measure 16, it has gained the support of clarinet and plucked strings, but after two of its four phrases it suffers the first of the many interruptions that Copland has in store for it (and for us). Muted trumpet and oboe enter with a phrase that the composer modified from “Whoopee Ti Yi Yo, (p.333)

Communal Song, Cosmopolitan Song

EXAMPLE 47A. “Great-Granddad” (from Lomax, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, 1938)

Git Along Little Dogies.” Though the melodic rise and fall are preserved, the rhythmic and harmonic character are so altered that it seems like new material—as if Copland wanted to provide his own answer to the open-ended phrases of “Great-Granddad.” The cycle repeats itself, but this time the “Whoopee Ti Yi Yo” material infects other sections of the orchestra and begins to gain momentum before lurching into a jaunty volley of grace-note figures that become static enough to serve as the accompaniment for the next entry of “Great-Granddad,” which appears in a humorous guise—perhaps a harmonica or street organ—harmonized à la Petrushka in parallel triads for flute, piccolo, and clarinet.

The brusque jostling between “Great-Granddad” and “Whoopee Ti Yi Yo” is but a foretaste of the many kinds of visual and musical mixture essential to the tumult of the frontier town. At first, this hybridity takes the form of awkward and usually humorous juxtapositions, but as the scene continues, its cross-fertilizations take on greater significance. After an aggressive rendering of “The Old Chisholm Trail” (readily recognizable despite being truncated and rhythmically altered), the “Great-Granddad” “Whoopee Ti Yi Yo” complex returns— this time with its comedic potential enhanced by cartoonish semitone clashes between trumpet and oboe and a reprise with sleigh bells of the grace-note-based rhythmic vamp heard earlier. The brief buildup that begins at rehearsal number 19 leads not to more cowboy tunes, but to an episode of Copland's own invention. He called this sequence a “Mexican Dance.” Evidently Loring had suggested a jarabe, and Copland complied with one of the catchiest tunes in the ballet—a 5/8 trumpet melody over rustling accompaniment of muted winds and col legno (p.334)

Communal Song, Cosmopolitan Song

EXAMPLE 47B. Billy the Kid, “Street in a Frontier Town,” opening (London: Boosey & Hawkes, 1941)

(p.335) strings. This moment is a visual as well as a musical climax at which point the chaotic stage action coalesces into an ensemble number for “Mexican women” (or, in some reviewers' minds, “dance-hall girls”). Thus the folk potpourri presented by the scene is an openly multiethnic one. For those who hear submerged jazz idioms in the ballet's rhythmic language, the musical evidence of cultural mixing runs deeper still. It is not unusual for listeners today to discern an African American influence in its pervasive syncopation—from the opening ostinato to the ragtime inflections in the treatment of “The Old Chisholm Trail.” Copland's contemporaries, however, were less inclined to hear things this way; Irving Kolodin surely had a different agenda when he cited Billy the Kid as proof that “not all the dance impulse in this country originated below the Mason and Dixon line.”39 Whatever its proportion of black, white, and Latino elements, Billy the Kid involved cultural collisions. In Copland's hands, even a frontier town could sound cosmopolitan.

Boy Bandit King

As the Mexican women end their dance, our attention is drawn to a young boy and his mother. According to Copland's “Notes on a Cowboy Ballet,” Billy is about twelve years old when he enters the frontier town and commits his first murder. Documentary evidence of the famous outlaw confirms this age—which together with his unusually boyish appearance earned him his nickname “the Kid”—but different authors have attached different meanings to the early inception (p.336) of his life in crime. While some portrayed him as innately depraved, others saw his youth as a mitigating factor. Burns's Saga of Billy the Kid belongs emphatically to the latter camp, and his attitude rubbed off on Loring. Burns informed his readers that Billy was not “an inhuman monster revelling in blood,” but rather “a boy of bright, alert mind, generous, not unkindly, of quick sympathies.”40

Burns's extravagant language gained both literary and musical admirers, helping to spread his forgiving view of the outlaw to audiences across the country. When he claimed that “a rude balladry in Spanish and English” had already surrounded Billy the Kid, his words actually helped stimulate this ongoing process. For example, one fan commissioned the Reverend Andrew Jenkins to compose a song that took Burns's characterizations to heart:

