top of page

AARON COPLAND (1900-1990)

“Saturday Night Waltz” From

Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo (1942-43), 4 minutes

Aaron Copland was born on November 14, 1900 in Brooklyn, New York and died on December 2, 1990 is Peekskill. The ballet Rodeo was first performed on October 16, 1942 at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo conducted by Franz Allers. Three Episodes were first performed by the Boston Pops Orchestra under Arthur Fiedler on May 2, 1943 and the entire suite was premiered by the New York Philharmonic in July 1943 under Alexander Smallens. The third movement is scored for flute, oboe, 3 clarinets, bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, harp and strings.

For those growing up in the late 80s and 90s America, the introduction to the music of American composer Aaron Copland, likely occurred unbeknownst through a television commercial. Copland’s Hoe-Down from the ballet Rodeo, was the soundtrack for the most quintessential, vital and important question plaguing the American household day after day, everyday: “What’s for dinner?” Copland’s music of fiddles and bombastic brass with the All-American xylophone hammering away in morse code, would accompany and cadence the answer, “Beef, it’s what for dinner.”


Copland’s music is often described as evoking the “American” sound. Different from the patriotic grandeur of John Philip Sousa, Copland’s sound would express the pioneering spirit and vast frontier-lands. Like Igor Stravinsky, Copland was a composer who would undergo stylistic changes through his career. Most of his later modernist and serial works remain scarcely performed today. His most performed works, and his greatest success, come from the 30s and 40s, decades that saw the ballets, Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), Appalachian Spring (1944) and the Third Symphony (1944-46). These works channeled early American landscapes and themes, and with the incorporation of hymns and folk-tunes coupled with the composer’s iconic lush open sonorities, rhythmic and metric vitality, and crisp orchestration, the sound of the American spirit and frontier was codified. This populist style would be highly influential to other composers, and is still today. The trickle of this influence can be heard in the music of Leonard Bernstein, Elmer Bernstein, David Diamond, Roy Harris, Bruce Broughton, John Williams, James Horner, Thomas Newman, Jerry Goldsmith and a pantheon of composers and film composers given the enviable task of composing the soundtracks to American history in cinema.


The genesis of Rodeo, began with efforts to support America in the Second World War. Les Ballets Russes commissioned the dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille for an American themed ballet. De mille proposed a cowboy ballet, and coming off the success of Billy the Kid, Copland fit the bill perfectly. De mille described the ballet as follows:


“Throughout the American Southwest, the Saturday afternoon rodeo is a tradition. On remote ranches, a well as in the trading centers and the towns, the ʻhands’ get together to show off their skill in roping, rinding, branding and throwing. Often, on the more isolated ranches, the rodeo, is done for an audience that consists only of a handful of fellow-workers, women-folk, and those nearest neighbors who can make the eighty or so mile run-over. The afternoon’s exhibition is usually followed by a Saturday night dance at the Ranch House.


The theme of the ballet is basic. It deals with the problem that has confronted all American women, from earliest pioneer time, and which has never ceased to occupy them throughout the history of building our county: how to get a suitable man.”


And so the plot, one that is no doubt dated in premise, revolves around a smitten cowgirl who impersonates a man to garner attention and affection from a fellow wrangler. The charade fails and she reverts to a more traditional feminine approach. From the ballet, Copland extracted a concert suite of four dance episodes. “Saturday Night Waltz” is the third movement, and in his introduction of the waltz, Copland writes, “country fiddlers are heard tuning up, followed by hints of the tune Old Paint.” 


The strings begin this ternary dance with what can be described as the most exciting tuning music ever composed. The wind and brass will enter and the trademark Copland sound will be unmistakable. The brief outburst recedes and the oboe will emerge with the violins. The Old Paint cowboy tune will come through strongly in contour, and while written 28 years earlier, the spirit of John Denver’s 1971 “Take Me Home, Country Roads” will be felt in the repeated descending three notes at the crest of the melody.


Simplicity is a gift to Copland, and the texture is generally melody with accompanying music providing a nudge of the waltz feel. Several instruments will partake in the tune, leading the dance then trading off, passing it along to the next partner. Ornamented sustained tones will beckon in the flutes and violins to transition into a more lethargic and perhaps hesitant waltz. The B-section music will offer a morsel of nervous flirtation and stomach butterflies, a glimpse of cowboy courtship. A tender embrace in the violins will brim with amorous warmth, reciprocated in affection as the oboe returns to the music proper, dance and life partners united. © MTF

*Digitally published for the Hawaiʻi Symphony Sheraton Starlight Series on July 9-11, 2021.

bottom of page