NOVEMBER 10, 2018 | 7:30 PM

Billy the Kid Suite

Aaron Copland (1900–1990)


    Lincoln Kirstein, founder of Ballet Caravan (a new ballet company established in 1936 that would gradually transform into the New York City Ballet) was a great admirer of Paris’s Ballet Russes and of projects completed by Sergei Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky. They inspired him to create something similar on the American stage with American style and themes. Kirstein selected Eugene Loring as choreographer and American composer Aaron Copland to write the score. In 1938 Copland somewhat reluctantly accepted a commission to write music for a ballet adaptation of the popular story Billy the Kid, doubting his “capabilities as a ‘cowboy composer.’” Copland overcame his insecurity rather quickly, however, as he became engrossed in the story and its musical possibilities. 

Besides his attraction to the “cowboy” soundworld, Copland was also familiar with music and dance together, having played in dance bands after high school – an experience his biographer Howard Pollack says familiarized him with “the kind of popular music that he would eventually [incorporate into his own style].”   

Billy the Kid is based on the infamous Wild West outlaw Henry McCarty (ca. 1860–1881) and presented in a single act. The Suite is a sort of condensed version of the ballet score and remains consistent with most of what is in the original ballet. 

Copland opens Billy the Kid on the prairie, illustrating this image with widely spaced harmonies to give the impression of vast distances and a suggestion of loneliness. He increases the tempo in the second section as he introduces a bustling frontier town, coloring it with asymmetrical rhythms and touches of dissonance. A softer section follows, depicting a nocturnal card game under the stars in which the violins play the melody of “Oh, bury me not on the lone prairie.” This is not the only use of folk melody in Billy the Kid. Copland quotes several popular tunes, including “Git along, little doggies,” and “Great granddad.” He was excellent at creating new melodies for these sorts of scenes that, while they certainly must be inspired by folk or popular songs, are entirely his own.

The next scene is a violent gun battle, which Copland depicts with clever use of percussion. There is a brief interlude of celebration (listen for the slightly mistuned piano!) followed by the posse hunt for Billy. The posse manages to capture him, but he escapes and is shot. Interestingly, the moment of Billy’s death is not actually marked in the Suite because in the ballet version, Copland chose to heighten the drama of Billy’s sudden death with silence. In the Suite, therefore, Copland uses a reiteration of the opening theme, which he suggests is a “new dawn breaking.” 

    Copland, with his unique blend of European classical training and extensive use of American folk and popular music, was critical to the definition of American music in the twentieth century. Although he studied in Paris at the height of the modernist movement, he adopted a more accessible musical language. This is partly because the prevalent economic concerns of the time inspired him to reach out to a larger audience. This use of folk idioms and their presentation in a less cluttered and complex setting blurs the line between classical and popular music, creating a milieu that commentator Thomas May describes as “populist.” Music writer Ethan Mordden goes one step further, praising Copland’s “extraordinary talent for presiding over the continual reinvention of a national art.” Although there are many examples of Copland’s work that were extremely popular during his lifetime, Billy the Kid has become a favorite. Copland commented, “I cannot remember another work of mine that was so unanimously received.” The New York Philharmonic premiered Billy the Kid in 1941. It is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets in B flat, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, and strings. 

Rhapsody in Blue and Variations on “I Got Rhythm” 

George Gershwin (1898-1937)


For most of his life, George Gershwin was better known as a songwriter and less as a composer of “serious” music. However, he managed something quite incredible with Rhapsody in Blue (1924): he not only achieved seeming instant fame but also, as commentator Elizabeth Schwartz points out, successfully introduced jazz to a primarily classical concert audience. 

Rhapsody had a somewhat accidental beginning. Gershwin was out with his brother Ira one night and happened on an interview in the New York Tribune with bandleader Paul Whiteman, who was describing a performance in which he took the audience on a tour through the history of jazz. At the end of the article he described some of the pieces he would present and claimed, “George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto.” This was, of course, news to Gershwin, who then tried to convince Whiteman to retract his statement. Instead he agreed to write “a jazz concerto” on the condition that someone else would complete the orchestration. 