  • Fair Mexican maidens play guitars and sing
  • A song about Billy their boy-bandit king;
  • How ere his young manhood had reached its sad end
  • Had a notch on his pistol for twenty-one men.41

Whether they had encountered Jenkins's song or not, Loring and company were nothing if not captivated by the boy hero. They took further steps to generate good feeling toward Billy and to arouse spectators' sympathy for his unique psychology. Most importantly, as Pollack and others have observed, the killing of Billy's mother triggers his lethal act in the ballet (in the book she was only insulted)—giving added justification to his aberrant and perhaps compulsive talent for murder. The ballet's explicit identification between Billy's Mexican sweetheart and his absent mother adds depth to his inner life and makes the devastating death of his mother central to all aspects of his character. A single dancer performs as both Mother and Sweetheart; likewise, all Billy's victims are danced by the same man, Alias, who was responsible for her accidental death in the frontier town. Thus, a maternal shadow falls not only on his murderous acts, but also on his most visible attempts to enter into human relationships—with the (quasi-paternal) sheriff Pat Garrett, and with his (probably fantasized) sweetheart.

Copland's music plays a significant role in arousing and maintaining sympathy for Billy as a child, an outcast, and ultimately as a tragic hero. Though Billy and his mother have been on stage for some time, at rehearsal number 24 a shift in musical material alerts us to their new importance (example 48). At the close of the jarabe, Copland inserts a lovely moment of metric disorientation, reinterpreting the already irregular meter in preparation for the prominent pickup notes of the next cowboy tune on his list: “I Ride an Old Paint.” “Old Paint” is the third cowboy song to appear on the scene, and it stands apart from the others in the tenderness with which Copland treats the melody. Gentle string brush-strokes and rocking figures in the flute and harp envelop it in sweet lullaby sounds. After a complete iteration of the melody, he crafts a circling accompaniment (p.337)

Communal Song, Cosmopolitan Song

EXAMPLE 48. Billy the Kid, “Street in a Frontier Town,” end of jarabe

figure for upper woodwinds from the song's last four notes. Together with the glockenspiel entrance, this whirring figuration lends the clockwork sounds of a music box to the second statement of “Old Paint,” completing the nursery rhyme mood and making Billy seem even more childlike than his twelve years would require.

Potent as this musical characterization might be, there is more at stake here than our compassion for Billy. Copland and Loring did not need much prompting (p.338) to absorb Burns's “nostalgia for a bygone America” or to recognize Billy as a symbol of lost innocence (HP, 317). For them, Billy's lethal coming of age transcended the personal to take on universal and national implications. As the stage action becomes more menacing, the statements of “Old Paint” become more dissonant. In the midst of what Pollack has called an evolution “from pastoral innocence to mechanistic violence” (HP, 321), the cowboy song persists over an ostinato that combines grinding semitones in the bass with the same rhythmic profile of the pioneer processional. The allusions to the opening processional remind us that somehow the process by which Billy loses his carefree childhood parallels the movement of the westering crowd—and that the violence that creates and destroys him is an inescapable consequence of nation building.

Stopped cold by the twin murders that bring the scene to its dreadful end, the ostinato and the townspeople freeze, and all our attention must focus on Billy. Loring described the gestures he devoted to Billy's dastardly deeds: “In Billy I worked out a sequence—double pirouette, then double air tour—just before Billy shoots each victim. This is followed by an almost pantomimic gesture of revulsion and sickness. Those steps relay how Billy feels emotionally before he kills, because I believe that Billy did care that he was killing, that he was revolted.”42 Through this choreographic inspiration, Billy manages to express both excitement and revulsion at the behaviors to which he has been driven.

