Aaron Copland

Billy the Kid, orchestral suite from the ballet

    Description by Rovi Staff

    It was ballet impresario Lincoln Kirstein who had the inspiration to bring together composer Aaron Copland and choreographer Eugene Loring to create a work based on the legend of Billy the Kid. Kirstein was particularly drawn to Walter Noble Burns' 1925 best-seller The Saga of Billy the Kid, a mix of lore, fantasy, and historical research. As related by Burns, Billy, a gambler, cattle rustler, and vigilante frontiersman, made his claim to fame in having killed a man for each of his 21 years. Loring devised a scenario which calls for four principals, along with "pioneers, men, women, Mexicans, and Indians." Much of the ballet's action, form, and mood reflects Burns' Saga, particularly the grotesque celebration which follows a central shoot-out scene.

    Copland, having already composed works evocative of the American west and Mexico like El Salon Mexico (1933-36) and Saga of the Prairies (1937), was well prepared for this "cowboy ballet." The composer provided period flavor by incorporating six cowboy tunes into the score: "Great Granddad," "Git Along Little Dogie," "The Old Chisholm Trail," "Goodbye, Old Paint," "The Dying Cowboy," and "Trouble for the Range Cook."

    Copland's score provides a vivid sonic depiction of prairie life. An opening processional is distinguished by Copland's trademark widely spaced "open" harmonies in the woodwinds, followed by a bass figure centered on a syncopated two-note motive. This plodding bass moves dramatically from pianissimo to a triple-forte climax, suggesting the laborious trudging of the settlers. The music of the processional brings the ballet full circle with its reappearance as the coda. "Street in a Frontier Town" moves from pastoral innocence to mechanistic violence, incorporating several cowboy tunes along the way. The rest of Billy's story moves unfolds in short vignettes, including "Card Game at Night" (also known as "Prairie Night"), which draws upon the familiar image of the lone cowboy, including snatches of "The Dying Cowboy." "Gun Battle" is dominated by violent percussion, the sounds of gunfire represented by snare and bass drums. In "Celebration After Billy's Capture" Copland neatly transforms the trudging bass of the opening processional into a dissonant "oompah" figure that underpins a crude bitonal melody, while a waltz section transforms "Trouble for the Range Cook" into an ironic ditty with solos in the trombone and bassoon. "Billy's Death" is a solemn epilogue for strings, harp, and winds.

    Billy the Kid was first performed by the Ballet Caravan in Chicago in a two-piano version on October 6, 1938. The familiar version for full orchestra was premiered in New York on May 24, 1939 to critical and popular raves. In 1940 Copland extracted a concert suite from the ballet, the form in which the music is today most frequently heard.


    1. The Open Prairie
    2. Street in a Frontier Town
    3. Card Game at Night (Prairie Night)
    4. Gun Battle
    5. Celebration Dance (after Billy's Capture)
    6. Billy's Death
    7. The Open Prairie Again

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2016 Urania WS 121169
    2016 Chandos CHSA 5164
    2012 Naxos 8571202
    2010 RPO 19
    2010 Sony Classical 88697707322
    2010 Dorian 92109
    2010 Sony Music Distribution 8869770047
    2009 Sheridan Square Records 28410
    2008 Everest EVERCD 002
    2006 Deutsche Grammophon 000658302
    2006 RCA Victor Living Stereo 67904
    2005 Regis Records 1004
    2004 Decca 000277802
    2004 Brilliant / Brilliant Classics 6151
    2003 Sony Music Distribution 87327
    2002 Vox 5182
    2002 Naxos 559106
    2002 Brilliant 6169
    2001 Sony Classical 89750
    2000 Sony Classical 89323
    2000 Tring 040
    1999 Decca / Polygram 466909
    1997 EMI Music Distribution 66549
    1997 Telarc Distribution 80339
    1996 Everest 9040
    1996 Delos 1603
    1995 Sony Music Distribution 47543
    1994 Delos 3180
    1994 RCA 68020
    1992 Vox 5035
    1992 RCA 60915
    1992 Delos 3104
    1991 RCA 60837
    1991 Mercury 434301
    1991 RCA Victor 60837
    1991 Sony Classical 46559
    1990 RCA 6802
    1988 CBS Records 42431
    Excelsior Recordings 5214
    RCA 0439
    Bescol 537
    CBS Masterworks 42265
    Naxos 550282