September 2012

Hoe-Down from Rodeo

by Aaron Copland

We talked about Copland in June 2010. He's an American composer, born in Brooklyn, New York in 1900. He passed away just 22 years ago in 1990. He is known as a uniquely American composer.

In 1942, a choreographer named Agnes de Mille approached Copland. She wanted to create a ballet called "Rodeo" (pronounced row-DAY-oh), and she wanted Copland to write the music. She was impressed with his earlier ballet, "Billy the Kid". Copland was, at first, afraid that he would only be known for "Cowboy ballets", but he decided to write it anyway.

Interesting side note, the premiere of Rodeo was attended by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein (aka Rogers & Hammerstein), and they were so impressed with the production that they hired Agnes de Mille to choreograph their upcoming musical production, Oklahoma!

The ballet Rodeo has five parts:

  1. Buckaroo Holiday
  2. Corral Nocturne
  3. Ranch House Party
  4. Saturday Night Waltz
  5. Hoe-Down

In 1943, Copland decided to write a formal symphonic suite containing the music from Rodeo. It is called "Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo" ("Ranch House Party" is left out). This has been a popular piece for concerts ever since.

Through dance and music, Rodeo tells the story of a cowgirl who's a bit of a tomboy. She tries unsuccessfully to win the heart of the Head Wrangler, as he has his eye on the Rancher's daughter. She also tries to attract the Champion Roper, but he, too, has his eye on the Rancher's daughter. Eventually, the Rancher's daughter's heart is won by the Head Wrangler, and, during the Hoe-Down, the Champion Roper approaches the Cowgirl. Before the end of the Hoe-Down, they share a kiss.

A traditional hoe-down is a two-step style dance, often involving a "caller". A "square dance" can also be considered a hoe-down. The caller chants a set of dance instructions to the dancers throughout the music. The music is typically provided by fiddles (violins).

Copland often incorporates folk tunes into his pieces, and there are three that are incorporated into Hoe-Down. The very first part is from a fiddle book put together by William H. Stepp. It's his interpretation of a tune called "Bonaparte's Retreat". There's also a section that is "McLeod's Reel", and a solo oboe and clarinet section that is the Irish theme "Gilderoy".

Jon's Introduction to This Piece:

I'm not absolutely sure on this one, but I think I got most familiar with this piece from a tape that my band director, Jerry Borchardt, made for me when I was in 9th grade (1985-1986 school year). The tape featured Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man", but also "Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo" and possibly "Billy the Kid".

The following year, I was further helped by being introduced to Emerson, Lake & Palmer's rendition of Hoe-Down.

I've performed band arrangements of Hoe-Down in High School (in fact, if you hear the quiet trombone solo a little over two minutes into the piece, that was my solo; it's short).

In the early 1990s, the piece would enjoy renewed popularity, as it was the theme music used for a series of commericals sponsored by America's Beef Producers. The tag line was "Beef. It's what's for dinner."


So here is Hoe-Down from the ballet Rodeo. Enjoy!

Hoe-Down from Rodeo by Aaron Copland (3:11)

For those interested, this recording was performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the legendary Leonard Bernstein.

Jon's Interpretation:

It's funny to me that Copland seemed to be concerned about being typecast as the guy who writes "Cowboy ballets". You have to hand it to him, though. He does it well. There's a very clear feeling of the old West in this piece (and in the associated pieces for Rodeo).

This is a very lively and exciting piece. I don't always picture a Western dance, but it does have a very American sound.

Extra Credit:

There are some in the music world that felt that conductor (and composer) Leonard Bernstein understood Copland's music better than Copland himself. Largely, I tend to agree with that. But here's an example, so you can be the judge. Here is Aaron Copland himself conducting Hoe-Down. Enjoy!

Hoe-Down from Rodeo conducted by Aaron Copland (3:35)

And here is the Emerson, Lake & Palmer rendition of Hoe-Down. It is certainly an example of early 1970s electric synthesizer progressive rock, but it's a very impressive modern arrangement. Pay particular attention to the spontaneous introduction of "Turkey in the Straw" in the middle of it. Enjoy!

Hoe-Down arranged by Emerson, Lake & Palmer (3:46)

And, thanks to YouTube, here is an example of the "Beef. It's What's for Dinner." commercials. Enjoy!

And finally, I couldn't resist a Simpsons reference. In the season 17 episode "The Seemingly Never-Ending Story", Mr. Burns and the Rich Texan agree to a scavenger hunt to win the other's possessions. The music that underscores their scavenging? Hoe-down, of course. Enjoy!