The emotional understanding Loring musters for his hero stands in sharp contrast to the ballet's caricature of the townspeople rejoicing after Billy's capture. Their justifiable feeling of triumph is effectively quashed by a musical and choreographic treatment presenting them as utterly unnatural. While the inchoate milling of the frontiersmen during the earlier street scene was harmless enough, when they unite in pursuit of Billy, they become less human than the criminal himself. Loring suggested a “macabre dance” at this point in the action, and Copland rose to the occasion with stilted rhythms, shrieking piccolos, and wrenching bitonality. In response to such sounds, the posse engages in what Siegel describes as “a sort of Virginia reel, a very mechanical, doll-like, and completely unnatural barn dance.”43 With such raucous revelry in the background, it becomes easier to believe Denby's interpretation that “Billy's real enemy is the plain crowd of frontiersmen, who being a crowd can ignore him and whom he ignores by an act of pride.”44

Apart from Billy's soliloquy, the pas de deux for Billy and the Sweetheart represents the longest and most coherent episode characterizing our antihero. Both of these set pieces were omitted from the orchestral suite, though the waltz tune (based on the cowboy song “Trouble for the Range Cook (Come Wrangle Yer Bronco)” appears in the two-piano version as well as the cello showpiece that Copland excerpted from the work. Even more than the “Card Game at Night,” this is an episode devoted to seemingly straightforward melody and the lyrical (p.339) depiction of Billy and his girlfriend. Yet a number of factors problematize the couple's closeness. Most important is the status of the Sweetheart. Is she real or a fantasy? Though the scenario is somewhat ambiguous on this point, most viewers have interpreted the various disjunctions of the duet as signs that Billy is dreaming. Does this enigmatic female figure represent lover or mother? Because they are represented on stage by the same dancer, the duet would appear to carry both innocent and oedipal connotations.

In keeping with this mood, Copland's score reflects a surreal wistfulness. It gives little flesh to the rhythmic skeleton of oom-pah-pah waltz accompaniment, except in passages where brief countermelodies intertwine, suggesting the physical proximity of the two dancers. The cowboy song that circles above this indifferent figuration is a peculiar choice; Pollack has noted a certain irony in the mismatch between the humorous “Trouble for the Range Cook” and the serious purpose that it serves in the ballet (HP, 322–23). Subsequent solos for bassoon and trombone hardly reinforce the timbral expectations for a traditional love scene. Mosaic rearrangement of the tune's phrases superimposed over harmonic vagaries or cul-de-sacs introduce what Arthur Berger deemed “fruitful distortions” comparable to cubism.45 The dream state of Copland's music finds ample support in Loring's choreography. The Sweetheart is the only dancer in toe shoes, which sets her apart from the rough and ready “real” characters. Moreover, her interaction with Billy is curiously otherworldly, as Siegel observes: “At first they dance back to back, and during much of his supporting action she is in a position where they can't make eye contact. Even when they can see each other, they have a far-off look, their contacts are remote.”46 The ever-present possibility that Billy is dancing with his dead mother makes the waltz a more than plausible candidate for the ballet's true “danse macabre.” Yet the contrast between the disjointed sweetness of Billy's waltz and the jarringly mechanical reel of the frontiersmen could hardly be greater, and Billy is clearly one who deserves our sympathy.

Westerns in other media had already confirmed that the American West was the natural habitat for the badman who is good at heart, the hero who resists societal norms. Already in 1925, Burns had recognized this potential in Billy, calling him “the hero of a Southwestern Niebelungenlied” and noting that “he is destined eventually to be transformed by popular legend into the Robin Hood of New Mexico—a heroic outlaw endowed with every noble quality fighting the battle of the common people against the tyranny of wealth and power.”47 Equally typical of the western are the conflicting feelings Billy engenders toward progress as a cultural imperative. In Billy the Kid, this tension resides somewhere between the gritty optimism of the frontier processional and the cruel jubilation of the “civilized” townspeople after Billy's capture. Reading through a rather grand historical lens, Burns claimed that “[Billy's] life closed the past; his death opened the present. … After him came the great change for which he involuntarily had (p.340) cleared the way. Law and order came in on the flash and smoke of the six-shooter that with one bullet put an end to the outlaw and to outlawry.”48 Copland, Loring, and many of the critics who praised the ballet fed on the western's tremendous nostalgia for an older social order (or disorder) in which chivalrous outlawry remained a viable option.

