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  • 8/6/2019 Copland Article


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  • 8/6/2019 Copland Article



    ARON COPLANDhas written profuselyfor the concerthall,for solo instruments, chamber music ensembles, and orchestra,for one voice and for chorus. But it has always seemed to me thathis is a singularly dramatic flair. The inner spacing of his music istheatrical in the word's best sense. The tempo, the distribution ofpoints of repose, the quiet intensity with which climaxes are reachedand sustained, the uncanny judgment with which repetition andcontrast are employed --all reveal an awareness of the public'sresponses to dramatic entertainment without, however, any con-descension to that public. This recognition of popular and functionaldemands, coupled with the integrity of his esthetics and craftsman-ship, have won for Copland's film scores the rare distinction of ap-proval both by his fellow composers in the East and his Hollywoodassociates.The AcademyAward for the score of The Heiress makes itclear that the acclaim of the world's film center does not dependon an excess of emotional and instrumental lushness. The Heiress,moreover, makes no concessions to cheap popularity; it is a directdescendant of Copland's three earliest cinematic scores, The City(spring 1939), Of Mice and Men (1939), and Our Town (March1940). In these works, written within a compass of twelve months,the composer continued in a tradition that had been auspiciouslyinitiated in the United States by Virgil Thomson's The Plough thatBroke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937). That modernAmerican music owes a great debt to the French school is well known,and much of the dramatic pungency of Thomson and Copland canbe traced to their teachers and models: Satie, Boulanger, and themachine rhythms of Honegger's Pacific 231. But whatever the Frenchinfluences may have been, Copland's early film scores, made in NewYork and Hollywood, can take their place beside the best worksof Europe's screen composers. The over-all cast is one of deliberatecontrol that gives vent to lyrical or traditional expression only ata few well-considered points of the action. The idiom is essentiallyidentical with that of his works for the concert hall. Its texture is


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    162 The Musical Quarterlysparse, and much of the counterpoint is diatonic and favors theinterval of the major second. These are, of course, the well-knowncharacteristics of Copland's style. But what are the processes bywhich he has distilled from this language a vocabulary particularlyfitted for the screen?A dramatic composer must realize the limits of complexity thathe may reach without losing his listener. The ballets Rodeo andAppalachian Spring, intended to exercise a wider appeal than theViolin Sonata and the Third Symphony,are written in a deliberatelysimplified style. The demand for plain expression is even more press-ing in the case of the movies, and the scores for Of Mice and Menand Our Town meet the need for easy intelligibility without sacri-ficing the traits peculiar to the composer'sart. To the inexperiencedpractitioner this would appear a simple trick indeed. What an easyrecipe, to retain the modes of expression but to reduce complexityin inverse proportion to the size of the audience! Actually, it is atechnical and artistic achievement of the highest caliber, for itdemands quality in spite of reduced means and such precision andintensity that not even the sophisticated listener might hope forricher and more varied effects.Most composers of entertainment music find no difficultyin com-municating with their massaudience; they either ignore the resourcesof modern music or berate them as bizarre and esoteric. But theresulting language is so trite and hackneyed, so "easy" that it hashardly any recognizable relationship to concert-hall parlance. Thecommunication with millions is, indeed, achieved, but in an idiomas artificial and unattractive as, let us say, Esperanto, whereas thelanguage of Copland's screen music might be compared to BasicEnglish. Its means of expression, though legitimately keyed to avast audience, never forsakes the tradition or the vocabulary of seri-ous music. But, in order to be "filmic",music must be reduced to itslowest common denominator, that is, stripped to its barest essentials,leaving the component parts basically simpler and shorter. Thisstylistic adaptation is by no means a mere bow to the box office; itshows a sensitive response to the structure and tempo of the mediumitself. The brief, yet precise, turns of musical language can be usedwith speed and ease to accompany the lightning-fast montage, theengrossing and direct impact of the over-size close-up and, besides,they fulfill the need of telling a story at a first and only hearing-a need that is not so pressing in the field of the opera or symphony.

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    Copland as a Film Composer 163The commercial triumphs of Our Town and Of Mice and Menprove that movies do profit from suitable musical support. While

    the dramas of Thornton Wilder and John Steinbeck elicited thatsupport, the credit for bringing about a happy union of script andscore lies with the director. To have been sensible of these latent pos-sibilities testifies to the discrimination of Sam Wood (Our Town)and Lewis Milestone (Of Mice and Men). On the other hand, it isthe more heartening, in these times of specialization which tend towiden the gulf between modern art and modern man, when a suc-cessful modern composer for the concert hall accepts the challengeto write music for the media of mass-communication. This he doesin the face of certain prejudices against him. Feature films usuallyentail considerable financial investment, and directors are loath tojeopardize box-officerbceipts. They are wary of the composer whoserecord stampshim asa rebel, given to violating established,and there-fore presumably profitable, patterns of movie music. But the choicesof a director like William Wyler have been both unconventional andsuccessful. For the armed forces of World War II he made MemphisBelle and Thunderbolt with music by Gail Kubik. Here sharp,clean,genuinely contemporary scores lent pungency to timely messagesthat lifted the final products high above the newsreel reportage ofthe average war film. In what appears to me as one of Hollywood'sfinest tragi-comediesof the postwarera, The Best Yearsof Our Lives,Wyler picked one of Hollywood's most sensitive and forward-lookingcomposers, Hugo Friedhofer. Friedhofer's music is often franklyreminiscent of Hindemith and Copland and steers clear of the emo-tionalism and lushness that fill lesser scores.1 In choosing Coplandto weave the orchestral fabric for The Heiress Wyler continued toexercise his discretion and acted on the basis of past experience.The transformation of Henry James's novel Washington Squareinto a movie posed a delicate problem. In their adaptation, first forthe stage and later for the screen, Ruth and Augustus Goetz reduceda story of narrative prose to fit the time dimensions of a dramaticpresentation. Yet, the burden of unravelling an essentially psycho-logical plot with little external motion, by means of the movingcamera, was a cinematic problem of inherent difficulty. Unlike itsparent, the stage play, the modern motion picture stands or falls notwith its dialogue but with its photography and sound-dialogue-musictrack.To depict the fall and rise of the heiressby methods indigenous

    1 See The Musical Quarterly, XXXIII (1947), 520 ff.

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    164 The Musical Quarterlyto the cinema, though alien to fiction or stage,Wyler'scamera"pans","dollies", and moves to close-ups. Since the plot is predominantlyconcerned with the development of character and proceeds in aleisurely and deliberate manner, the use of rapid, impressionisticmontage was rejected. At the high points of emotion the directorhad to rely on the strongest and simplest means at his disposal:close-up, dissolve, mus