Billy the Kid is a 1938 ballet written by the American composer Aaron Copland on commission from Lincoln Kirstein. It was choreographed by Eugene Loring for Ballet Caravan. Along with Rodeo and Appalachian Spring, it is one of Copland’s most popular and widely performed pieces. The ballet is most famous for its incorporation of several cowboy tunes and American folk songs and, although built around the figure and the exploits of Billy the Kid, is not so much a biography of a notorious but peculiarly appealing desperado as it is a perception of the pioneer West, in which a figure such as Billy played a vivid role.
It was premiered on 16 October 1938 in Chicago by the Ballet Caravan Company, with pianists Arthur Gold and Walter Hendl performing a two-piano version of the score. The first performance of Billy the Kid in New York City occurred on 24 May 1939, with an orchestra conducted by Fritz Kitzinger.
Composed in 1923, “La Création” is a fusion of jazz, blues and orchestral styles. Milhaud discovered jazz music while on a 1921 trip to London, and was enthralled by the new idiom. He traveled to the U.S. in 1922 on a concert and conducting tour, performing in various American cities. During his stays in New York he made it a point to frequent black jazz clubs in Harlem, and steeped himself in the music, its instrumentation and style.
Returning to Paris, he teamed up with the Ballet Suédois, the author Blaise Cendrars and the cubist artist Fernand Léger to compose music for an African-themed ballet of creation. While the ballet itself is rarely performed today, Milhaud’s scintillating score has become part of the concert repertoire.
Its 18-piece instrumental ensemble is unique: woodwinds (flutes, clarinets, oboe, bassoon, saxophone); brass (horn, trumpets, trombone); four solo strings (two violins, ‘cello, bass); piano; and percussion (five timpani, plus a large variety of percussion instruments).
“La Création” has six movements, played without a break. Jazz riffs, blues and syncopated rhythms abound.
The Overture starts with a sonorous melody played by the saxophone.
“Chaos” features a jazz fugue, starting with bass, trombone, saxophone and trumpet.
“Creation of Plants and Animals” begins with a somber woodwind motif signifying darkness; an oboe blues riff signals the birth of flora and fauna.
“Creation of Man and Woman” is introduced by the solo violins, then interspersed with syncopated passages (bassoon, saxophone, piano, bass). Another oboe passage heralds the creation of man and woman.
“Desire” brings the clarinet front and center in an extended blues riff, with sensuous oboe and piccolo/trumpet motifs in the middle. All of the instruments join in; the saxophone plays the main melody, and the others play their riffs with and against each other.
“Spring, or the Calm” reprises the opening theme and blues motifs before fading out with a sighing blues chord in the saxophone and strings.
In 1942, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo commissioned the choreographer Agnes de Mille to create a ballet for its 1942-43 season. De Mille came up with a concept for a ballet based on a western theme: a gathering of cowboys and ranch hands at a Saturday afternoon rodeo, together with neighbors and a lonely cowgirl.
She chose Aaron Copland, already a recognized master of the American idiom, to write the music.
The ballet was premiered at the Metropolitan Opera that same year and was an instant hit. A few years later Copland fashioned the ballet music into an orchestral suite. The suite is in four movements: Buckaroo Holiday, Corral Nocturne, Saturday Night Waltz, and Hoe-Down.
Copland used a number of American folk tunes in Rodeo. These include “If He’d be a Buckaroo” and “Sis Joe” in the opening lively Buckaroo Holiday; “Goodbye, Old Paint” in the Saturday Night Waltz; and “Bonaparte’s Retreat” and “McLeod’s Reel” in the exuberant Hoe-Down.