Despite these stereotypical features, the psychological complexity that music and gesture lend to Billy is remarkable among westerns. With him, we see how the freedom of outlawry brings a fracturing of human relationships. Not all western heroes are so unlucky in love; in Copland's and Loring's hands, however, the boy bandit eschews the heterosexual masculinity of Hollywood cowboys in favor of something decidedly more complicated. The ballet still pays its own variety of homage to the traditionally central (if often silent) role of women in the western. What has changed in Billy the Kid is the female figure around which the hero is constructed. When the eternal feminine migrates from lover to mother, the sexual valences of the typical western go awry, changing what should be a crucial present-day relationship (between lovers) into a remembered one. And with this shift in temporal priority comes a sense of distance or disjunction that persistently drives the ballet into surrealism and fantasy. Always poetic in his treatment of such themes, Denby recognized the contemporary motivations of the ballet's move toward myth. He wrote: “Billy is about the West as it is dreamed of, as it is imagined by boys playing in empty lots in the suburbs of our cities. And for this reason Billy is unreal in its local description, but real in its tragic play. An anthropologist would recognize it as an urban puberty ritual.”49 In Billy the Kid, the western hero has himself become nostalgic, making him at once more poignant and, strangely, more modern.

Another Cowboy Ballet?

Denby appreciated the subjective distance and ritual tone of Billy the Kid, and his review encapsulates much of what set the ballet apart from the few existing Americana dance productions (most notably Virgil Thomson's Filling Station). At the time of his writing, he was particularly interested in distinguishing the ballet from its closest sibling in the dance world: Agnes de Mille's Rodeo, for which Copland wrote the score in 1942. Denby considered the later work far removed from Billy's panoramic West, asserting that “Rodeo is about the West as it is lived in” not “as it is dreamed of.”50 Though his description of Billy the Kid seems uncannily on the mark, his claims for the “realism” of Rodeo are harder to swallow. The ballet is a virtual Cinderella story with no historical antecedent, but it did rely on more naturalistic dance gestures, and it did abandon at least some of Billy's epic and psychological pretensions.

(p.341) When a second cowboy ballet appeared while Billy was still in the active repertory—again produced by a company with prominent East Coast or European ties, again relying on Copland and cowboy song—invidious comparisons were inevitable. It required no special genius to predict this reaction, and Copland himself was understandably concerned. Nor could he have been oblivious to the fact that, although he had rarely been west of the Mississippi, he might be risking permanent identification as a cowboy composer. These factors may help explain Copland's initial reluctance to take on the project. Looking back on his first discussion with de Mille, the composer recalled: “When she started to tell me about it being a cowboy ballet, I immediately said, ‘Oh no! I've already composed one of those. I don't want to do another cowboy ballet! Can't you write a script about Ellis Island?’” (VPAC1, 355–56). Though perhaps offered in jest, there is a poignancy in Copland's question that reflects more than a fear of self-repetition or typecasting. De Mille's own writings from the 1950s give us a glimpse of the other issues at stake: “I detailed the scenario. … There was a pause. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘it isn't Hamlet.’ He giggled. ‘—but it can have what Martha Graham calls an “aura of race memory.” ’ At this Copland's glasses flashed and gleamed. His body began to vibrate all over with great explosive laughs. ‘Couldn't we do a ballet about Ellis Island?’ he asked, his glasses opaque with light. ‘That I would love to compose.’”51 Regardless of the possible pitfalls, writing a score for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was an opportunity not to be missed, and Copland was soon at work on his second cowboy commission.

Copland and de Mille may have professed their amusement at the notion of “race memory,” but it is easy to imagine a nervousness behind their laughter. In her 1991 memoir Blood Memory, Graham speaks of “ancestral footsteps” pushing her to create and of moments when “your body [becomes] something else and … takes on a world of cultures from the past.”52 De Mille was not especially interested in such transhistorical transubstantiation; and if she were listening for ancestral footsteps, the loudest might have belonged to her uncle Cecil B. Agnes was a child of Hollywood; her early life was far removed from the world of ranching and roping. And as for Copland, he still considered horseback “a dangerous place to be.”

