Friday, April 6, 2012

The Don's Deeds, Part 2: Billy the Kid

Aaron Copland
This month’s Masterworks Concerts may be called “The Don’s Deeds,” focusing on Richard Strauss’ tone poem inspired by Cervantes’ novel, Don Quixote but two other works were inspired by real people: the slave Spartacus and the legendary Wild West outlaw, Billy the Kid.

The concerts are April 14th at 8pm and April 15th at 3pm at the Forum with Stuart Malina conducting the Harrisburg Symphony. Principal cellist Fiona Thompson is the soloist in Strauss’s Don Quixote. I’ll be doing a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance. 

Stuart and I sat down to talk about the music on this program the other day. Here’s our podcast for our conversation about the Suite from Aaron Copland’s ballet, Billy the Kid, one of three ballets by Copland that helped define the American Sound.

(You can read more about Spartacus here – and about Don Quixote here.)

Photograph of Billy the Kid
The music one usually hears in the concert hall is the orchestral suite that Copland arranged from the complete ballet, compromising several scenes that serves as a kind of condensed version of the ballet’s scenario. It opens with the image of pioneers crossing the broad prairies (much as Billy did as a child, his mother leaving the slums of New York City behind to find a new life, eventually, in New Mexico), then, during a street scene, Billy’s mother is accidentally shot (Billy kills the murderer and runs off: his life of crime has begun and with it, his legend).

In the next scene, “The Prairie at Night” (the desert might be more appropriate), Billy, now older and already well-known as an outlaw, is playing cards with Pat Garrett (he would become the local sheriff but there was never any proof that Garrett and The Kid were actually ever friends). In another scene, Billy is arrested by a posse which includes the famous “shoot-out” scene, depicted in rhythmic gun-fire in the percussion and brass. Billy is captured – the townspeople celebrate – but he later escapes, only to be killed by Pat Garrett. The final scene takes us back to the stark opening music of the prairie.

Here’s a “video” of the complete orchestral suite in three clips with Erich Kunzel conducting the Cincinnati Pops.

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Orchestral Suite: Part 1 – the Open Prairie – Street in a Frontier Town
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Part 2 – Prairie Night & Gunfight
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Part 3 – Celebration of Billy’s capture – Billy’s Death – The Open Prairie
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Aaron Copland was approached by Lincoln Kirstein to write a ballet on an American story, something not too complicated that his travelling dance company, the Ballet Caravan, could take on the road. He gave Copland a scenario based on the life of the legendary outlaw, Billy the Kid, and a volume of Old West folk songs. Copland was not enthusiastic and probably would have declined the project except some of the tunes began to grow on him.

In the early-1930s, Copland – born in 1900 and after studying in Paris during the ‘20s with Nadia Boulanger – was writing works that had difficulty finding both performers and audience. After his “Short Symphony,” completed in 1933, he decided – perhaps naturally headed toward what most musicologists refer to as a more mature composer’s “middle period” – his style needed reconsidering. The problem was finding how to do this without just pandering to popular taste.

His music was becoming perhaps too complex (in both rhythm and texture) and he started examining the music he liked, beginning with the classics. He thought “an ideal music” could combine Mozart’s “spontaneity and refinement” with Palestrina’s “purity” (particularly in its textures) and Bach’s “profundity.” Among his contemporaries, Stravinsky was his hero but he also found energy in jazz even though his 1926 Piano Concerto wasn’t as successful as its most obvious influence, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” written two years earlier.

After a trip to Mexico, he created a “musical post card” of his visit to a famous saloon (where, he said, signs warned patrons not to through cigarette butts on the floor as many of the woman walked barefoot), employing several popular songs of the region that would give the music “authentic local color.” This was his El Salon Mexico which he wrote in 1936.

The following year, he wrote a piece he called “Music for Radio,” about as generic and abstract a title as one could imagine. The good radio people decided it needed a spicier title (always about ratings) so they held a contest to find a better name. The winner heard the music of the wide-open prairies in it and suggested calling it “Saga of the Prairies.” Eventually, Copland chose to call it “Prairie Journal,” even though that was not his original intent.

Yet that sonority of open chords, often lacking the thirds that define major- or minor-ness and often moving in parallel or block harmonies, came to imply the “American Sound.”

In Billy the Kid, written the year after that, one could argue the inclusion of Old West songs like “The Ol’ Chisolm Trail,” “Get Along, Li’l Dogies,” and “Good-Bye, Ol’ Paint” (Copland said he almost used “Home on the Range” but “I had to draw the line somewhere…”) would be enough to give it an American sound, marking this ballet as American as Stravinsky’s Petrushka was Russian because of its use of several Russian folk songs (mostly unknown to American audiences, anyway).

