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Cowboys of Classical

Cowboy working
phinehas adams
Cowboy working

There was a time, not so long ago, when little children answered “a cowboy” when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. Of course! The cowboys they saw on TV had cool nicknames like “Tex,” “Buck,” and “Snake Eyes.” They got around on majestic horses who would always stay by their side even if caught in the middle of a gun fight. And you just knew they, the good guys, were always were going to win that fight.

Wide open prairies and ranches, hard work and hard play have all been captured by composers of classical music, from cowboy-themed ballets to the movie scores of some iconic westerns. Here are a few of those pieces to help you channel your inner wrangler.

In 1938 Aaron Copland was commissioned to write a “cowboy ballet” for Ballet Caravan, a forerunner of the New York City Ballet. The Aaron Copland websitehas a program note by Vivian Perlis which quotes Copland as saying: “Lincoln [Kirstein] tempted me with several books of western tunes and [Eugene] Loring wrote a scenario about the notorious bandit of the Southwest, Billy the Kid. I became intrigued with using such tunes as ‘Git Along Little Dogies,’ ‘The Old Chisholm Trail,’ and ‘Goodbye Old Paint.’”

Although the outlaw William Bonney, who was known as “Billy the Kid,” was not a cowboy, the time period, the western setting, and the six cowboy tunes Copland incorporated into the ballet make it fall under the “cowboy category.” Here’s Copland himself conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in the Billy the Kid Suite.

The ballet was an instant success and is performed often, both as a ballet and as an orchestral suite, to this day.

The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo moved to the United States during World War II. They hired Agnes de Mille to project manage and choreograph an “American” ballet. She was so impressed by Copland’s Billy the Kid from four years earlier that she hired him to write something for this new-to-America dance company. Copland was said to be reluctant about writing yet “another cowboy ballet,” but de Mille was persuasive.

As Copland envisioned Rodeo, (subtitled The Courting at Burnt Ranch), there would be five sections that actually described the experiences of cowboys in the 19th century American Southwest: “Buckaroo Holiday,” “Corral Nocturne,” “Ranch House Party,” “Saturday Night Waltz,” and “Hoe-Down.” As a ballet you will still hear Copland’s original 5-part score; however, he eliminated the “Ranch House Party” section and arranged the remaining four sections into an orchestral suite. This is the version you’ll hear in a concert hall, as in this performance with Zubin Mehta conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic:

Like his Billy the Kid, the Rodeo ballet also was an instant success. In fact, at the 1942 premiere, there were 22 curtain calls. But the orchestral suite, three parts of which were premiered in 1943 by the Boston Pops and Arthur Fiedler, had even more success both in live performance and in recording sales.

The Magnificent Seven was based on the 1954 movie, Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa. The movie was reset in 1960 and changed from Samurai to seven American gunfighters hired by a Mexican border town after a villager was killed. They hope the seven will save them from the violence and from being robbed frequently by a local gang of outlaws. Elmer Bernstein wrote the score which contains many lovely tunes, but the main theme is one of the most recognizable – and borrowed – of all movie themes. This is the Cincinnati Pops conducted by Erich Kunzel:

Bernstein’s score was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score. Although it didn’t win, it was placed on the list of the“Top 25 Film Scores” by the American Film Institute

Another western movie, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, from 1966, also has a main theme that has become as famous as the movie itself. Ennio Morricone’s music about the American west in the late 1800s includes electric guitars, that at times, imitate the sound of coyotes howling.

Fun fact: although it was the most famous of the so-called “spaghetti westerns” because it was the product of Italian writers, directors and crew, most of the movie was actually filmed in Spain!

Composer Alberto Ginastera is considered the leading 20th century composer of his native Argentina. There, the “gaucho” (or cowboy / plainsman) is a national symbol, revered as much as America’s cowboys are in our popular culture. In his 1937 Danzas argentinas, Ginastera takes a very modern approach to the old profession. The three dances are titled “The Old Cattleman,” “The Pretty Girl,” and “The Cowboy Bandit.” Argentine pianist Martha Argerich plays them here:

And from nearby Venezuela, composer Pedro Elias Gutiérrez, with lyricist Rafael Bolivar Coronado, wrote a dance-song, Alma Llanera (“Soul of the Plains”), in 1914. Although it was written as part of a zarzuela (the Spanish version of opera blended with musical theatre) it has become a stand-alone piece considered Venezuela’s unofficial national anthem. Llaneros are Venezuela’s cowboys . . . who not only herd cattle and pigs, but throughout history have had to kill everything from piranhas to alligators to keep their herds safe as they cross plains and rivers. They have been immortalized in songs and legends, and again, just like the American versions, are seen as macho, fearless national heroes. Guitarists John Williams and Richard Harvey play it:

It has become a Venezuelan tradition that the piece be performed or sung at the end of every social gathering.

And of course, the iconic American composer John Williams has cowboy music in his catalog! He wrote the brilliant score to the 1972 western The Cowboys, about a rancher who must hire and train local schoolboys to become his cowboys when his adult employees all quit to join a gold rush. Here is the overture with John Williams conducting the Boston Pops Orchestra.

Williams’s score to The Cowboys is another of those AFI “Top 25 Film Scores.” (Three other scores by Williams made the final list: Star Wars, E.T. and Jaws).

And finally, we circle the wagons on the cowboys with one more by Aaron Copland. In 1937, John Steinbeck’s novel, The Red Pony, captured the imaginations of American readers, most of whom had never seen a ranch, must less work on one. The novel was made into a movie in 1949 and Aaron Copland was tapped to write the score. The music was as celebrated as Steinbeck’s story, and Copland was asked to arrange some of the music into an orchestral suite for the Houston Symphony Orchestra. There are six separate pieces in the suite, some of which are often played as stand-alone pieces today. The most familiar is “Morning on the Ranch.” Here is Leonard Slatkin conducting the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra:

The music was so popular that Republic Pictures had an LP released of Copland’s soundtrack.

Despite the warning in the 1976 song, “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” the rough and tumble life on ranches and the open plains continues to be an allure both for people interested in the career, and “arm chair” cowboys alike. And . . . composers, too.

CODA: Do you think America’s cowboys were only in the Southwest? If you grew up in Boston in from 1956 to 1974 you probably spent every Saturday morning for those 18 years with a real-life cowboy. Texas-born Rex Trailer had been a working cowboy on his grandfather’s ranch, and a rodeo performer who could do everything from rope tricks to play guitar and sing. After hosting children’s shows in New York and Philadelphia, he had the opportunity to bring his cowboy-themed show to Boston. Children were part of the show, and every kid you knew dreamed of being able to go. Here’s a taste with Rex singing the theme song. Sing along!

I never got to go on the show, but years after it had gone off the air, I worked with Rex Trailer on a video from his production company based in Waltham. Of all the celebrities I’ve met over the years, my husband is most in awe of the fact that I knew his childhood cowboy idol, Rex Trailer, personally.

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.