According to Aaron Copland, a successful film score should be “secondary in importance to the story being told on the screen” without diverting the viewer’s attention from the action. Yet it should add to the movie’s dramatic and emotional content. And that’s why today’s selection, both inspirational and soothing, is such a splendid piece to write and work by.
Although such classics as “Rodeo”, “Appalachian Spring” and “Fanfare for the Common Man” were yet to come, the future “Dean of American Composers,” was already well-respected when he arrived in Hollywood in 1937, having written admirable pieces for Broadway, for national radio and (motivated by the poverty faced by many children during the Depression) for young audiences. Aged 37, he felt the film industry would help to provide a broader audience for the more mature works he was in the process of writing.
Unfortunately the studios had their own way of doing things and were well entrenched in the habit of leaving the best parts of a purposely written score on the cutting room floor. It took a full two years before he finally met a director who agreed not to interfere with his orchestration. The resulting 1939 score was for Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” directed by Lewis Milestone and Copland received two Academy Award nominations (“Best Score” and “Original Score”).
In addition to a burnished reputation and a wider audience, the recognition from that first effort enabled Copland to become one of the highest paid film composers in Hollywood (earning him upwards of $15,000 a film, a tidy sum in those days). “I thought if I was to sell myself to the movies, I ought to sell myself good,” he later said, well remembering the near hand-to-mouth existence of helping countless cash-strapped productions throughout the early ‘30s.
It also allowed Copland the freedom to greatly enhance the way a movie score was used, by utilizing it to illustrate a character’s thoughts, set the atmosphere, provide continuity and shape emotion, none of which had been done with silent and early talking film scores. His influence is heard onscreen to this day.
Yet another Academy Award for Best Score nominee, today’s selection was written for the 1940 cinematic version of Thornton Wilder’s wonderful play “Our Town”. Set in a small New Hampshire town in the early 20th Century, the film was faithful to the original production except for two noteworthy changes. First, as you’ll see from this somewhat muddy YouTube clip of the enchanting opening scene, it used scenery, whereas the stage production deliberately did not.
Secondly, the film’s producer worked closely with Wilder to create a far happier (“Hollywood”) ending, by altering the poignant third act (entitled “Death and Eternity”). This was a legitimate consideration, as was borne out a few years later when the stage production was famously banned in East Berlin on the grounds that it was so upsetting that it might inspire a wave of suicides (!)
* Note: The title quote above was plaintively spoken by Emily, one of the two main characters and a young mother who died giving birth. She has come back to earth for a day to spend time with those she loves, although they don’t know she’s there.
Part of the “Copland Conducts Copland” Collection with the London Symphony Orchestra, this 1967 recording features the main theme to Aaron Copland’s “Our Town”. Now get to work.