Billy the Kid

Saturday, February 1, 2014 - 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, February 2, 2014 - 3:00 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre

Jason Love, conductor

Michael Sheppard


Aaron Copland - Suite from Billy the Kid
Program Notes

AARON COPLAND (1900-1990)


Composed: 1938
Premiered: Chicago, 1938 (two-piano version); New York, 1939 (orchestral version)

The story is often told of the movie composer Jerome Moross (an ex-student of Copland’s) introducing Copland to the actor John Wayne, who had asked to meet this most American of composers. Whatever Wayne was expecting, it was almost certainly not the extremely tall gay Brooklyn Jewish Communist who stood before him. Wayne stammered a greeting and left. Stereotypes are rarely reliable.

In 1938, Copland was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party of the United States (with a membership card counter-signed by membership secretary Helen Keller), living largely on a grant provided by – seriously – a laxative company, exactly like the recently-deceased George Gershwin before him. Copland and Gershwin met at a party in 1936; both later said that they could think of nothing to say to each other, which is both surprising and sad.

When Ballet Caravan’s Lincoln Kirstein first commissioned Billy the Kid from Copland, the composer protested that he knew nothing about the Wild West; Kirstein responded by pointing out that Billy the Kid had been born William McCarty in New York City. In a near-fantastic coincidence which does not seem to have struck the composer at the time, Copland’s childhood babysitter, a Miss Garrett, was the great-niece of Billy the Kid’s executioner, Pat Garrett. Garrett had died in an absurd gunfight over a goat in 1908, and his family fled to New York to evade the ridicule that swept the plains until Hollywood (and Ballet Caravan) mythologized the whole Billy the Kid story.

Perhaps strangely, given the composer’s politics, the story of the Billy the Kid ballet falls squarely into the realm of myth, rather than history. In the ballet, Billy becomes a criminal after his mother is killed in a street brawl; in reality, his mother died (of TB) in her bed, and Billy was described at the time as “the honestest kid I ever knew”. The scenario even gets his name wrong – “William Bonney”: Bonney was an alias, used much later.

Copland has left his own description of the music:

“An introductory prelude, ‘The Open Prairie,’ presents a pastoral theme harmonized in open fifths that gives the impression of space and isolation. The second section, ‘Street in a Frontier Town,’ is lively and full of action; for western flavor I used quotations from ‘Great Grand-Dad,’ ‘The Old Chisholm Trail,’ and ‘Git Along Little Dogies’ (but not in traditional harmonies and rhythms), a Mexican dance featuring a theme in 5/8 [time] and ‘Goodbye, Old Paint’ introduced by an unusual 7/8 rhythm. The third section, ‘Card Game at Night,’ has a sinister sound. ‘Gun Battle,’ the fourth movement, makes generous use of percussion. The fifth, ‘Celebration After Billy's Capture,’ depicts the townspeople rejoicing in the saloon, where an out-of-tune player piano sets the scene. ‘Billy's Demise,’ the final section of the Suite, makes use of material from the introduction, but with different coloration to convey the idea of a new dawn breaking over the prairie.”

Lincoln Kirstein had given Copland some books of Wild West folksongs to get him started, with the idea that some of the tunes could be incorporated in the music. But Copland was not interested in becoming the Bartok of the Prairies, and did not like the melodies anyway; the listener will have to listen very hard indeed to find the tunes that Copland claims are there. Ironically, Billy the Kid and its successor Rodeo came to define the whole Wild West musical genre, especially in the movies, causing a simultaneous boom in the careers of Western singers who really did sing cowboy tunes. Copland had a horrifying interview with Tex Ritter, who knew all the tunes intimately and wondered why he couldn’t hear them. Copland’s glorious “explanation” was to point out that he had written the music in Paris.

