Copland – Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo

by Max Derrickson

Aaron Copland   (b Brooklyn, NY, 14 Nov 1900; dNorth Tarrytown, NY, 2 Dec 1990)

Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo
I. Buckaroo Holiday
II. Corral Nocturne
III. Saturday Night Waltz
IV. Hoe-Down

From a certain perspective, it seems ironic that Aaron Copland, a boy from Brooklyn, whose parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants, that studied music primarily in Paris and in Germany, and who did a good deal of his composing while hermitting in small towns in Mexico, would create the embodiment of  classical “American” music.  But from another perspective, why not and who better?  If one considers who the typical “American” is, and what kind of music weaved its way into American minds and folk tunes, Copland would seem to be as perfectly natural a composer to accomplish this as a farm girl fromNebraska.  Because (since, that is,  its colonization)  American ancestry and folk music are, in most every sense, derived from other countries and other cultures – the Great American Melting Pot – American music coming from a man just like Aaron Copland is not ironic at all.

[. . .]

After he returned from his musical studies with Nadia Boulanger in Parisin the 1920’s, Aaron Copland went through a series of compositional ideas on his way to the works we most associate him with today.  He had begun with some rather austere esoteric works, then dabbled with jazz idioms, but audiences found no favor in them.  But in 1938 he hit pay-dirt with his cowboy ballet Billy the Kid.  Within that work Copland found a model for writing that met his goals for the American sound, swept an American public into adoration, and came upon not only his “signature” sound, but eventually the “American” sound.  As Copland put it in 1952, “Certain modes of expression may not need the full gamut of post-tonal implications and…certain expressive purposes can be appropriately carried out only by a simple texture in a basically tonal scheme….It is a satisfaction to know that in composing a ballet like Billy the Kid…I have touched off for myself and others a kind of musical naturalness that we have badly needed.” (Music and Imagination)

[. . .]

Rodeo, whose working title was “The Courting at Burnt Ranch,” dramatizes the tale of a  tomboyish Cowgirl who vies for the attention of the Head Wrangler.  She wears chaps and acts like a cowboy – trying to be a cowboy to win the cowboy – but the Wrangler is more interested in the more girlish Rancher’s Daughter.  As such, her lead role is both comic and heroic.  Amidst the gangs of rough and tumble cowboys, the Cowgirl at last finds a bit of her feminine side and wins the Wrangler by donning a dress.  A simple tale meant to showcase great dancing, great buffoonery, and great music.


Simplicity for its own sake is not what makes Copland’s works great.  His compositions own a great deal of craft and intelligence.  Rodeo is a fine example.  Themes are chosen carefully, and in the great classical tradition, find themselves being changed and becoming the seeds of later themes.  Counterpoint is paramount, too, and in Rodeo we even find a triple canon, among other contrapuntal techniques, that keep the music bracing and stitched together – the difference with Copland is in the choice of melodies and themes, which are uncomplicated, and his often bell-clear orchestration.  For Rodeo, American folk tunes were incorporated for their nostalgia and sense of place – not to mention that they are wonderful songs and, at least in 1942, still beloved staples in the American musical vernacular.

The first dance movement, Buckaroo Holiday, [. . .]

Corral Nocturne presents Copland’s other musical side – [. . .]

Saturday Night Waltz is all about pairs.  [. . .]

The famous Hoe-Down ends the ballet with exuberance and humor.  The folk tune here is Bonaparte’s Retreat – a standard fiddle tune, lively and quick.  Copland’s exceptional orchestration of it adds a xylophone for finishing the phrases and a simple horn call that turns the tune into a grandiose affair.  The Cowgirl, now that the Champion Roper has noticed her, has become the prize affection the Head Wrangler.  A short musical canon in Bonaparte’s Retreat accompanies their first kiss.  Other folk tunes wend their way into the hoopla – McLeod’s Reel, another wonderful fiddle tune, and a brief bit of Gilderoy.  For comic surprise, a tune gets cranked up on the Victrola, only to wind down and lose its pitch.  The Hoe-Down begins afresh, returning to Bonaparte’s Retreat and a headlong dive to the end.