    Due to extreme time constraints and a lack of any real precedent for the piece, there was no way Gershwin could complete a full-length concerto in the classical sense. So he began to work in a freer form, a rhapsody. He decided he would perform the solo part himself, with the Whiteman band and additional instruments backing him up. The title of his piece was inspired by an exhibition of paintings by James Abbot McNeill Whistler, which Gershwin and his brother attended. It was Ira’s suggestion to call the work Rhapsody in Blue. Gershwin completed the work in just three weeks, with Whiteman’s appointed orchestrator, Ferde Grofé, working many hours alongside him to complete everything on time. 

    Rhapsody in Blue begins with what is now perhaps one of the most iconic gestures in classical music – the ascending glissando (slide) in the clarinet. This functions as a very brief introduction, opening the door to the rest of the piece. But this wasn’t actually in the original score. Rather, Gershwin had put in a low trill followed by a rapidly ascending scale. Apparently, early rehearsals were tedious at times as composer and musicians worked out the kinks in the hurried score, and Whiteman’s clarinetist, Ross Gorman, bored and frustrated, “improvised.” 

    There are a number of other examples of the jazz idiom in Rhapsody, but Gershwin integrated these so completely with the symphonic elements that the result is closer to works of turn-of-the-century Romantics than to modern jazz. Throughout Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin displays a dazzling command of melody and color that almost renders the underlying musical style irrelevant. 

Gershwin writes: “I was summoned to Boston for the première of [my musical] Sweet Little Devil. I had already done some work on the Rhapsody. It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattlety-bang that is often so stimulating to a composer … I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise. And there I suddenly heard – and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the rhapsody, from beginning to end. No new themes came to me, but I worked on the thematic material already on my mind, and tried to conceive the composition as a whole. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America – of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance.”

Gershwin premiered Rhapsody in Blue in 1924 in New York with Paul Whiteman and his orchestra; in 1926, Ferde Grofé reorchestrated the piece for piano and full symphony orchestra. Rhapsody is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, two alto saxophones, tenor saxophone, three horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, bass drum, snare drum, triangle, gong, banjo, and strings, in addition to solo piano.

A decade after its composition, Rhapsody in Blue was still undeniably a hit, so much so that Gershwin was invited to celebrate its tenth anniversary with a concert tour. In preparation for these performances, he selected the song “I Got Rhythm” from his musical Girl Crazy, adapting it for performance in the concert hall. 


Gershwin’s Variations on “I Got Rhythm” (1934) is a set of six variations and as commentator Joe Nickell notes, shares many of its musical characteristics with Rhapsody in Blue. Gershwin has helpfully given each variation a title to lend the work a greater sense of narrative. 

In a radio broadcast of the Variations on “I Got Rhythm” Gershwin said, “I think you might be interested to hear about a few of the variations we are going to play. After an introduction by the orchestra the piano plays a theme rather simply. The first variation is a very complicated rhythmic pattern played by the piano while the orchestra fits in the tune. The next variation is in waltz time, and the third is a Chinese variation in which I imitate Chinese flutes that play out of tune as they always are. Next the piano plays a rhythmic variation in which the left hand plays the melody upside down, while the right plays it first on the theory that we shouldn’t let one hand know what the other is doing. Then comes the finale. Now, after all this information about [Variations on “I Got Rhythm”], how about hearing it.”

Director Rouben Mamoulian once remarked, “I’ve heard many pianists and composers play for informal gatherings, but I know of not one who did it with such genuine delight and verve [as Gershwin]. George at the piano was George happy. He would draw a lovely melody out of the keyboard like a golden thread, then he would play with it and juggle it, twist it and toss it around mischievously, weave it into unexpected, intricate patterns, tie it in knots and untie it and knit it into a cascade of ever-changing rhythms and counterpoints … He could play ‘I Got Rhythm’ for the thousandth time, yet do it with such freshness and exuberance as if he had written it the night before.”