Copland at MacDowell
At any rate, reluctant initially or not, Copland ended up creating one of his most enduring works and one of the first that would label him as a “truly American composer,” whatever that means. Ironically, the son of Russian immigrants (his father, a Lithuanian Jew, changed the family name from Kaplan to Copland while awaiting trans-Atlantic transportation to their new home) who grew up in Brooklyn is considered an “American” because of three “Western” ballets – in addition to Rodeo, the ballet originally called “Ballet for Martha” [Graham] and later rechristened Appalachian Spring might be the wilds of Pennsylvania in the early 19th Century (little did he know there were no Shakers in Pennsylvania to warrant including the tune “Simple Gifts,” one of the highlights of the score). It’s interesting to see the last page of the score of Billy the Kid, and realize, for all its western-isms, it was composed not while vacationing in Arizona but in Paris and New York and completed in December, 1938, at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough NH.

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For history buffs interested in the story of Billy the Kid – born William McCarty and later calling himself William Bonney – here is Pat Garrett’s own account of the death of an outlaw who captured the American imagination:

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I then concluded to go and have a talk with Peter Maxwell, Esq., in whom I felt sure I could rely. We had ridden to within a short distance of Maxwell's grounds when we found a man in camp and stopped. To Poe's great surprise, he recognized in the camper an old friend and former partner, in Texas, named Jacobs. We unsaddled here, got some coffee, and, on foot, entered an orchard which runs from this point down to a row of old buildings, some of them occupied by Mexicans, not more than sixty yards from Maxwell's house. We approached these houses cautiously, and when within earshot, heard the sound of voices conversing in Spanish. We concealed ourselves quickly and listened; but the distance was too great to hear words, or even distinguish voices. Soon a man arose from the ground, in full view, but too far away to recognize. He wore a broad-brimmed hat, a dark vest and pants, and was in his shirtsleeves. With a few words, which fell like a murmur on our ears, he went to the fence, jumped it, and walked down towards Maxwell's house.

Little as we then suspected it, this man was the Kid. We learned, subsequently, that, when he left his companions that night, he went to the house of a Mexican friend, pulled off his hat and boots, threw himself on a bed, and commenced reading a newspaper. He soon, however, hailed his friend, who was sleeping in the room, told him to get up and make some coffee, adding: 'Give me a butcher knife and I will go over to Pete's and get some beef; I'm hungry.' The Mexican arose, handed him the knife, and the Kid, hatless and in his stocking-feet, started to Maxwell's, which was but a few steps distant.

When the Kid, by me unrecognized, left the orchard, I motioned to my companions, and we cautiously retreated a short distance, and, to avoid the persons whom we had heard at the houses, took another route, approaching Maxwell's house from the opposite direction. When we reached the porch in front of the building, I left Poe and McKinney at the end of the porch, about twenty feet from the door of Pete's room, and went in. It was near midnight and Pete was in bed. I walked to the head of the bed and sat down on it, beside him, near the pillow. I asked him as to the whereabouts of the Kid. He said that the Kid had certainly been about, but he did not know whether he had left or not. At that moment a man sprang quickly into the door, looking back, and called twice in Spanish, 'Who comes there?' No one replied and he came on in. He was bareheaded. From his step I could perceive he was either barefooted or in his stocking-feet, and held a revolver in his right hand and a butcher knife in his left.

He came directly towards me. Before he reached the bed, I whispered: 'Who is it, Pete?' but received no reply for a moment. It struck me that it might be Pete's brother-in-law, Manuel Abreu, who had seen Poe and McKinney, and wanted to know their business. The intruder came close to me, leaned both hands on the bed, his right hand almost touching my knee, and asked, in a low tone: -'Who are they Pete?' -at the same instant Maxwell whispered to me. 'That's him!' Simultaneously the Kid must have seen, or felt, the presence of a third person at the head of the bed. He raised quickly his pistol, a self-cocker, within a foot of my breast. Retreating rapidly across the room he cried: 'Quien es? Quien es?' 'Who's that? Who's that?')

All this occurred in a moment. Quickly as possible I drew my revolver and fired, threw my body aside, and fired again. The second shot was useless; the Kid fell dead. He never spoke. A struggle or two, a little strangling sound as he gasped for breath, and the Kid was with his many victims.
--- (Pat Garrett: The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid (1882, republished 1954)
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- Dick Strawser

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