COPLAND:  Music from the film Our Town

Aaron Copland was born in Brooklyn on November 14, 1900, and died in Peekskill, New York, on December 2, 1990. The score for Our Town was composed in 1940, the film getting its first showings in May of that year. Copland then prepared a short concert excerpt, which was first played on June 9 that year by the Columbia Broadcasting Symphony under Howard Barlow. A revised version of this was introduced on May 7, 1944, by the Boston Pops conducted by Leonard Bernstein, to whom the score is dedicated. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the first performances of this music by the San Francisco Symphony in May 1999, and he also led the most recent performances, in January 2009. The score calls for two flutes (third ad libitum), oboe and English horn (second oboe ad libitum), two clarinets and bass clarinet (doubling third clarinet), two bassoons, three horns, three trumpets, tenor and bass trombone, tuba, glockenspiel, and strings. Performance time: about nine minutes.

Aaron Copland was an inspired choice as composer for the film based on Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, and today he even appears as the inevitable choice. In 1940 it was not quite so obvious. Copland himself always thought of 1939 as his turn-around year with respect both to his reputation and his ability to make a reasonable income. Of Mice and Men, the first feature film he scored, came out of that year and brought him an Academy Award nomination. Also in 1939, Ballet Caravan staged the first full performance with orchestra of Billy the Kid, to huge acclaim, and Copland’s first book, What To Listen For In Music, appeared and was well-received. (It has never been out of print and is still very much worth reading.) Even so, Copland was a name known mostly within the new-music community, and most concertgoers thought of his music as “difficult.”

Copland had made his first foray into the world of film in 1939, when he was asked to score The City, a documentary for the New York World’s Fair that was shown there several times every day. The producer Hal Roach and the director Lewis Milestone (a cousin of the great violinist Nathan Milstein) saw The City at a showing in Los Angeles and promptly summoned Copland to Hollywood to talk about writing for their just completed film version of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Copland never did figure out why they had waited until the film was completed before approaching a composer. Be that as it may, he flew to California—it was his first plane trip—reread the book, accepted an offer of $5,000 (very generous for that time and for a composer with no Hollywood credentials), wrote the music, and stayed long enough to attend the wildly successful premiere that December.

To the amazement of the film community, Copland returned to New York, but it was only a few months before Hollywood beckoned again, this time with Our Town. He had seen the play during its long run at Henry Miller’s Theater; moreover, he was well-acquainted with Peterborough, New Hampshire—the “real” Grover’s Corners—because he had spent time at the MacDowell Artists’ Colony just outside that still-charming town. Wilder had in fact written the play during one of his stays at the Colony. Our Town portrays the everyday life of ordinary people in such a town and also injects a quiet admonition of “seize the day.” The subject appealed to Copland, who had become engaged by the challenge of writing music whose artistic standard was high but which could reach a wider audience.

To those who love the play, the Our Town film can be a disappointment. We miss the magic of a world put on the stage without scenery, virtually without props, evoked only by the words and presence of the Stage Manager. Also, Emily, the young woman we first met when she was a child and whom we have seen courted by her high-school love, George, does not die in childbirth but merely hallucinates her death while under anesthetic, a typical Hollywood compromise. (Wilder, by the way, approved this change.) Nonetheless, the movie is still worth renting on DVD, especially for the performances of Frank Craven as the Stage Manager (even though he has less opportunity to make magic than in the play) and of the radiantly lovely Martha Scott as Emily. And of course for Copland’s music. By that I mean not only the music itself as we can taste it in concert suites and excerpts, but how it works in the film.

Copland understood from the beginning what he had to do. He observed that “the composer is in a special position to appreciate what music does to a film because he sees it first without any music. Movie audiences may not consciously realize they are listening to music when they view a film, but it works in their emotions nonetheless.” The score for Our Town received an Oscar nomination (as did Martha Scott, and the film as a whole for Best Picture).

Our Town, with its lovely sense of quiet and its beautiful evocation of New England hymn tunes, is a wonderfully achieved film score; not least, one admires Copland’s discretion even in the scenes when the need to go for the hankies is most irresistible. The brief orchestral suite, which moves along at a calm tempo, draws on the title music, the churchyard scene, and passages showing daily life in Grover’s Corners.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music

Recordings: Copland conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in the Suite he made from his film score (CBS) |  Maurice Abravanel and the Utah Symphony (Vanguard Classics)

Reading: Copland 1900-1942 and Copland Since 1943, by Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis (St. Martin’s Press) | Aaron Copland, by Arthur Berger (Oxford University Press) | Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man, by Howard Pollack (Holt)

DVD: MTT and the SFS in Keeping Score: Copland and the American Sound (SFS Media). Also available at keepingscore.org.