By the time Copland sat down to write Rodeo, after the outbreak of World War II, he had joined many of his compatriots in composing pieces that abandoned regional references altogether or subsumed them into the all-encompassing Americanism of the Fanfare for the Common Man. In de Mille's case, although it marked her debut as director of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (the first American choreographer the troupe had ever employed), Rodeo was not her first or last experiment in Americana. Her reputation stemmed from works like American Street (1938), in which she had employed stylized horseback-riding gestures (p.342) independently of Loring (HP, 363–64). In fact, her “big break” coincided with the company's desire to make a patriotic statement during wartime.

Few if any moments in the ballet reflect the seriousness of its time. The scenario's lightheartedness—the fact that it was no Hamlet—may also have contributed to the collaborators' unease. One dance sequence (which was later scrapped) in which the men all rush off to take care of ranch business during the dance seems to have sprung from de Mille's awareness of the many separations suffered by military families (HP, 365). For the most part, however, Rodeo escapes the gravity of wartime, and this left its creators open to a certain type of critique.53 Yet the ballet's ebullience at least had the advantage of obvious contrast with Billy the Kid. De Mille may even have had this in mind when describing her own scenario: “It is not an epic, or the story of pioneer conquest. It builds no empires. It is a pastorale, a lyric joke.”54 From the beginning, Copland was reassured by the differences in the artistic personalities behind the two cowboy ballets. He recalled: “I came to the conclusion that since de Mille was a very different person from Eugene Loring, it was bound to be a very different ballet. Loring was interested in legendary figures and grandiose effects, while Agnes was after something lighter and more bouncy” (VPAC1, 356). After the birth of the younger cowboy ballet, Copland further separated his western progeny by making analogies to dramatic genres and operatic types. He claimed that Billy the Kid had “a certain ‘grand opera’ side,” while Rodeo was “closer to musical comedy.”55 Though Copland had a tendency to protest too much, when it came to evaluating his western scores, his near-dismissal of Rodeo was not merely retrospective. In 1942, he wrote to Benjamin Britten: “I'm doing a frothy ballet for the Monte Carlo people on the usual wildwest subject—full of square dances and Scotch tunes and the like” (VPAC1, 364–65).

Hamlet was out of the question. Even A Midsummer Night's Dream would have been a stretch, but de Mille chose her own Shakespearean precedent by referring to Rodeo as “the Taming of a Shrew—cowboy style.”56 The parallel is apt for a ballet in which traditional gender roles are violently reinforced under the guise of comedy. De Mille had originally wanted the title “The Courting at Burnt Ranch,” and according to the scenario, the ballet “deals with the problem that has confronted all American women, from earliest pioneer times, and which has never ceased to occupy them throughout the history of the building of our country: how to get a suitable man.” Though lonely and infatuated with the Head Wrangler, the tomboy-cowgirl fails to make an impression until she dons a dress and puts a bow in her hair. Suddenly both the Wrangler and the Champion Roper are vying for her affections. The Roper proves quicker on his feet, and she takes up his challenge to dance the hoedown—a dance that the choreographer linked to the sexually charged flamenco (HP, 364). These would-be lovers reach their denouement when he takes her firmly in hand. As de Mille originally put it, (p.343) “He grabs her, forces her to dance his way and wears her out by sheer brute strength. That's all she wanted. She has met her master.” In later versions of the scenario, a Hollywood-style kiss replaces this aggressive dance duet as the gesture that seals their union.

Rodeo's gender stereotyping and emphasis on conformism drew strong words from Marcia Siegel, who condemned the ballet's values as “absurd” and “pernicious” and used a comparison with Billy the Kid to drive home her point: “Loring's characters are types, even archetypes. They don't develop or change during the ballet. But what a varied population these types comprise. Loring distinguished them in several ways, by their occupations, their temperaments, their racial origins. … De Mille's community, on the other hand, is entirely homogeneous. In fact, the moral purpose of her ballet is to show the error in being a nonconformist. All the cowboys do the same movements, usually in tight, unison floor patterns.” The heroine's eccentricity is bound to stand out in such a rigid context for, as Siegel relates, “The Cowgirl is the worst sort of misfit, a sexual misfit, and in a highly conformist society she must be shunned until she gives up her peculiar notions.”57

