Differing that runs through rural Czechoslovakia and Prague. Starting

Differing
in nationality and era, many would be quick to suggest that Aaron Copland ‘s ballet,
“Billy the Kid”, and Bedrich Smetana’s symphonic poem, “Vltava”, have no
similarities. However, despite the difference in time period and nationality, Copland
and Smetana were both nationalistic composers, meaning that they incorporated
musical ideas and motifs commonly identified within a specific country,
including folk tunes, melodies, rhythms, and harmonies. Due to this, there
are both similarities and differences present when comparing the two pieces. The
tempo, time signature, dynamics, rhythm, structure, harmony, and melody
of both compositions where analyzed in order to determine just how similar these
pieces were.

            Titled as the father of Czech music,
Bedrich Smetana was a famous Czech composer in the nineteenth century who
pioneered the development of a musical style in his country. His style of
composing became closely identified with Czech’s dream of an independent
statehood. A naturally gifted pianist, Smetana was deemed as a child prodigy
who gave his first public performance at the age of six and enjoyed more
respect and popularity than his contemporaries. Though often described as frail
and unimpressive, he enjoyed a great fan following and was regarded as the most
talented and popular musician Czech has ever had. His piece, The Moldau, is the most popular six
works comprising collection of symphonic poems assembled under the title Má
Vlast, which means “my country”. It is one of the most widely performed
symphonic poems ever written. One of the six compositions, “Vltava” describes
the course of the Vltava, a river that runs through rural Czechoslovakia
and Prague. Starting from two small springs, the song portrays the
unification of both streams into a single current, the course of the Vltava
through woods and meadows, a farmer’s wedding, the dance of the mermaids in the
moonlight and other events that occur on the river’s journey.

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            Aaron Copland, on the other hand,
was a twentieth century American composer who achieved a distinctive musical
characterization of American themes in an expressive modern style. Copland
was one of the most respected American classical composers of the twentieth
century. Born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 14, 1900 to Jewish immigrants
from Lithuania, he first learned to play the piano from his older sister. Copland
incorporatd popular forms of American music such as jazz and folk into his
compositions. As a spokesman for the advancement of indigenous American music, he
made great strides in liberating it from European influence. His composition
“Billy the Kid” was designed as a one-act ballet with choreography by
Eugene Loring, an
American dancer. Based on a semi-fictional story of outlaw Henry McCarty the
ballet presents Billy as a romanticized symbol of danger in the Wild West.
Copland structures the story with spread out harmonies that vividly invoke a
sense of the open prairie where it takes place.

            The first element of music analyzed
was Tempo. The tempo of
a piece of music is the speed of the underlying beat. Both Copland and
Smetana’s compositions have similar original tempos. “Vltava” has an initial
speed of Allegro commodo non agitato, meaning the piece should be
played in a fast, with a leisurely tempo that is neither too fast nor too slow,
and should be performed in a manner that is not agitated. Whereas “Billy the
Kid” is solely marked with Allegro, instructing that it needed to be play at a brisk tempo. As
both of these works are relatively long, they inevitably fluctuate in speed.
This fluctuation creates a distinction in the piece and is utilized in a way
that effectively captures the audience’s attention. 

            Despite the similarity in tempo
indications, the illusion produced is that “Vltava” is substantially faster
paced than “Billy the Kid”. This is created through the time signatures utilized
at the beginning of each piece. “Billy the Kid” begins in simple duple time,
whereas “Vltava” begins in compound duple. Having a beat split up into three
instead of two contributes to the feeling of “Vltava” being at a quicker tempo
than “Billy the Kid”. In addition, particularly at the beginning of the piece, “Vltava”
constantly has at least one instrument playing in continuous semi-quavers. This
helps to create the illusion of “Vltava” being quicker. 

            The romantic era, unlike that of the
modern, was known for its simplicity; as such, the time signatures and tempo
markings, more often than not, remained the same throughout an entire piece of
music. Smetana’s composition slightly deviates from this, introducing new time
signatures and tempo markings every time a new theme was presented. Moreover,
the incessantly frequent tempo and time signature changes in “Billy the Kid”
are truly representative of the less structural and unpredictable compositional
style of 20th century composers.
            Another element of music is dynamics. Dynamics refers to the volume
of a sound or note, a wide range of which has been utilized in both “Billy
the Kid” and “Vltava”. This creates contrasts within the pieces and makes the
compositions more captivating. Both of these arrangements begin softly, with “Billy
the Kid” marked mezzo piano and “Vltava” marked piano
and gradually increase, ultimately ending on fortissimo. Both
pieces make constant use of dynamic changes throughout. However, Copland uses
these more aggressive and abruptly, whereas Smetana uses more gradual changes,
which effectively represent waves and surges in the river that he is
describing. Furthermore, composers tend to utilize the natural dynamics of
individual instruments and their ranges in order to obtain the necessary
dynamic. This is a technique that both Copland and Smetana skillfully use.
Therefore, at the beginning of “Vltava”, only the flutes and pizzicato violins
are used to portray the piano dynamic. Similarly, at the
beginning of “Billy the Kid”, only the piccolo, tin whistle, violins and violas
are used.

