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Copland (1900-90) - Four Dance Episodes from "Rodeo"

The youngest of five kids born to Russian immigrants, Aaron Copland was the only one not provided a musical education (did the money run out?), but the only one to “make it to the top”. At 21 he became Nadia Boulanger's first American student. His extremely astringent early works prompted Walter Damrosch's protest, “If he can write like that at 23, in five years he'll be ready to commit murder” (though not, I hasten to add, tonight). Jazz elements were invoked to subdue Boulanger's European influence before, in the Thirties, he developed a more austere style. However, unlike too many modern composers, seeing a widening gulf between composers and their (supposed) public, he wisely cultivated a contrasting “popular” vein - carefully rationed lest he be branded a mere populist. 

The ballet Rodeo, commisioned by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1942, features a honky-tonk piano (alas, not so the suite). For local “flavor”, Copland stirred in plenty of folk songs. If he'd be a Buckaroo by his Trade, Old Paint, and Bonyparte mean little to us in Blighty [non-English readers please substitute the appropriate pet-name for your own country!], but don't let that worry you. The theme is simple, though nowadays hardly “politically correct”: how a woman can capture a suitable man. The Saturday afternoon rodeo in the American Southwest is a tradition (vaguely paralleling the English village fete) where cowhands show off the skills of their trade, unwittingly providing a showcase of prospective mates for unattached females. 

Copland laces his virile Buckaroo Holiday (buckaroo derives from the Spanish vaquero, meaning “cowboy”) with lots of vicious syncopations and whiplash percussion, reflecting a rodeo's violent thrills and spills, though I wonder (and you might, too) what the trombone tune's comical pauses are all about. 

Copland's famed evocations of the wide-open expanses of the Great American Outdoors surface in the wide-open chords of  the delectable Corral Nocturne which sighs nostalgically, one foot resting on the bottom bar of the corral fence, and a girl on its arm. 

Boisterous tuning up prefaces a Saturday Night Waltz, a world (well, half a world!) away from Strauss' ballrooms. A shifting off-beat persistently negates the waltz-rhythm, dropping us plumb in the middle of “shuffle and smooch” territory. 

Finally comes the famous, foot-stompin' Hoe-Down, fiddles scratching enthusiastically - no room for refinement here, we're having fun. In their classic recording, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra really get stuck into this, the snare-drummer letting off some cracking rim-shots in the central romp. Such touches often make all the difference, so here’s hoping . . .
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© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


 

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