Why would de Mille choose this view of society for her Monte Carlo debut? Comic considerations aside, it is tempting to link Rodeo's emphasis on conformity with its historical context. Though this interpretation received scant recognition at the time, the ballet's celebration of unity at the expense of self-expression would have been an appropriate wartime message. More particularly, its dramatic crux involves a woman trying to enter a predominantly male profession. Though the Cowgirl ultimately fails to shed her domestic femininity, her attempt to do a “man's job” might have seemed familiar to the many American women who took up factory positions while their husbands and brothers were mobilized for war. Pollack points out that de Mille was preoccupied with the changing gender roles brought on by the conflict. She recalled thinking of “the men leaving, leaving everywhere—generation on generation of men leaving and falling and the women remembering” (HP, 365). But de Mille's Cowgirl does more than remember. In less than half an hour, she acts out one of the country's most striking demographic shifts during the 1940s, when women temporarily swelled the workforce.58

A more widespread interpretation of the ballet's social philosophy draws directly from de Mille's own biography. Siegel is not the only critic to have suggested that de Mille's sympathy for the Cowgirl's predicament had autobiographical roots—especially in the early 1940s, when the young choreographer was frustrated and isolated, struggling to make a place for herself in the male-dominated dance world and to carve out her own niche between ballet and modern or popular dance styles. Like the Cowgirl and the courting couples on the ranch, de Mille's aspirations could be realized only through dance. (The fact that (p.344) de Mille had married a Texan only the year before she began drafting “The Courting at Burnt Ranch” adds yet another layer to the self-portrait.)59

Rodeo was de Mille's signature work in more ways than one—she wrote the scenario, invented and rehearsed the choreography, and prepared the lead role for herself. Her controlling presence in the work had serious consequences for Copland. Perhaps with so much of de Mille in the ballet, there was little room left for him—at any rate, he hardly strayed from the detailed scenario she provided and used folk songs and fiddle tunes where she had suggested them.60 Whether because of these constraints or not, Copland invented less music for Rodeo than he had for Billy the Kid, and according to some reviewers, his most “original” contribution to the ballet was an episode with no music at all—where he required the men in the orchestra to clap and tap their instruments in time with the dancing.

The opening “Buckaroo Holiday” is by far the most elaborate of the episodes Copland contributed to the score. Pollack and others agree that this movement rivals anything in Billy the Kid for its sophisticated handling of borrowed material. Even more than the “Street in a Frontier Town,” it shows the degree to which Copland was willing to alter his folk songs for dramatic effect. This section of the ballet draws upon two tunes taken from Our Singing Country, although only one of them features cowboys. In addition to the topical tune “If He'd Be a Buckaroo,” Copland chose “Sis Joe,” a railroaders' work song notable for its change of meter and irregular speech rhythms. It seems likely that these features attracted Copland, for they are the ones he exaggerated (examples 49a and 49b). In the initial statement of this melody, the middle five bars are omitted and rhythmic values (especially lengths of rests) are altered. As the movement unfolds, these two tunes appear in canon and in counterpoint with one another, and together they provide a host of punctuating devices, characteristic rhythms, and melodic motives.

If any moment in the ballet could single-handedly justify Rodeo's designation as the comic counterpart to Billy the Kid, it would be the first appearance of the cowboy tune “If He'd Be a Buckaroo” (example 50). After a full stop and a change of key, the arrival of the new tune is staged in a manner worthy of Dukas's Sorcerer's Apprentice. The trombone seems to awaken and reconstitute its melody phrase by phrase with prolonged, unpredictably humorous silences between the tune's phrases, making it seem awkward and out of kilter. Presumably the comic revivification of “If He'd Be a Buckaroo” originated as a musical pun accompanying the Cowgirl's masculine posturing and misguided efforts to mount her bronco. (One reviewer responded: “The note of humor runs its telling course … and not infrequently some one or other of the instruments does a rubbery-legged walk-on, Leon Errol style.”)61