            Most pieces, particularly orchestral
pieces, in the 19th and 20th centuries tend to tell a story. Rather than the
need to begin abruptly with a loud dynamic marking, both “Billy the Kid” and “Vltava”
use the technique of a subtle introduction. The aim of the beginnings of these
pieces is not to immediately capture the audience’s attention, but to ease them
into the story line and ultimately engage them by taking them on a musical journey.

            Another similarity between these two
pieces is the use of syncopation. Syncopation is a disturbance of the regular
flow of rhythm. Although Copland uses this effect much more frequently than
Smetana, both composers have used this technique to drive the music forward, and
intensify sections. Syncopation plays a large part of modern music while early
Romantic compositions barely demonstrated this feature. Syncopation helps give
the music a sense of unpredictability and unevenness at the necessary times. Copland
has used relatively short note values combined with syncopation to capture the
laidback atmosphere of the Wild West. In comparison, Smetana is cautious in his
use of syncopation.
            In addition to syncopation, “Billy
the Kid” and “Vlatava” have similar structures. Both compositions make use of
different themes, and re-introduce the ideas throughout the piece. The imagery
created by Smetana is very clear, and is strongly represented by each
individual section names. These section titles perfectly resemble the imagery
produced by the music. The structure of Copland’s ballet is much more vague in
comparison to Smetana’s incontrovertible Rondo form. This rondo form used by
Smetana consists of a theme A that is frequently repeated throughout the piece
in variations. 
            Structure of compositions
began to become less apparent nearing the Twentieth century. Compositions from
the modern era tend to be more focused on expansion of themes in order to tell
stories with them, rather than on composing within a set structure. Twentieth
century music was all about innovations, creativity, and exploration, and Copland
exemplifies this in “Billy the Kid”.
            One way Copland demonstrates
creativity in “Billy the Kid” is through the harmony. The harmony of a piece is
the combination of simultaneously sounded musical notes to produce chords and
chord progressions. “Billy the Kid” begins in the major key, which helps
portray its happy and carefree nature. Contrastingly, “Vltava” begins in a minor
key, producing a more serious and vehement nature. The string section produces
the harmonies heard in “Vltava”, by playing single low-pitched notes of short
value. These notes are based on broken chords that signify the key and harmony.
Comparatively, “Billy the Kid” forms their harmonies with chords, spread over a
number of instruments. In doing this, the texture appears to be thinner, with
an exposed sound that corresponds with the Wild West
atmosphere. Furthermore, the intonations used by Smetana are much more
clear and evident in contrast to those written by Copland. This is an aspect
that is typical of compositions from the Romantic eras, as opposed to the inharmonious
and unpredictable key changes utilized in modernistic compositions. In other
terms, “Billy the Kid” is more dissonant than “Vltava”, and experiments with
different keys and sounds, typical of the twentieth century. 

            The final component of music analyzed
was melody. Simply put the melody of a song is its tune. There is one main
similarity evident in the melodic lines between “Billy the Kid” and “Vltava”,
bot constantly return to a melodic idea. In “Billy the Kid”, the first theme
presented returns numerous times in the first half of the piece, and the fifth
theme returns regularly in the second half of the piece. In comparison, in “Vltava”,
Smetana clearly utilizes the return of the flowing river theme throughout. In
addition to this, both pieces contain embellishment within their melodic lines.

            Despite the similarity in how often
the melody repeats, the melodic lines highly contrast between these two pieces.
The melodies used by Smetana are fast flowing and energetic, while Copland’s
melodies are light, laid back. Once again, this contrast is used to represent
the different themes and ideas intended, as well as the storylines being
portrayed. Additionally, Smetana incorporates a larger range of notes in
his melodic lines in comparison to the smaller range used in Copland’s
melodies. The fact that Copland doesn’t use the entire range possible on each
instrument is somewhat alternate to the traditional modernistic compositions.
Perhaps Copland intended to limit the ranges of the instruments in order to
keep in touch with the nationalistic side of his work and to help portray the
Wild West image.

            Overall, despite the many
differences in time and nationality, Aaron Copland and Bedrich Smetana have
several similarities when it comes to two of their compositions, “Billy the
Kid” and “Vltava”.  There are parallels
between these two arrangements when it comes to the tempo, time signature,
dynamics, rhythm, structure, harmony, and melody. Throughout each of these, however,
there are small differences such as, one song beginning in a minor key rather
then major. Both Copland and Smetana’s styles were revolutionary to their time;
paved the way for the music and composers that followed them. This goes to
prove that music is constantly evolving and composers are always building off
of each other.