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During the 1930s, Copland wrote several ballets, as well as purely orchestral works that evoke the spirit of dance in the concert hall. Billy the Kid was composed for Lincoln Kirsteins Ballet Caravan, which gave the premiere in Chicago on 16 October 1938. Copland later described how the ballet came to be written: Whatever else one might think, I suppose that Billy started a trend, since it was the first of the ballet Westerns. Certainly it was the first time that I attempted to tap the rich source of American folk music and give it a full orchestral setting. It was Lincoln Kirstein … director of his own Ballet Caravan back in 1938, who asked me to compose a ballet on the subject of the Southwests badman, Billy the Kid. Having been born in Brooklyn myself I was rather wary of tackling a cowboy subject. But Kirstein was persuasive arranged discussions with our choreographer Eugene Loring, showed me Jared Frenchs costume designs, and tucked two slim collections of Western tunes under my arm. I had worked with Mexican folk tunes in El Salon Mexico, and the idea of seeing what I could do with homegrown ones helped Kirstein win the argument. Thus in the summer of 1938 I found myself writing a cowboy ballet in Paris, France.
As Copland said, the score of Billy the Kid drew on traditional cowboy tunes for a good deal of its thematic material; the tunebooks that Kirstein had given him fired the composer s imagination while he was in France. With typically wry humor, Copland commented that perhaps theres something different about a cowboy tune in Paris though he didnt use one of the most famous, Home on the Range, since I decided to draw the line somewhere! But there is much more to Billy the Kid than its folksong sources. Its striking originality is apparent from the very start. With its open fifths and unhurried spaciousness, this is music of a melancholy grandeur that came to define the sound of the open prairie. Paradoxically, it is this passage the most abstract in the ballet that became a musical embodiment of Americas wide open spaces. When the ballet was first performed in New York, John Martin wrote in the New York Times (28 May 1939) that: Aaron Copland has provided … a fine singing score, simple and free and dramatic. Bits of cowboy songs bob up logically in it here and there, but the pungency of its atmosphere grows out of something far more organic than any merely applied local color could make it. This is real theater and dance music.