Essay, Research Paper: Billy The Kid


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Aaron Copland wrote a ballet about one of the most famous “western
gangsters” in history: Billy the Kid. The work was written in 1938 and
remained popular for over a decade. Unfortunately, his works are no longer heard
or performed often enough today. In my opinion, Copland is one of the greatest
American performers in music history, but he is not given the recognition he
deserves by today’s society. By looking at Copland’s works and analyzing his
“Billy the Kid,” the necessary proof of his greatness will, without
question, show the fact that he is one of the greatest American composers of all
time. Aaron Copland, whose family name was changed from Capland by immigration
officials in New York, was born on November 14, 1900 and died December 2, 1990.
His parents were of Lithuanian Jewish descent. His parents emigrated from Russia
to the United States. His father owned a department store and they did not live
lavishly. As he explained, “I was born on November 14, 1900 on a street in
Brooklyn that can only be Geruso 2 described as drab. It had none of the garish
color of the ghetto, none of the charm of an old New England thoroughfare, or
even a pioneer street….”i He began to take piano lessons at the age of
fourteen under the tutelage of his sister Laurine. Soon he wanted more
professional lessons. Despite the fact that his four elder siblings had taken
lessons with no success, he convinced his parents to pay for lessons. “I
distinctly remember with what fear and trembling I knocked on the door of Mr.
Leopold Wolfsohn’s piano studio on Clinton Avenue in Brooklyn, and—once
again all by myself—arranged for piano lessons.”i The idea of composing
music was not “connected…with my family or with my street.”iii By the age
of 18 he had graduated high school and decided to devote all his time and energy
to music. Under the direction of Rubin Goldmark he studied the theory of harmony
and the works of Chopin, Haydn, Beethoven, Wagner, Hugo Wolf, Debussy, and
Scriabin. Finally his studies led him to France at the age of 21, where he
studied under Paul Vidal for a short period of time and then under Mlle.
Boulanger for three years. Before returning to America, in 1924, Mlle. Nadia
Boulanger asked Mr. Copland to write her a piece to perform on an American tour.
He accepted and wrote “Symphony for organ and orchestra, with Walter Camrosch
as conductor and Nadia Boulanger as soloist….”iv Geruso 3 Also during this
time, he wrote The Cat and the Mouse and a Passacaglia which “made him known
to a large and influential public and definitely established his position in
American musical life.”v His musical career took off from there with
invitations to write original pieces for concerts, tours, and such groups as the
Boston Symphony. In 1938, Copland wrote a ballet about William Bonney. William
grew up in Brooklyn, New York, Aaron’s hometown. At the age of 12 he saw his
mother shot by a wayward bullet during a street brawl. Following this he stabbed
the man responsible for his mother’s death. This is the first of several
murders William commits. Later in life he is accused of cheating during a card
game and kills the accuser. Finally, he is captured after a showdown and jailed.
To flee from prison, he slayed his jailer and escaped. William then meets his
lover in the desert and is murdered by his boyhood companion-turned-sheriff Pat
Garrett. All of these actions gained young William the nickname “Billy the
Kid.” Copland’s rendition includes many classic cowboy tunes. For example,
in the first scene, entitled Street in a Frontier Town, Copland “used such
tunes of the Wild West as Goodbye, Old Paint; The Old Chisholm Trail; Git Along,
Little Dogies; The Streets of Geruso 4 Laredo; and Great Grand-Dad.”vi The
songs throughout the piece are slightly changed, providing for great musical
adaptation and amazing listening. “But the composer decked them out with
polyrhythms, polytonal harmonies, and dissonance made more striking because they
fall on accent beats. The result is a music of powerful rhythmic thrust and
vigorous physical activity, bursting with energy and excitement as it mounts to
a fortissimo climax.”vii Copland’s style brings about vivid pictures of
colorful images of cowboy’s on horseback riding into town. The ensuing brawl
is animated colorfully by the volume and intensity of the music. The point at
which Billy kills his mother’s murderers is so beautifully depicted one can
see Billy raising the knife and slaying the guilty men. Listening to the music
alone, one can envision the entire ballet from its picturesque beginning to the
awe-inspiring conclusion. Copland once described a great symphony as “a
man-made Mississippi down which we irresistibly flow from the instant of our
leave-taking to a long foreseen destination.”viii Though this may be true,
Copland’s “Billy the Kid” may also be described in this fashion. The
beginning captivates the audience and holds their focus all the way to the
spectacular finale. For those who know the story, the music alone will bring
Geruso 5 about auditory pleasure; for those who do not know the story, the story
along with the entrancing music will undoubtedly arouse enjoyment. Copland’s
works have effected music in many ways, as is evidenced by his numerous awards.
These awards include the New York Music Critics Circle Award, a Pulitzer Prize,
an Academy Award, a Congressional Medal for patriotism, the Boston Symphony
Award of Merit, and his Third Symphony “was singled out by the Music Critics
Circle as the most important new orchestral work by an American composer.”ix
His greatness can also be seen in the way others talk about his work. In 1946,
Dr. Serge Koussevitzky described Copland’s Third Symphony as “the greatest
American symphony—it goes from the heart to the heart.”x The fact that his
contemporaries thought so highly of him shows, in effect, that he was one of the
greatest composers of his time. The fact that his contemporaries gave him many
awards proves that he was one of the greatest composers of his time. Still, the
strongest point in proving his greatness is that fact that he was able to adapt
to the changes around him. By his own admission, “…an entirely new public
for music had grown up around the radio and phonograph. It made no sense to
ignore them and to continue writing as if they did not exist. I felt that it was
worth the effort to Geruso 6 see if I couldn’t say what I had to say in the
simplest possible terms.”xi His success in changing to the times speaks
volumes about his ingenuity. Many people have an extremely difficult time
dealing with change and adapting to it. Copland’s fluidity dealing with change
was amazing. The fact that he kept up with the changing times and did it with
great success is amazing; he didn’t “miss a beat

BibliographyDavid Ewen, American Composers Today (New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 1949)
67. ii Ewen 68. iii Ewen 67-68. iv Ewen 69. v Percy A. Scholes, The Oxford
Companion to Music (Oxford University, 1992) 249. vi Joseph Machlis and Kristine
Forney, The Enjoyment of Music (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1999)
415. vii Machlis 415. viii Machlis 313. ix Ewen 70. x Ewen 71. xi Ewen 70.
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