Musical Selection: Billy the Kid

Composer: Aaron Copland (U.S. 1900-1990)

Billy the Kid Suite
The music in Billy the Kid is vivid, energetic, and beautiful. It is easily understood and captures the imagination with ease. It contains fragments of popular cowboy songs, including "Git Along Little Doggies,” "The Old Chisholm Trail,” "Old Paint,” and "Oh Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.” Later in life Copland had some regrets about using Billy the Kid, an outlaw and criminal, for his subject. Certainly "Billy’s” life reflected the violence and conflict that was an inseparable part of the settlement of the "wild” West.

This music is very descriptive and engaging and will promote an appreciation for American classical music and Aaron Copland’s genius. Billy the Kid is one of Copland’s most popular compositions, along with Fanfare for the Common Man and A Lincoln Portrait. After the success of Billy the Kid, Copland composed Rodeo and Appalachian Spring, for which he received a Pulitzer Prize.

Regarding A Lincoln Portrait: The text/narrative is available from many sources and represents an outstanding opportunity to celebrate Abraham Lincoln and the principles that he held as fundamental to our nation.

Regarding "Simple Gifts,” the Shaker hymn which is included in Copland’s Appalachian Spring the words for this song, while not included, are quite beautiful and can be appreciated for their poetic character.

Billy the Kid: Section by Section
1-2. "Introduction: The Open Prairie.” I can easily conceive of this section as musically painting a portrait of the rising sun over the western desert.
3. "Street Scene.” Lots of action. I can easily imagine horses going up and down the streets, dogs dodging them, etc.
4. "Card Game at Night.” Quietly done.
5. "Gun Battle.” Billy is represented by the higher pitched snare drum. The sheriff and posse are represented by the kettle drums. The latter prevails. This suite was originally composed as a ballet; it is easy to imagine the moves musically painted in this section.
6. "Celebration.” Justice prevails. Billy is captured, undoubtedly bringing in a renewed sense of safety.
7. "Prairie Theme.” This music brings to mind a beautiful sunset.

Background: Aaron Copland
Aaron Copland is one of America’s greatest classical composers. His music brilliantly incorporated American folk music and Western themes. His compositions were a hit in Europe and the United States.

Copland was born in New York City. His parents were Russian Jewish immigrants. Hard working, they never went to musical concerts or encouraged him in that direction. Nonetheless, by age sixteen, after a brief self-initiated introduction to the piano, he decided to become a composer. He practiced long and hard, much to the irritation of his neighbors. He traveled to France for advanced studies and returned to New York with his "Symphony for Organ and Orchestra.”

He went on to become a very prolific composer. His "Music for the Theater” is jazzy, "El Solon Mexico” reflects an appreciation for Mexican folk songs, and his "Rodeo” features a young girl who wants to participate in the "boys” rough world and also be appreciated at the dances. "Appalachian Spring” is especially notable for its prominent inclusion of the American Shaker hymn "The Gift to Be Simple” or simply "Simple Gifts.” Copland won an Academy Award for his film music in "The Heiress.”

Background: Billy the Kid
"Billy the Kid’s” real name was Henry McCarty. He was born in 1859 in New York City. During his childhood the family, hoping for land and fortune, migrated to Silver City, New Mexico. Life for the McCartys was difficult and poor. His mother was shot and killed. "Billy” became a fugitive from justice by his 12th birthday. During the Lincoln County cattle wars he assumed the alias William Booney. He was employed by a rancher as a rustler and gun fighter in the rancher’s efforts to take control of large tracts of New Mexico grazing land. Sheriff Pat Garrett, during his first year in office, made it his goal to bring "Billy” to justice. He assembled a posse in 1880 and captured "the Kid.” After he was convicted, however, Billy escaped and headed to Mexico. Garrett and his posse surrounded him outside Fort Sumner, New Mexico, and "Billy” was killed.

Lesson Opportunities
1. Music Appreciation: Students, with a little practice, should be able to identify the different sections of the suite and discuss the instrumentation and mood.

2. Music-Art: Introduce watercolors as an artistic medium and create visual impressions of "The Open Prairie” or "Street in a Frontier Town.”

3. Music-Geography: Locate Russia, Europe, New Mexico, Mexico, etc. as locations in Copland’s and "Billy’s” life.

4. Music-Math: Introduce probability, logic, and addition. With a deck of cards introduce the game "11” (developed by Mike Denon). The game is like "21”, but to 11. Delete from the deck of cards all cards over 5. The ace is either a 1 or a 6. The students would keep track of what cards have been played and predict the likelihood of future cards.

5. Music-Language Arts: Students can write paragraphs comparing and contrasting different sections and explain their preferences. Some attention can be focused on such musical components as tempo, melody, harmony, rhythm, and mood.