The Aaron Copland Collection ca. 1900-1990

About Aaron Copland's Works

Music for Dance and Film

In the mid-1930s Copland began to receive commissions from dance companies. The first, from the Chicago choreographer Ruth Page, resulted in the 1935 score Hear Ye! Hear Ye!, a ballet with a Rashomon-like plot set in a court of law. Hear Ye! Hear Ye! was a local success but did not make the transition to repertory; when asked about it in later years Copland would say "I wrote that piece very fast." His second commission, from Lincoln Kirstein's Ballet Caravan in New York, resulted in Billy the Kid (1938), one of his best-known works and the work which first definitely identified him with the American West. (Music for Radio, written in 1937, was given the title Saga of the Prairie as the result of a contest, so some people heard the West in Copland's music even before the first of his works to have a specifically Western subject.) Kirstein wanted the score of Billy the Kid to contain quotations of cowboy songs and sent Copland off to Paris with several cowboy songbooks; thus the score's heavily folk-music texture is partly a result of the commission.

Copland again made extensive use of folk material in his next ballet score, Rodeo, written in 1942 for the choreographer Agnes DeMille. (In it he included one fiddle tune from a Library of Congress field recording, which he knew through its transcription in John and Alan Lomax's Our Singing Country.)

Two years later Martha Graham's introspective scenario about life in Pennsylvania when it was the frontier elicited Copland's score Appalachian Spring, first performed in the Coolidge Auditorium in the Library of Congress. Appalachian Spring won Copland the Pulitzer Prize for music; it is widely thought of as the quintessential Copland work. After Appalachian Spring he turned away from dance until 1959, when he wrote the abstract dance score Dance Panels.

Copland wrote for film as well as for the stage in the late 1930s and 1940s. His first film score, The City (1939), was for a documentary by Ralph Steiner that was shown at the New York World's Fair. In 1945 he did another documentary score, The Cummington Story, for the U.S. government. Otherwise his film scores of the period were for Hollywood films: Of Mice and Men (1939), based on John Steinbeck's novel; Our Town (1940), based on the Thornton Wilder play; The North Star (1943), for a film to a script by Lillian Hellman concerning a Russian town's resistance to the Nazi invasion (and Copland's only dramatic score after Grohg that did not have an American setting); The Red Pony (1948), after John Steinbeck's story; and The Heiress (1948), after Henry James's novel Washington Square. Copland's score to The Heiress won an Academy Award for best film score. In 1942 he assembled sections of the scores for The City, Of Mice and Men, and Our Town into a suite entitled Music for the Movies.

After The Heiress Copland wrote only once more for film, for the 1961 independent production Something Wild . In this final film score, as earlier in The City, Copland came to grips with his own city of New York: he considered calling the suite drawn from the film The Poet in Manhattan. Written for the London Symphony Orchestra, the suite was finally titled Music for a Great City, the particular city unspecified.


two cowboys in a scene from billy the kid
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Billy the Kid: production shot, 1938,
Music Division, Library of Congress.

a woman in frontier dress
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon May O'Donnell as the Mother in the first production of Appalachian Spring, 1944,
Music Division, Library of Congress..