Sunday, May 24, 2020

This Day in Classical Music History (Copland-Scored ‘Our Town’ Opens in Theaters)

May 24, 1940-- Our Town, Hollywood’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Thornton Wilder, with a screenplay by the playwright himself, was released in the United States. 

The movie, distributed by United Artists when Americans feared being drawn into an overseas war, appealed to critics and audiences alike for affirming eternal values found in even the smallest communities in the country. It went on to be nominated for six Academy Awards.

When writing about a collaborative medium like film, there are all kinds of subjects to consider. In the case of Our Town, I could talk about how it represented a step forward for William Holden after his debut in Golden Boy; how director Sam Wood expertly guided the other members of the cast; and how producer Sol Lesser worked to win Wilder’s approval of the finished product.

But instead, I will focus on another aspect: the score by Aaron Copland. It fits squarely into a roughly 15-year period, from 1935 to 1935, when this and other works such as Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, Hoe-down, and A Lincoln Portrait virtually redefined the notion of “Americana” in music. 

At first glance, the 39-year-old product of Brooklyn might seem an unlikely candidate to render a small-town setting created by Wilder. But in fact, he had already begun to do so the year before, with his score for John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which had enabled him to morph from a modernist art composer to one working in a mass medium. 

When Copland discovered that Wilder’s fictional Grover’s Corner was inspired by Peterborough, N.H., where the composer had created several of his own works, he felt an immediate affinity with the playwright and setting.

In a 1980 interview with Roger Hall, Copland explained the delicate balance maintained by film composers: “When you’re writing music for a film, you know that it’s not going to be listened to like concert music. People should be absorbed in the story of the film. Very often they don’t even know that music is going on, though it affects their emotions. The music mustn’t get in the way. But on the other hand, it must count for something.”

Our Town represented a particular challenge. The playwright was at pains to dispense with conventional stagecraft, to allow the text to convey his deepest meanings. 

“Each individual’s assertion to an absolute reality can only be inner, very inner,” Wilder wrote in a preface to this and to his two other most successful plays, The Skin of Our Teeth and The Matchmaker. “And here the method of staging finds its justification — in the first two acts there are at least a few chairs and tables; but when Emily revisits the earth and the kitchen to which she descended on her twelfth birthday, the very chairs and tables are gone. Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind — not in things, not in ‘scenery.’...The climax of this play needs only five square feet of boarding and the passion to know what life means to us.”

But film is a vastly different medium from the stage. Wordless closeups can convey all that a playwright might try to express in a five-minute monologue. In fact, extensive talk is antithetical to the combination of movement and image inherent in the concept of “motion picture.” On the other hand, music can subliminally express this emotion, as long as it remains unobtrusive.

Studio executives and Wood were "counting on the music to translate the transcendental aspects of the story,” Copland later recounted. “I tried for clean and clear sounds and in general used straightforward harmonies and rhythms that would project the serenity and sense of security of the story."

The experience with Our Town was successful and pleasant enough that four years later, Copland arranged his soundtrack for an 11-minute orchestral suite, dedicating it to protege Leonard Bernstein. That compressed take (here in this YouTube clip) has become a staple of symphony orchestras since then.

As he had been for Of Mice and Men, Copland was nominated in the Oscar categories Best Music, Score, and Best Music, Original Score for his work on Our Town. He would be nominated two years later in the category Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture for The North Star before finally winning at the close of the decade for his score for The Heiress.

But the latter film marked the end of Copland’s Hollywood activity.  Director William Wyler cut and unevenly dubbed much of the composer’s carefully wrought music, and Copland now had enough financial resources that he could afford to be more selective about his projects. As a result, the only other movie that Copland worked on for the rest of his life was the 1961 independent production Something Wild.

More disappointing for Copland, he never got the chance to work with Wilder again, despite the great esteem the two had for each other. When Copland broached with Wilder the idea of collaborating with him on adaptating Our Town for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the playwright declined: 

“'I'm convinced I write amusical plays: that my texts 'swear at' music; that they're after totally different effects; that they delight in the homeliest aspects of our daily life . . . Music and particularly opera is for the unlocked throat, the outgoing expressive 'idea and essence' behind our daily life. I hope my plays don't lack that idea and essence, but they singularly shrink from an explicit use of it. They are homely and not one bit lyrical.'' 

If Copland’s association with Wilder was fleeting, the composer’s influence on subsequent Hollywood film music was enduring, most notably in soundtracks by Elmer Bernstein (To Kill a Mockingbird), Randy Newman (The Natural) and James Horner (Field of Dreams). 

The latter two baseball films so vividly evoked the wistful pastoral nostalgia associated with “America’s pastime” that Spike Lee decided to go directly to the original source, so to speak, in recasting the image of a different sport. For He Got Game, the director borrowed directly from Copland with the selections “The Open Prairie," "Appalachian Spring," "John Henry," "Lincoln Portrait," "Hoe-Down."

(The image accompanying this post shows William Holden and Martha Scott from the film Our Town.)

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