Howdy y’all! We’re jumping right into Copland’s Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo today so put on your cowboy boots, saddle up and let’s wrangle this great piece of American music!
PIECE: Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo
COMPOSER: Aaron Copland
ERA: 20th C
GOOD FOR: Long road trips across the American West/Dancing in cowboy boots alone in your apartment.
Let’s start with a brief bio of who Aaron Copland was. He was referred to by his peers as “the Dean of American Composers” and I think many people would still agree to that title today. He was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1900 to a family of Russian Jewish immigrants, although Copland himself was not particularly religious. By age 15 he had decided to become a composer, though apparently he’d been writing music since he was eight, and so he began taking formal composition lessons. He eventually made his way to Paris to study with the famed Nadia Boulanger (who was a badass herself).
Copland created what he called “vernacular”, purposely accessible style to Americans. He created an “American” style in classical music, although Copland’s inspiration to create the sound of America through folk songs seems to have been inspired by his friend, Mexican nationalist composer Carlos Chávez. So like many beloved aspects of the American western culture, we have Mexico to thank for this! Gracias Méjico!
Copland is famous for his use of “perfect” intervals which create a sensation of wide open spaces and simplicity. There’s a beautiful Copland quote where he says “I felt it was worth the effort to see if I couldn’t say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms. As I see it, music that is born complex is not inherently better or worse than music that is born simple.”
Now let’s get into the work!
First of all, lemme clear something up about pronunciation here. You’re going to hear a lot of people call this Ro-DAY-o. Nobody seems to be able to pinpoint a better reason for this than that the ballet community was sort of horrified to be doing something so…ugh… American and so they adopted a Spanish pronunciation to make it seem fancier to their fancy dance friends. I called it rodayo for years and now I am leading the charge to ditch elitism and call it Ro-dee-o! Down with elitism! Hooray for cowboys!
Aaron Copland had recently composed a western themed ballet, Billy the Kid, and so he was pretty reticent when the relatively unknown choreographer Agnes DeMille approached him and asked him to write a second western ballet she described as “Taming of the Shrew with cowboys.” By reticent I mean he laughed in her face and DeMille told him to “go straight to Hell.”
Just kidding, Copland called and invited her over for tea the next day.
When this work premiered in 1942 at the Met, it was a far from perfect performance (someone forgot an entrance, leaving poor DeMille onstage alone to improvise for 64 bars among other mishaps) and yet still wildly popular. Rodgers and Hammerstein were there and immediately afterward asked DeMille to choreograph their upcoming Oklahoma! (so if you’ve seen the film and remember that kinda weird extended ballet sequence... that’s what DeMille’s style is all about).
In 1943 Copland rearranged the music as a symphonic suite for orchestra, which didn’t involve too many drastic changes except removing the middle movement of the ballet “Ranch House Dance Party” and minor changes to the last two movements. Left with four movements, the work resembles a typical Symphonic form: big opening movement, slow movement, minuet and a finale. It premiered at the Boston Pops and has achieved even more success in this form.
Like…a LOT of success. By the time you get to the fourth movement you will probably be going OH I’ve heard this before. It’s directly quoted in beef commercials and Vegas fountain shows, and unsubtly the basis for the Magnificent Seven theme and training music in An American Tail: Fievel Goes West.
LET’S DO OUR WALKTHROUGH!
We gotta talk about the plot in this, we just gotta. Even though this is the symphonic suite. DeMille had already blocked out the ballet to her own transcriptions of folk tunes before she even asked Copland to begin composing, so the plot begat the music rather than the other way around, making it completely integral to the dance episodes as well. We’ll go movement by movement but I want to include this great synopsis from Jack Anderson for the New York Times:
”Rodeo” is a charming comedy about a tomboyish Cowgirl who likes to ride alongside the men on her ranch and who romantically longs for that ranch’s handsome but arrogant Head Wrangler. When he spurns her, she becomes friendly with the good-natured Champion Roper, who suggests that she might seem more attractive if she wore something other than dusty ranch pants.