It is impossible to hear this music and not imagine just about every Western movie made since 1940. Copland’s music became the definition of the “Western” sound. There are many who actually believe that The Magnificent Seven was scored by Copland; in a sense, it was, but filtered through Jerry Goldsmith. Jerome Moross’s score for The Big Country could be dropped more or less wholesale into Billy the Kid without the joins showing. Yet the ironic fact is that Copland himself only got to score a couple of minor movies in the late 1940s before he was blacklisted in the wake of Senator McCarthy’s inquiries. The gates of Hollywood slammed shut, never to open again.

Michael Djupstrom - Scène et Pas de deux
Program Notes



Composed: 2010
Premiered: Philadelphia, 2010

Michael Djupstrom was born in St. Paul, Minnesota and grew up in White Bear Lake, Minnesota; he now lives and teaches in Philadelphia. He studied with two composers whose music has been welcomed by the Columbia Orchestra and its audience – Jennifer Higdon and Bright Sheng. He can now add First Prize in the orchestra’s Composition Competition to his long list of awards, which include recognition from organizations as far apart as the Delius Society and the Chinese government, who gave him First Prize at the Great Wall Composition Competition in 2006; the William Schuman Award, the Frederick Fennell Award and the Charles Ives Fellowship have all come his way.

Djupstrom has not (yet) written a ballet, but the Scène and Pas de Deux show us exactly what the music would sound like if he did. The music evokes not a specific story, but a generalized scenario of the ballet world, with its busy comings and goings leading to the Great Duet. Djupstrom did something similar with his Prelude to a Forgotten Opera in 2006. Accordingly, the work opens with energy and bustle (a battle? an argument? ideological struggle?), built around a tight four-note figure that charges round and flits through the music until the arrival of the soaring, lyrical Pas de Deux, which can be love scene, dream sequence or all-purpose Apotheosis – as the audience wishes.

The four-note figure that unfolds into the entire piece is identical to the “wonders unfold” motif in Britten’s Death in Venice, and has the same sense of a musical seed that not so much germinates as detonates into a bigger picture. We should hope that Mr. Djupstrom will eventually write the ballet to which this work is, in every sense, a prelude.

Notes by the Composer:

In an earlier orchestral work of mine, Prelude to a Forgotten Opera, I tried to evoke a sense of theatrical atmosphere and operatic drama within the context of a purely instrumental work. The present piece was conceived in a similar way, but this time, I attempted to write something that would reflect upon the world of dance.

In ballet culture – which makes great use of French terminology – scène is a general designation for any situation in which some kind of narrative is unfolding, whether it be a nighttime journey, a ferocious battle, or simply the arrival of guests at a dinner party. In contrast, the pas de deux is more specific: a part of the ballet choreographed for only two dancers – usually the male and female principals – and which often forms a discrete musical structure by following a standard formal pattern. Although my pas de deux is freely written and emerges directly from the preceding music, its passionate lyrical character still sets it sharply apart from the highly rhythmic music that makes up the rest of the work.

Sergei Rachmaninoff - Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Program Notes



Composed: 1934
Premiered: Baltimore, 1934

Visitors to the Lyric Theatre in Baltimore are often surprised to see a plaque on the wall of the entrance hall, commemorating the first performance of Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody on the stage of the theatre on Wednesday, November 7, 1934. The composer himself played the piano, accompanied by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. The entire concert was repeated in Washington DC the following day. On Christmas Eve, the same artists gathered in a freezing converted church in Camden, New Jersey to record the work. The resulting record set sold in millions all over the world. Rachmaninoff, always a celebrity, became a star – and moved to Beverley Hills.

In writing this work, Rachmaninoff was adding his name to a list of at least forty composers who have written variations on the last of Paganini’s Caprices, beginning with Liszt and Brahms, down to Lutosławski and Andrew Lloyd Webber (!) in our own time. As a prodigious virtuoso himself, Rachmaninoff felt an affinity with the semi-demonic Italian violinist, and also with the piano-priesthood world of Liszt; one of his closest friends, Alexander Siloti, studied with Liszt, and did much to spread Liszt’s world of pianism-meets-sports-fanaticism to the rest of the world. Rachmaninoff, a true disciple, practised four hours every day and began every day with a Liszt Transcendental Étude, often the last – which is based on Paganini’s last Caprice.