Symphonic Dances from West Side Story 

Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990)


    Leonard Bernstein, along with choreographer Jerome Robbins and playwright Arthur Laurents, were thinking of writing a musical based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as early as 1949. In one of their earliest iterations (East Side Story), they planned to recast the classic around the ill-fated romance between a Jewish girl and a Catholic boy on New York’s Lower East Side. Later, they elected to update their theme to reflect the current gang conflict they saw in the city. 

    Bernstein completed the bulk of the composition between the winter of 1955 and the summer of 1957 while he was also working on his opera Candide (the two scores understandably share some commonalities in style and melody). East Side Story became West Side Story and was an instant success. The musical is now regarded as an innovative and momentous contribution to the genre. Music writer David Hurwitz cites West Side Story’s musical sophistication, integrated choreography, and artistic seriousness. It ran nearly 800 performances on Broadway before going on tour and finally returning for several hundred more performances. In 1961 it was released on film. 

    As all these performances were finally coming to a close, Bernstein was asked to create a more compact version of it to be performed at an event at Carnegie Hall. He selected his favorite numbers from the musical and arranged them purely according to musical narrative – different from their normal order within the show. Bernstein made quite a few changes in the orchestration, too, at this point; he’d worked closely with Sid Ramin for the full show version (orchestrating music for a pit orchestra with a reduced number of musicians is both difficult and a highly specialized skill). 

    The Symphonic Dances from West Side Story have become a popular addition to many concert programs. The element of dance, so intrinsic to this music, lends itself especially well to the successful adaptation from a backdrop for the lyrics to standalone music. Bernstein’s use of the term “symphonic” to characterize this version hints at this also, possibly pointing toward a more intricate handling of the thematic material than is evidenced in the original version. Bernstein dedicated the Symphonic Dances to Sid Ramin “in friendship.” 

The Symphonic Dances contain nine or ten short movements (depending on how you count them) and are played continuously. Bernstein expertly uses a variety of musical elements in various contexts throughout, creating a sense of continuity and connectedness across numbers. For example, he makes extensive use of the tritone (a dissonant interval between two pitches, sometimes referred to as the “devil in music”) – you can hear this especially clearly at the opening of “Maria.”

Bernstein opens Symphonic Dances with a “Prologue,” a piece that functions as a sort of overture introducing the tritone and the quick three-note jolting gesture. It’s in two parts, first marked “nonchalant,” then followed by a more violent allegro furioso. Bernstein also uses some of the Latin percussion called for in the score here, suggesting some of the gang elements in the plot. 

“Somewhere” is a lovely interlude scored for woodwinds and strings. Listen for “I Have a Love” in the flutes accompanied by harp and piano. (Bernstein also references one of the final themes here, already starting to tie everything together.) “Somewhere” is followed by the lively “Scherzo” in miniature, the melody of which is almost entirely derived from “Somewhere.”

The next movement is the “Mambo” – probably the most instantly recognizable of the Symphonic Dances. Bernstein calls for a lot of Latin percussion, including the guiro or scraped gourd, and also features the trumpets. In a show of exuberance, Bernstein indicates in the score for the orchestra to shout “Mambo!” at several points. 

    The “Cha-cha” is a delicate dance arrangement of “Maria,” featuring small finger cymbals and maracas. It moves directly into the “Meeting Scene,” which is also based on “Maria.” The “Meeting Scene” is almost too small to be called its own movement and functions primarily as a transition into the “Cool Fugue.” Here, Bernstein continues to highlight the tritone with the bongo marking each new entrance of the main theme. Hurwitz describes, “Over all of [the competing themes], bits of the song ‘Cool’ decorate … like so much graffiti on a city building.” 

    In “Rumble,” Bernstein takes the faster music from the “Prologue” and recasts it in the new context adding a little segue into the “Finale,” which combines “I Have a Love” with “Somewhere.” 

    The Symphonic Dances from West Side Story premiered in 1961 at Carnegie Hall with Lukas Foss and the New York Philharmonic. It’s scored for two flutes, two oboes, English horn, three clarinets and bass clarinet, alto saxophone, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, percussion, timpani, harp, piano, celesta, and strings.