Aaron Copland: The Red Pony Suite
Composed for Lewis Milestone’s 1949 film The Red Pony, Aaron Copland’s music for the film was soon made into a concert suite. The suite was originally arranged for the Houston Symphony Orchestra and came about due to the lack of commercial success from the film. Copland thought, as many did, that creating accessible concert suites of film music could help reach new audiences, whilst also showcasing their perhaps lesser-known music to their regular concert-goers.
The Red Pony Suite premiered in October 1948 by the Houston Symphony Orchestra. The suite incorporates six different titles from the film, each one composed into its own movement. The titles of each movement match that of an action from the film. The suite, and in fact the whole soundtrack from the film, has been commended for its unusual timbres and textures with Copland commenting that:
“This was not your typical Western with gunmen and Indians!”
Movement I – Morning on the Ranch
The opening movement begins with a bold unison string theme. The basis of this theme is then integrated throughout the rest of the movement. Fluttering winds and spiky brass interject the main melody, which adds a sparkling effect to the texture. The central section of the movement is a great example of American pastoral writing. Fluttering winds and lucious strings team up to create a wonderful musical painting. As the textures begin to get richer, the dynamics also rise.The movement comes to an end after a repeat of the opening material, this time played tutti.
Movement II – The Gift
Opening with a lone harp, the serene second movement combines the textures of a celeste, harp, strings and a solo flute. The warm timbre of this movement is amplified through nuanced dissonances that are deep-rooted in the music. A solo flute presents the chief theme of the movement, with the piccolo adding decoration in its upper register. The warm flute sound is accompanied by warm strings and woodwinds. As the intensity builds, Copland adds more instruments to the texture. After the climax explodes near the end, the movement reverts back to the serene atmosphere from the opening to close this movement.
Movement III – Dream March & Circus March
Opening with a trumpet fanfare accompanied by a tuba, the winds soon take up dialogue with the brass. The march-like theme is passed around the orchestra. A quick percussion interlude signals a slight shift in tempo as the fanfare theme is proclaimed from different parts of the orchestra. This movement ends quietly with a duet between the piccolo flute and tuba – the two ends of the orchestra. This creates both a comedic and slightly mysterious end to the movement.
The circus march, sometimes played as a movement on its own, is a take on typical circus music. Fanfares, fast woodwind passages and bold percussion lead the way in this quirky movement.
Movement IV – Walk to the Bunkhouse
The fourth movement, named Walk to the Bunkhouse, starts with a syncopated bass line played pizzicato by the strings. The syncopated upper string theme glides gently on top as the walk heads out into the fields. The woodwind soon take up this theme, and the change in timbre is also noted by the different accompaniments. The lyrical central section is a welcome rest to the jaunty walk, however the theme soon returns to finish the movement.
Movement V – Grandfather’s Story
The penultimate movement is nostalgic and calm in character to begin with. The strings and oboe lead with the melody until the violins take over. There is a tinge of sadness running through this movement, with the soft and slow movements adding to the effect. The mood very quickly changes in the second half of the movement, with a pizzicato accompaniment supporting a very dissonant trumpet duo. The music builds and there is a sense of impending doom. After this feeling dissolves, the music goes back to the nostalgic feel of the opening.
Movement VI – Happy Ending
A joyous tutti opening starts the final movement of the suite. Celebratory brass lead the way as woodwind interludes paired with bombastic percussion sections create an exciting atmosphere. The orchestra unite for the end of the movement, with a reinstatement of the opening theme. The suite ends with a sequence of dissonant chords before coming to a rousing finish.
Aaron Copland’s The Red Pony Suite is full of different characters, atmospheres and melodies. Copland’s unique use of timbres and textures adds to the excitement of this suite and what it has to offer. The music is quintessential Copland and is a great example of the well-loved “American Style” of writing.
Ⓒ Alex Burns
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