Rachmaninoff seems to have been unaware that he shared something beyond mere virtuosity with Paganini. Both had Marfan’s Syndrome, a genetic defect that results in extremely long fingers and abnormally tall stature; Stravinsky’s famous description of Rachmaninoff - “six and a half feet of scowl” - was actually out by nearly two inches. The doorways of his Beverley Hills home had to be adapted for him, and remain seven feet high to this day. Marfan’s directly affected his music: if he placed his thumb on C, his fifth finger was touching the A nearly two octaves away – a thirteenth, when the maximum span of most adults is just over an octave.

The Paganini Rhapsody consists of 24 (note the number!) variations, but close inspection reveals a more familiar pattern at work. The Rhapsody is Rachmaninoff’s Fifth Piano Concerto in all but name, with the first ten variations making up the first movement, 11 through 18 the slow movement, and the remaining variations as the finale. The piece is also somewhat mis-titled, as there are, in fact, two themes at work in the piece: the Paganini them, of course - and the medieval Dies Irae chant. The Dies Irae is the section of the Mass for the Dead that describes the end of the world and the Final Judgment. The melody became a universal musical symbol of doom and death. Well into the nineteenth century, its fearful reputation was so daunting that priests were often bribed to omit it from funerals. It was dropped by the Church in 1964, but its symbolism remains; it was last seen in Hollywood in the score for The Sixth Sense. Even those completely unfamiliar with its liturgical origins hear it and shudder; you may not know it, but it knows you.

Rachmaninoff quoted the Dies Irae in at least fifteen works, all composed towards the end of his career. This obsession is very unlikely to have had religious grounds; the Russian Orthodox Rachmaninoff would never have heard it in church, and as late as the early 1930s he asked a friend where the melody came from. The reason for his interest is purely musical. Rachmaninoff conducted the first Russian performance of Liszt’s Totentanz, which is based on the Dies Irae, in 1902, and was introduced by his friend Siloti to many other works that used it. When he came to write the Rhapsody, he noticed that the Paganini melody and the Dies Irae were nearly inversions of each other, and this became – to him - a powerful symbol of the omnipresence of death. As the proverb goes, et in Arcadia – “even in Heaven, I, Death am present.” The shape of the melody also allows for a lot of compositional trickery (it is also not very unlike the motif which opens Djupstrom’s Scène and Pas de Deux, by the way). The chant first appears in Variation VII, then turns up horribly mangled in the weird march of Variation X, before haunting most of the last five minutes of the work.

A journalist once asked Rachmaninoff how he composed. Rachmaninoff replied: “I hear music in my head and I write it down”. It never even occurred to the journalist that he was joking. All of Rachmaninoff’s music uses composition techniques at least as stringent as Schoenberg’s. The Rhapsody begins with what amounts to a compositional joke: we hear the first variation before the melody. The sweeping romantic melody of the eighteenth variation (dedicated to the composer’s agent!) is a note-for-note inversion of the Paganini tune. Rachmaninoff’s variation technique is very much of the “modern” kind, which splits the melody into fragments to be treated separately, rather than the whole-melody rearrangement method that makes so many classical variation works (Beethoven!) daunting parades of repetition. For most of the first six variations, the Paganini melody can hardly be made out at all except in the most skeletal form. What we hear is not so much the same melody in different costumes as original music haunted by the melody.

About the Concert

Two audience favorites from the 20th century share the program with a new work from the 21st! Copland may have grown up in Brooklyn, but his style became the quintessential sound of the American west in cherished works like Billy the Kid. Pianist Michael Sheppard, a local favorite, joins the orchestra to perform Rachmaninoff's marvelous Rhapsody.

First, we give the local premiere of Scène et Pas de deux, the winning work from our Sixth American Composer Competition. Composer Michael Djupstrom joins us for the concert and will discuss the work with Bill Scanlan Murphy at the 6:30 pre-concert discussion!

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