This is from one of the program notes I wrote for the current Bard festival, “Aaron Copland and his World”:
Some of the musical intelligentsia decried Copland’s return to tonality, but one of the remarkable things about Billy the Kid is how well it integrates his technical achievements of the 1920s. Bitonality is rampant: Scene 2, “Street in a Frontier Town,” plays off the cowboy tune “Great Grandad” in A-flat major against “Whoopie Ti Yi Yo” in F major; and then plays the latter in major and minor at once, with some clashes reminiscent of the Piano Variations. Rhythmic ingenuity in the “Mexican Dance” and the treatment of “Goodbye Old Paint” is the more audible for being drawn out at greater length than in the early works. As Larry Starr has aptly written, “not only is this ballet score as sterling an illustration of Copland’s basic methods as either the Piano Variations or Music for the Theatre; it also reveals these methods at a stage of greater maturity and refinement.”
All serious musical intellectuals, a company from which I have become happy to exclude myself, consider Copland’s Piano Variations the top-shelf evidence of his modernist bonafides. I’m sure I have once again alienated myself from the rest of musical academia by going public with the fact that I consider Billy the Kid a better piece – but after careful examination of both scores over many years, I do believe that Billy the Kid is the better-written work.
Charles Ives wrote, “Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair.” Today we need an addendum: “Profundity in music is too often confused with something that forces the ears to lie on a bed of nails.”