Copland – Suite from Billy the Kid

by Max Derrickson

Aaron Copland

Suite from Billy the Kid
I. Introduction: The Open Prairie
II. Street in a Frontier Town
III. Mexican Dance and Finale
IV. Prairie Night (Card game at night)
V. Gun Battle
VI. Celebration (after Billy’s capture)
VII. Billy’s Death
VIII. The Open Prairie again

During the 1930’s and 40’s, Copland brought a refined simplicity of both structural and harmonic concept to his works.  In 1952, he wrote in Music and Imagination, “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.”

[. . .]

The simple style of Copland’s pieces may lead one to think that he uses less craft than emotion.  His musical effects are moving, surely, but in Billy the Kid, Copland’s compositional technique is extraordinary.  In the “Introduction:  The Open Prairie,” several falling motifs express the vastness of the prairie, the weight of its searing heat, and the dangers of the wild land.  Later, during the “Prairie Night,” the motif flows upward to reflect the release of heat from the baked earth into the night sky, and the safety of darkness’ cover for the outlaws.     [. . .]    The suite ends with a view across the ancient, colossal expanse of the American frontier, where the human is the outcast.