When the Cowgirl puts on a dress, all the ranch hands, including the Head Wrangler, are fascinated by her. But she rejects the swaggering Wrangler because she now senses a kindred spirit in the Champion Roper.
What makes Rodeo particularly musically unique is that usually when Copland uses folk songs, he alters them. However, here he leaves the folk tunes almost completely intact, likely due to DeMille’s previous dance blocking essentially forcing his hand. It’s scored for three flutes (second and third double piccolo), two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, celeste and strings.
I. Buckaroo Holiday
All of the cowboys gather and show off their moves and the cowgirl incredibly awkwardly tries to join in with them, in an effort to seek the affection of the Head Wrangler. It does not work out well, and a group of girls enter and pair off with the cowboys, including the Head Wrangler, leaving the cowgirl alone. In DeMille’s words “She acts like a boy, not to be a boy, but to be liked by the boys.”
The first movement is filled with sounds of the corral and opens with a big ole brass fanfare. After the fanfare, we hear the cowgirl’s music in the woodwinds and then comes our thunderous cowboy entrance to the folk tune “Sis Joe“. The horses might be invisible onstage but we can definitely hear them in the brass and percussion of the orchestra.
The tune “If He’d Be a Buckaroo by His Trade” is first stated by the trombone as the girly girls come through, which is interesting because the trombone is usually a pretty damn masculine instrument in narrative works (and even its history of frequently doubling male voices). I don’t know if we can attribute that to Copland or DeMille because there are records of some key moments that he was annoyed that she re-blocked to change the plot after he had finished writing the music for her original choreography.
I AM SO HAPPY that I can just link you right here to footage of American Ballet Theater’s 1973 production of this movement and the next (Corral Nocturne).
Check it out, because it’s awesome (you can also notice how tempi are slower and much steadier to line up with the dancing). This will totally enhance the music for you, I promise. It’s great. BUT I am super bummed to say that these are the only movements I could find good footage of, but if anyone finds more, please send it to us for linking!
II. Corral Nocturne
The cowgirl is left alone and DeMille writes “she run[s] through the empty corrals intoxicated with space, her feet thudding in the stillness.” The Head Wrangler happens upon her from afar but she isn’t what he expects. Confused, he ends up leaving with the Rancher’s hot daughter instead. …Now there are too many descriptions of this movement on the internet that describe the cowgirl as this pathetic lump of loneliness just moping around but I strongly refute that based on DeMille’s words and the choreography itself. She’s definitely crushin’ hard and wistful as all get out, but she also seems to be enjoying this moment of independence and that eerie/incredible feeling of being in a normally crowded and boisterous place when it’s empty and silent.
Corral Nocturne, as far as I can tell, is the only movement without any directly quoted folk tunes and it is so wonderfully beautiful. Copland tamps down the brass, excuses the percussion and leaves the feels up to his beautiful and simple writing for strings and woodwinds.
(iii) Ranch House Party (ballet only)
“Dance music inside. Night music outside” in DeMille’s words. The cowgirl gets stuck between the Champion Roper and the Head Wrangler who are apparently both now into that hot Rancher’s Daughter, somehow still leaving our cowgirl, still alone.
We aren’t going to talk much about the music in this movement except that I’m not totally shocked it didn’t make it in. It starts with a jarring honky tonk piano solo derived from Copland’s earlier film score for “Of Mice and Men” and then just sort of quotes other bits of the work. Without it, this dance suite is definitely a lot more cohesive. But if you want to listen, it will be included on our spotify playlist at the bottom!
III. Saturday Night Waltz
The cowboys and girls pair off, except our cowgirl, who is left alone…again. Until (!) the Champion Roper approaches her while the Head Wrangler and the Rancher’s Daughter are all coupled up. He suggests she might try a dress on every once in a while. I have feelings about this, but it’s 1942 so I’m not going to be too angry at them.
