Aaron Copland Pictured: Aaron Copland by Candlelight. Portrait of the composer at work by his companion Victor Kraft. (Aaron Copland Collection, Library of Congress.)


Considered the dean of American composers, the ballet compositions of Aaron Copland (1900-1990) embrace some of his most popular and beloved works. Copland's fascination with movement resulted in a number of compositions for dance that epitomized the spirit of American dance in the 1930s and 1940s. Commissioned by Ruth Page, Hear Ye! Hear Ye! (1934) was Copland's first composition to be choreographed and, even though it was not a critical success, the jazzy score, flashy costumes and designs, as well as the leftist commentary of the action, fit the national mood of the time. Copland's next ballet, Billy the Kid (1938), was commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein for Ballet Caravan and choreographed by Eugene Loring. It was the first ballet in which Copland used American folk tunes and was also his first work to explore the "open prairie" feel that was to become an important element in later ballet and concert works. Although resistant to compose another "cowboy ballet," in 1942 Agnes de Mille persuaded Copland to write the score for the pastoral, lyric joke Rodeo. Choreographed by de Mille for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo with sets designed by Oliver Smith, Rodeo enjoyed enormous popularity. The concert suite, which closes with the energetic "Buckaroo Holiday," is one of the composer's most often played works. Copland's masterwork for dance, Appalachian Spring (1944), is regarded as the quintessential American ballet. Commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge for Martha Graham, the work was premiered at the Library of Congress. Graham supplied Copland with several scenarios for the work but Copland was largely free to compose one of his most expressive and touching works. Other works for dance include Grohg (1922-1925) and Dance Panels (1959).

Learn more in Aaron Copland, an essay by George Dorris.