Rodeo, by Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland, Agnes de Mille, RodeoRodeo: The Courting at Burnt Ranch launched the ballet career of Agnes de Mille in 1942. It remains one of only three of de Mille’s ballets that remain in the repertoire. The greatness and popularity of Aaron Copland’s score for the ballet deserves at least some of the credit, but it almost didn’t get written at all.

When de Mille spoke to Copland about the basic theme of the ballet, he responded that he had already written a western ballet (Billy the Kid, 1938). Why should he write another one? Why couldn’t she provide him with something about Ellis Island?

Of course, de Mille did persuade this Jewish composer from New York to write yet another western ballet. And when people asked Copland about his background for writing them, he reminded them that his grandfather had been a shop keeper in Dallas–who at one time employed Frank James. (You may have heard of his brother, Jesse James).

The ballet

Rodeo is a fairly standard love story with, for ballet, an exotic setting. The Cowgirl (danced originally by de Mille) wanted to attract the attention of the Head Wrangler. So she tried at first to impress him by learning all of the cowboy skills. It didn’t work. He preferred the more feminine Rancher’s Daughter.

Later, at a dance, she enjoys the company of the Lead Roper until she sees the Head Wrangler with the Rancher’s Daughter. So she leaves and comes back wearing a red dress. Now she has both men interested, but the Lead Roper’s kiss show that he is her true love. The Head Wrangler returns to the Rancher’s Daughter and everyone dances happily.

The music

Copland captured the sound of the west not because his grandfather had lived in Texas, but because he studied actual western folk tunes (among others). All of Copland’s most popular music shows the fruit of that study. Rodeo differs from many of his other orchestral music because he altered the melodies he used much less than usual.

Agnes de Mille herself chose quite a few of them and gave Copland little time to produce the score. The completed ballet has five major scenes:

  1. Buckaroo Holiday (which introduces the main characters)
  2. Corral Nocturne (which underscores the Cowgirl’s loneliness)
  3. Ranch House Party (where both the Wrangler and Roper ignore her)
  4. Saturday Night Waltz (where the Roper settles for her, having failed to win the Rancher’s Daughter from the Wrangler)
  5. Hoe-Down (where the Cowgirl discovers true love)

Later, Copland fashioned a four-movement suite, omitting the Ranch House Party and making enough other changes to the remaining music to give it a more symphonic structure suitable for concert music. The Boston Pops Orchestra gave the premiere performance of the suite. In both forms, Rodeo continues as a well-loved staple of the repertoire.

If you don’t have a recording of Rodeo, order one right now from either of the merchants to the left of this post.

Sources: Aaron Copland: Jewish Cowboy
Agnes de Mille and Rodeo


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