Monday, September 24, 2012


This DVD is a very enjoyable way to spend an hour. The first issue I must address, however, may prove a stumbling block for many viewers. The narration of this documentary is in German, with English subtitles. Nowhere is this mentioned on the package, which to me seems deceptive. The explanation is that the film was made by Frankfurt Radio in 2001. If you can get around the incongruity of a film about an American composer in German, I think you’ll find much to enjoy. The interviews in the film, thankfully, are conducted in English. Musically, the film offers fine performances of highlights from Copland’s works, with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony conducted by its then music director, the American Hugh Wolff. I heard Wolff lead a lovely performance of the Clarinet Concerto with Karl Herman and the New Jersey Symphony, so his excellence here doesn’t surprise me. Not all the works included are the usual suspects. There’s the 1925 Music for Theater, the 12-tone Connotations, and the original 13-instrument version of Appalachian Spring. Wolff says that this last, as chamber music, possesses the feeling of settlers in an isolated area. Stella Doufexis also gives a lovely rendition of three of the orchestrated Emily Dickinson songs. One of Wolff’s trenchant observations about Copland is that he did not have a big ego. He did not, as an artist, have to believe that he was right and everyone else was wrong. Copland, claims Wolff, would say that he was doing things one way one day, and maybe another way the next. Excerpts from an interview with Copland put you in the presence of the man, who is absolutely charming. He even discusses his victimization for his leftist views during the McCarthy era without any sign of bitterness. The film does not mention Copland’s homosexuality, although biographer Howard Pollack does say that he lived a temperate life and with restraint. One of my favorite stories about Copland involves his friend Leonard Bernstein urging him to come out of the closet. Copland replied, “I’ll leave that to you, my boy.” On a personal note, Copland studied piano with Clarence Adler, who was my mother’s teacher. Other highlights of the film include an excerpt from Martha Graham and her company dancing Appalachian Spring, and an all too short portion of the Clarinet Concerto with Benny Goodman and the composer conducting. Leonard Bernstein is shown directing A Lincoln Portrait, but no other information is given about this concert. I recall it as a telecast with William Warfield narrating and the New York Philharmonic, from the Royal Albert Hall in London. Director Andreas Skipis has devised some trick camerawork for the performances of Fanfare for the Common Man and Music for Theater that I find very engaging. In sum, this is a good biography with a healthy dollop of beautiful music. It adds to my appreciation of Copland. Perhaps we should ask why there is a film from Germany like this and not one from America. I can’t resist adding one more story about Copland that’s not in the film. Early in his conducting career, Copland was leading a rehearsal, with Serge Koussevitzky in the hall. Afterwards, Copland asked Koussevitzky what he thought of his conducting. Koussevitzky replied, “What do you think of my Double Bass Concerto?” FANFARE: Dave Saeman 

 Picture format: NTSC 4:3
Sound format: PCM Stereo
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish
Running time: 60 mins
No. of DVDs: 1 (DVD 5)
1:1 using DVD Dycrypter

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


“Hollywood is an extraordinary place. You must come here some time. It's like nothing else in the world. Thank heavens!”
Aaron Copland to Serge Koussevitzky, 18 October 1939

Copland’s interest in film music dates back years before his first cinematic score. He had programmed film music as the next to last of the Copland-Sessions Concerts in 1931. Auspiciously, that concert featured two short films by Ralph Steiner, who eventually provided Copland with the opportunity to compose music for his documentary The City in 1939. One of Copland’s finest scores, documentary or otherwise, it became his calling-card to studio work.

Copland had visited the west coast in the late 1930s, at the urging of his friend and cousin Harold Clurman, who was advocating for him with studio music executives looking to attract new talent from the concert world. Though early meetings failed to produce any engagements, it does point up a larger campaign by Copland at this time to expand his audience by producing works for theater and radio. Compositionally, Copland’s music shifting more and more into that quintessential “American sound” we associate with him to this very day.

Accounts differ on how exactly Lewis Milestone, the director for the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, encountered Copland’s music to The City. Whether it was at the urging of Milestone’s violinist brother Nathan, or Copland’s agent, Abe Meyer, the result was his arrival in Hollywood in October 1939.

Copland struck rare artistic gold with his engagement to score Of Mice and Men. Milestone had won a lawsuit against producer Hal Roach that included a cash payment and a contractual agreement to fund the movie—this, and the absence of any studio Musical Director, meant a hands-off approach rarely afforded a new composer on the lot. Copland composed at the piano, screening the movie using a portable editing device called a moviola. This allowed him great precision in placing the beats of each cue to the picture and dialogue. The score was written in about six weeks and recorded with a 45–52 piece studio orchestra under the direction of Irvin Talbot on 11 to 12 December 1939. Copland’s score is a remarkable work, avoiding many of the musical devices already commonplace by 1939. Copland did not write leitmotifs and pin them to all the characters, instead he wrote music to correspond with the broader ideas of the work. The main theme for Of Mice and Men is a folk-like melody, something Copland described as likely to have been whistled by the main characters George and Lennie, and it expresses the idea of the better life they are reaching toward. This theme, by extension, becomes the hopes of all the marginalized characters depicted in the film. Copland was unafraid to experiment in modernistic expression in the score. Most notably, the 26 second clashing chord that climaxes The Fight cue offered unheard of modernism for the time, and is likely some of the most dissonant music Copland ever created. The critical scene of Lennie accidentally killing Mae (Curly’s wife) in the film allowed Copland to create new themes late in the score which he interwove masterfully with the dream theme in the final dramatic cues. The scene where George shoots Lennie certainly was one of the most heartrending scenes filmed in the 1930s (much less today) and demonstrates a high point in the marriage of music and picture. The poignancy of loneliness, the tragedy of the outcast, and the ultimately ennobling spirit of the common, struggling American, are themes Copland connected to over and over again in his career. In this score he charts them out with incredible sensitivity to the film’s narrative.