The opening is a great depiction of the band tuning up their fiddles before the oboe comes in with our main dance tune. DeMille requested a “Texas Minuet” and also provided Copland with her own, slightly-wonky-in-a-wonderful-way transcription of the folk tune “I Ride an Old Paint” (click the link for a straighter/more standard version of the tune). Copland totally embraced her transcription and added a syncopated accompaniment that brings those dual feelings of exciting expectation and loneliness that always show up to school/town dances to this beautiful sweet tune.
Big ole hoedown in town! The cowgirl shows up looking cute in a dress and even though the Head Wrangler is into it, the cowgirl ends up smoochin’ the hunky Champion Roper who is a better match for her anyway. This isn’t exactly a Sandy-conforms-for-love-at-the-end-of-Grease situation, but DeMille’s choreography suggests more of an independent and decent wranglin’ gal proving that she could also be an awesome lady partner as well as a roping and ranching partner.
FUN FACT: Originally the Cowgirl was going to end up with the Head Wrangler but during rehearsals, the dancer who played the Champion Roper threatened to quit the production if DeMille didn’t agree with him that the cowgirl had more in common with the fun Champion Roper character than the snooty Head Wrangler. Luckily she did…eventually.
This is probably the one where you go “Oh! It’s that one!”. It’s the most well-known movement, and the one used in all the pop culture references we mentioned up above. The first big melody is an orchestration of tune from a Library of Congress record of William H Stepp, a fiddle player in Salyersville, KY, who plays an awesome and unique version of the folk tune “Bonaparte’s Retreat.” Click here to hear the amazing original recording and here for a more traditional take on the tune from Willie Nelson. Other folk tunes that make an appearance are “McLeod’s Reel“, and the Irish tune “Gilderoy“, and even bits of”Sis Joe” from the first movement returns (including that one note that repeats like a cattle auctioneer? That’s Sis Joe).
The big musical moment to look out for when the music gets quiet and starts a slow vamp with a chromatically downward bass-line leading to a beautiful rich E-flat chord and THAT MOMENT friends is the big kiss. The whole orchestra stops for it, like the whole world getting blurry for the big Hollywood kiss, and then immediately spring back into action.
This moment reminds me a lot of the moment in West Side Story where Tony and Maria see each other during the big loud mambo number and the whole orchestra/world disappears for just a bit to exist in their romantic space and then suddenly explodes back into reality. Given Bernstein’s close connection to this work and Copland himself, I don’t think it’s totally impossible that this might have lent some inspiration to Bernstein when he was writing West Side Story.
In the ballet, this had to be pretty straight in terms of tempi, because the conductor has to keep a constant connection with the dancers and also sometimes the conductor is forced to take faster/slower tempi to accommodate particular steps. BUT! The beauty of having your conductor as the lead cowboy, leading just his trusty orchestra, is that those reins are looser.
Speaking of hearing the Dance Episodes, we’ve got a couple options for you here. First, as we always do, here’s a spotify playlist: We’ve put on three recordings! First is Copland conducting his own work which is a more restrained and elegant version, then Bernstein who puts a bombastic spin on anything he conducts (this is my personal favorite recording) and we’ve included at the very end, the Detroit Symphony playing the rejected ballet number, Ranch House Party.
If you don’t have Spotify, no worries! You can hear the whole thing here at the youtube link below, with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra led by John Wilson.
Canon Fodder is partnering with Awesöme Orchestra to bring you content about their upcoming performances. Awesöme Orchestra Collective brings together Bay Area music-lovers for orchestral adventures. They hold drop-in reading sessions that are open to all musicians, and free for everybody in an informal setting. You can hear them perform “Hoe-Down” from Dance Suites from Rodeo, along with a premiere of “The Permanent” by Alex Van Gills and Harry Nilsson’s – “Salmon Falls” from Duit on Mon Dei (arr. by Perry Botkin) on Friday, May 5th at Brooklyn Preserve, 1433 12th Ave, Oakland CA.