Copland: Music from the Film Our Town

Music from the Film Our Town

AARON COPLAND
BORN: November 14, 1900. Brooklyn, New York
DIED: December 2, 1990. Peekskill, New York

COMPOSED: 1940

WORLD PREMIERE:  The film premiered in May 1940. 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.

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—May 1999. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted MOST RECENT—September 2013, also led by MTT

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes (3rd ad lib.), oboe and English horn (2nd oboe ad lib.), 2 clarinets and bass clarinet (doubling 3rd clarinet), 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 3 trumpets, tenor and bass trombone, tuba, glockenspiel, and strings.

DURATION: About 10 mins

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.) To the amazement of the film community, Copland returned to New York following Of Mice and Men, 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. 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 lead actress 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.

(November 2017)