After the West Coast première for Of Mice and Men, Copland headed back to New York. He had been offered an immediate follow-up film, but declined because, as he wrote to Virgil Thompson, “the picture stank.” His agent may have been scandalized, but it was a relief to his friends who feared he might be consumed entirely into the motion picture business. The desire for greater exposure may have led Copland to Hollywood, but it was really the War which kept him there. The violence in Europe was unsettling the nation, and Copland was no exception. He found it difficult to write as if nothing was going on. Part of his decision to score the film version of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town only three months after finishing Of Mice and Men was, in a measure, the desire to do something which could lend comfort to the country in a time of increasing anxiety. He also saw it as a personal challenge: to demonstrate that a composer could create two wholly different musical scores within a brief window of time.

Director Sam Wood, afforded Copland nearly as much freedom as Milestone did in creating the score. Copland eschewed using any popular tunes, deciding instead to create an original score that once again had folk-like qualities while adding cues of an almost quasi-religious feel which served to emphasize the universal themes of the work, detailing the life of a town against the life of the universe. Irvin Talbot (Copland would not conduct his own film scores until The Red Pony in 1948) once again conducted a studio orchestra of about fifty players. The well-known Grover’s Corner theme gets the most play, but the love theme, which does double duty as a motif for Emily and George, the young couple in the drama, is featured nearly as much. The more expansive “music of the stars” is quoted prominently in the main titles, the beginning of the third act on the hilltop cemetary overlooking the town, and in the epilogue. Smaller thematic material includes the narrator’s theme, which often bookmarks cues, and the children’s theme. Perhaps some of the most striking, unheard music from the score is the cemetery music, which is quietly celestial, functioning almost like a kind of American Fantasia. The climactic cue Emily’s Dream where Emily re-visits her sixteenth birthday is at turns reflective, dissonant and plaintive. It features the use of musical saw, which Copland used as a way to tamp down on the sentimentality of the moment.

Elements of these two film scores were adapted to concert suites by Copland. Much of the music from Of Mice and Men used in his Music for Movies suite was scaled down and re-arranged for a more chamber-sized orchestra, often using friendlier keys. The Our Town Suite has become a mainstay for many orchestras. The published suite dated 1945 and dedicated to Leonard Bernstein originally given its première in June 1940 on the radio to promote the film by Howard Barlow and the Columbia Broadcasting Symphony. It incorporated more music from the original score.

Copland garnered a total of four Academy Award Nominations in 1940 and 1941 for these two scores. One for best original scoring, and one for best music score (regardless of author or genre). The only nominee to do so in both categories. Their impact on the ears of audiences and composers, both for film and concert stage, was deeply felt and lasts with us today. The uniquely American institution of Hollywood finally found a uniquely American voice. Mark Leneker

Click HERE for an interesting interview with the producer of these recordings

Of Mice and Men (1939)
1 Prelude and Titles 3:12
2 The Wood Scene 2:06
3 The Wood at Night 1:13
4 On the Ranch 1:53
5 Threshing Machine No. 1 0:42
6 Threshing Machine No. 2 1:10
7 Threshing Machine No. 3 1:11
8 Barley Wagons 1:42
9 Mae at Home 2:34
10 Death of Candy's Dog 3:08
11 Mae in the Barn 1:36
12 In the Bunkhouse 5:51
13 Preliminaries to Fight 1:19
14 The Fight 1:18
15 Death of Mae 2:54
16 George Determined 1:14
17 Near the Brush 3:40
18 Lennie's Death 2:17
19 End Title 0:30

Our Town (1940)
20 Main Title 2:12
21 Story of Our Town 2:06
22 Off to School 1:22
23 Introducing the Professor 0:54
24 Grover's Corners 0:56
25 Emily in Love 1:01
26 The Town at Night 5:00
27 The Letter 1:16
28 Grover's Corners Again 1:00
29 George and Emily 3:51
30 The Drugstore Scene 0:55
31 The Hill Top 5:29
32 The Crisis 1:30
33 Scene in the Cemetery 7:28
34 Emily's Dream 5:06
35 The Epilogue 1:53
36 Cast of Characters 0:39

Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic Orchestra
Conducted by Andrew Mogrelia