Throughout the cowboy ballets, ironic touches serve to denature the folk material, thwarting efforts to “sing along” and continually reminding the listener of (p.345)

Communal Song, Cosmopolitan Song

EXAMPLE 49A. “Sis Joe” (from Lomax, Our Singing Country, 1941)

the composer's active, “professional” manipulation and recasting of whatever he borrows. In both ballets as well there is often a dramatic aptness in the tunes Copland selected and deployed. Just as the subdued strains of “The Dying Cowboy” had accompanied Billy's lonely card game on the prairie, so the riotous rhythmic energy of “Sis Joe” marks the moment in Rodeo when the cowboys rush onto the stage “like thunder.”

Rodeo's other dance episodes are actual dances (figure 8). As befits their dramatic function, they quote folk songs more literally than almost anything else in Copland's oeuvre (with the possible exception of “Simple Gifts” from Appala-chian Spring). For the second episode, the “Corral Nocturne,” Copland wrote his own melody in a style that could pass for folk, but in the others he borrowed liberally. After some clever written-out tuning effects in the strings, the third movement, “Saturday Night Waltz,” preserves even the metrical and melodic variants of the version of “Old Paint” that de Mille had provided from memory.62 And as noted above, the final movement is primarily an orchestration of the square dance tune “Bonyparte” whose melody the composer lifted from Ira Forbes's Traditional Music of America.

No one could blame de Mille for exploiting the strengths of her medium or Copland for allowing his tuneful material to perform its traditional function. Yet Siegel senses an insidious side to the ballet's square dances: “The floor patterns are straight and orderly. Every person has a partner of the opposite sex, and the dance requires the participation of each couple in order to be accomplished. The steps are prescribed in advance and are simple enough so that with a little practice any energetic person could perform them.”63 Like the social dances of other (p.346)

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EXAMPLE 49B. Rodeo, “Buckaroo Holiday,” arranged for piano solo, mm. 114–27 (London: Boosey & Hawkes, 1962)

nations and eras, Rodeo's choreographing of conformity puts the values of its participants into motion and on display. Edwin Denby said as much—in more words—when he reacted to the work and its many conventional attitudes: “The effect of the ballet … is like that of a pleasant comic strip. You watch a little coy and tear-jerky cowgirl-gets-her-cowboy story, and you don't get upset about it. (p.347)
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EXAMPLE 50. Rodeo, “Buckaroo Holiday,”, mm. 167–93

What you are really recognizing is what people in general do together out West. Somehow the fl avor of American domestic manners is especially clear in that peculiar desert landscape.”64

What was it about the “peculiar desert landscape” that brought Rodeo's relationships into such sharp relief? In a way, the simple barrenness of the (p.348)

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Figure 8. Square-dancing couples in Rodeo, set against a backdrop that suggests both the spaciousness and the energy of Agnes de Mille's West. Courtesy of Boosey and Hawkes/ArenaPAL

surrounding terrain foregrounds the actions of its human inhabitants. Reading de Mille's scenario for Rodeo also suggests some psychological corollaries to western desolation. Before launching into the details of the ballet's plot, de Mille explained to Copland: “There are never more than a very few people on the stage at a time, and while they generate a lot of excitement between themselves, they are always dwarfed by space and height and isolation. One must always be conscious of the enormous land on which these people live and of their proud [loneliness].”65 It is a tall order to portray such a complex relationship between land and people in dance, but judging from reviewers' reactions, de Mille seems to have managed it. The profound isolation that she had in mind struck a responsive chord in part because of its resonance with the angst of modern industrial society.

