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Copland & Beethoven

Aaron Copland (b. 1900 - d. 1990)

Billy the Kid Suite (1938)


Like Charles Ives before him, most of Aaron Copland's familiar tunes are not his own. Copland was approached in 1938 by impresario Lincoln Kirstein and choreographer Eugene Loring of the Ballet Caravan to compose music for a "cowboy ballet." Copland later wrote, "Lincoln tempted me with several books of western tunes and Loring wrote a scenario about the notorious bandit of the Southwest… I became intrigued with using tunes such as Git Along Little Dogies, The Old Chisholm Trail and Goodbye Old Paint."


As a result, the composer, who knew practically nothing about rural America, conjured up his musical images of the Wild West for the premiere of Billy the Kid on 16 October 1938 in Chicago, when Walter Hendel and Arthur Gold played a two-piano reduction of the score. That could hardly have done justice to the vividly colorful orchestration that keeps the concert suite—and the ballet itself—popular with audiences today.


Copland sets an almost visual scene of the wide prairie to open and close the single-movement suite. A piccolo begins the next and most complex scene of the score, "Street in a Frontier Town," its first theme derived from the cowboy tune Great Granddad. To this is added a Mexican-inflected melody, as a woman performs a Mexican hat dance, Come Wrangle Yer Bronco,cleverly arranged in a time signature of 5/8. Two drunks get into a fight, with Git Along Little Dogies sounding out. In the chaos gunshots kill the twelve-year-old Billy's mother. The boy, enraged, grabs a knife and stabs the shooter to death, while Goodbye Old Paint closes the scene. Calm ensues with "Card Game at Night" and Oh Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairie, only to be violently interrupted by "Gun Battle" (combining timpani, snare drum, bass trombone and muted trumpets with punctuating xylophone and string and wind chords) which leads to a dance celebrating Billy's capture. (In it, Copland pits C and C-sharp together for a piquant dissonance.) This immediate gives way to warm and tender string harmonies that sympathetically depict Billy's death, and that in turn subside into the original "Open Prairie" music.


Old American Songs


Copland never ventured farther into Charles Ives' territory than with his Old American Songs. The composer prowled the Harris Collection at Brown University to find sheet music of popular and minstrel songs and hymns from the early 19th century, and from them created two sets of five songs each, published in 1950 and '52 respectively, He set them originally for voice and piano and later orchestrated them. Eight of the ten songs are on today's program.


Published in 1843 as an "original banjo melody," The Boatman's Dance was written by tunesmith Dan Emmett, composer of Dixie and Polly Wolly Doodle. Simple Gifts, a favorite of the Shakers, dates from around 1840. Ching-a-ring Chaw is a minstrel song. At The River, from 1865, sets words and melody by Rev. Robert Lowry, reportedly written on a hot July day as a cholera epidemic raged in Brooklyn. The Little Horses sings an anonymous children's lullaby. Long Time Ago, a 'black-face' tune, uses an 1837 adaptation/arrangement. I Bought Me A Cat, a child's nonsense song (comma) was sung to Copland by playwright Lynn Riggs, author of Green Grow the Lilacs, on which the musical Oklahoma! would be based. The revivalist Zion's Walls uses words and a melody attributed to John G. McCurry, a farmer from mid-19th century Georgia who published a song collection called "The Social Harp."

Ludwig van Beethoven (b. 1770 - d. 1827)

Piano Concerto No. 1 (1798)


Concerto No. 1 in C is Beethoven's third launch, at least, in the form Mozart had perfected before him. The first, in E flat major, dates from his adolescence. The work that would be published, after extensive revisions, as Concerto No. 2 in B flat, comes from his early 20s. From 1792, the year Beethoven went to Vienna, he was known throughout the decade as an ambitious virtuoso pianist. (His stock in trade was theme and variations, which he improvised on the fly and happily used to thrash all comers.) The first evidence of his deafness appeared in 1798, and no doubt helped steer his course into composition. During this time, Beethoven despaired of ever surpassing Mozart's great Concerto No. 24 in C minor, but nevertheless he began sketches for his own work in that key, both inspired by and blatantly in competition with the Mozart.


Beethoven's ambition as a composer is second to none. Each and every one of his works, from tonight's concerto onward, throws down a gauntlet before any challenger. Haughty and arrogant, he was known to dress down the very aristocrats who were his patrons, and wily enough to double-deal among them.


The C major concerto dates from 1795 and was composed rapidly, shortly before its first performance; Beethoven completed the final movement with just two days to spare. (Franz Wegeler's account has him passing sheets of manuscript to four copyists at hand to create the orchestral parts, and, finding the piano a half-tone flat at the rehearsal a day before, transposing up to C sharp for what was apparently a successful premiere.) Its formal model is of course Mozart. But the departures begin immediately with a militant statement, soft at first, that makes an octave leap that drives the movement. The lyrical second theme appears brashly in the unexpectedly remote key of E-flat, creating a harmonic tension that would mark the rest of Beethoven's career (and many composers of subsequent generations, ultimately reaching the breaking point in 1916 with Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra.)  


Most commonly among concertos of the era, the classical exposition (following Haydn's symphonic example) was played by the orchestra, while the repeat of exposition was given to the piano. Such is the case here, although with the piano immediately taking liberties. That, in turn, leads to the development which engages both, driving toward the inevitable recapitulation—a revisit to the original exposition. Then comes the cadenza, a solo keyboard improvisation that, at last, signals the conductor with an unmistakable cadence, that requires only harmonic resolution back to the home key. Such is the way with tonal classical music.


The slow movement, in A flat major, is less formulaic, more ruminative, intimate and personal. In the rondo finale, between the solo cadenza and the last full iteration of the rondo theme on the orchestra, Beethoven departs suddenly into B major for a few bars, challenging the harmonic safe haven of classical tonic/dominant sanctity. 

Program notes by Scott MacClelland



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