Later in the scenario, de Mille described the solo piece that was to fall between the opening rodeo antics and the boisterous collective dancing that fills the rest of the ballet—a contemplative moment that was apparently intended to occur without orchestral accompaniment:

(p.349) The show is over, the men dismount. The girls saunter off to meet them. … The cowgirl sits on a post of the corral forgotten. The men and their sweethearts stroll in the eve ning. The twilight deepens. The sky goes green. They walk in the dusk. (This is a dance entirely of mood, lyric, quiet, almost mystic, a dance of courting, but abstracted, impersonal. It is more a dance between people and darkness than between people and people.) The few stragglers move like moths in the darkness. They are barely visible, outlined only against the deepening sky. The girl still sits. She is lonely. But she is in love with the land around and the great glowing night sky, and the smells and the sounds. She leaves the fence and moves across the moonlit space. Someone hurries by with an oil lantern. She run[s] through the empty corrals intoxicated with space, her feet thudding in the stillness. She stops spell-bound. A coyote calls.66

The changing light at sunset reveals the couples' courtships as mystic and abstract—more about their relationship to the natural world than to each other. The Cowgirl alone exults in the self-sufficiency of her relationship with her surroundings. The fact that her moment of self-discovery happens in silence and social isolation—apart from the rough physicality of the ranch house—calls into question the ballet's emphasis on conformity and temporarily inverts its sexual politics. Suddenly, if only for a moment, finding a “suitable man” has become less important than the opportunity for self-realization and the possibility of intoxication by space.

Though the subversive potential of this self-discovery remains, the Cowgirl's moonlit reverie is short-lived. Her solo is well contained by the episodes of communal dancing that push her back into the comic flux of social relations, redress her in conventionally feminine attire, and drive her toward the expected “happy” ending. Despite its moment of freedom, the plot of Rodeo and its success as a ballet show that there is much to be gained by playing societally sanctioned roles—a moral that is particularly relevant to the biographies of its creators. For de Mille, casting herself as a foolishly romantic heroine offset the fact that she was breaking new ground as a female choreographer. For Copland, who had little if any control over the details of the work's plot and characterization, the situation is harder to pin down.

Though analogies between Copland and his ballet characters must remain speculative, they are nonetheless worth exploring, especially in light of recent scholarship on Copland and sexuality. Pollack has posited a loose link between Copland's homosexuality and his attraction to the themes of loneliness and liberation.67 In a more provocative analysis, David Metzer has identified a homoerotic strain in Copland's early works (often masked by allusions to the sensuality of the Orient or the physicality of black Africa). Metzer argues that Copland “later backed away from this erotic-racial play,” retreating to abstraction in works like the Piano Variations and replacing sexually charged references to other cultures (p.350) with the supposedly straightforward use of Anglo folk materials. As he points out, references to homosexual desire “appear remote from the American frontier celebrated in Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, and Billy the Kid, the popular ballets of the 1930s and 1940s with which the composer is almost exclusively associated.”68 The apparent gulf Metzer identifies between Copland's sexuality and his western works is interesting in its own right, but its distance is all too easy to collapse if one takes the details of the cowboy ballet plots seriously.

It is surely striking that both of his cowboy ballets center on individuals who are visibly alienated from the communities around them: the outlaw Billy and the misfit Cowgirl. Each protagonist is marked by the frustration or displacement of desire, each plot hinges on a sudden change in the direction or expression of sexual energy, and each community reasserts itself in such a way that deviance (sexual or otherwise) is suppressed. The Cowgirl's sexual awakening is endangered—or at least forestalled—by her blatant disregard for gender roles and her unwillingness to conform to social norms. And as for that incorrigible adolescent, Billy the Kid, although he is a favorite with the Mexican girls, his fantasies are fi xated on his mother—an unattainable and unacceptable object of desire. He is betrayed at the moment he surrenders to his Sweetheart's reassurances and allows himself to be “disarmed.” Billy's relationship cannot bring him to sexual adulthood, nor can it save him from social ostracism.

These are not really the standard character types of the Wild West dime novel or the Hollywood western. In fact, their remarkable divergence from the typical, sexually powerful heroes of western genres suggests that Copland and his collaborators viewed western settings as an appropriate backdrop for the exploration (and arguably the expansion) of acceptable sexual mores and gender roles. Whatever Copland's role in shaping our sympathies toward these atypical western heroes may have been, his own biography offers supporting evidence for the idea that the imagery of the American West offered a haven for social and sexual aberrance, but also a site where patriarchal visions of social and moral order could be vigorously upheld.


(4.) Richard Crawford, “Dvořák and the Historiography of American Music,” in Beveridge, Rethinking Dvořák, 257–63.