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CD Review

Aaron Copland

Music For Films

  • The Red Pony
  • Our Town
  • The Heiress Suite
  • Music for Movies
  • Prairie Journal (Music for Radio)
Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
RCA 09026-61699-2
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Yet another release in Slatkin's "American series" on BMG/RCA. As far as the series goes, I feel a bit let down. It hasn't thrilled me as much as Schwarz's comparable work on Delos or, for that matter, Koch's releases of Barber, Herrmann, Moross, and the splendid Martha Graham series. To some extent, the repertoire is familiar through previous recordings. Slatkin has come up with stylish performances, but not often with ones that grabbed you and forced you to pay attention. I may be in an unusual position in that I have almost all these works in several different recordings. I've known them for at least 30 years. While I'm definitely of two minds about this CD, a newcomer to these pieces might not share my reservations. Make no mistake, the works here are major Copland. If you don't have them, get them. So, cum grano salis.

Copland was an unusual artist in many ways, not the least of which was he was good with money. In the 40s, he entered film work, for both artistic and financial reasons. George Antheil, the American avant-gardiste of the 1920s, wrote back glowing reports of the cash to be had in Hollywood. However, Copland wasn't in it just for the dough. Film music had interested him as a vehicle for modernism for many years. He particularly admired the movie work of Milhaud, Thomson, Rózsa, and Herrmann. He gave several lectures on it (including one on Herrmann's Citizen Kane and Magnificent Ambersons), among other places at the New York Museum of Modern Art, and lobbied the new music journals to include reviews of film music, all without having written film music himself. In 1939, on Antheil's general advice, he produced a "calling card" to leave with Hollywood – the score to a Steiner and Van Dyke documentary The City, shown at the New York World's Fair. This gave him a credit. He wrote his first Hollywood score to the Goldwyn propaganda flick North Star, and the rest, as they say, was history.

Creating concert works from movie music isn't usually a simple matter of cutting out "bleeding chunks" and repackaging. For one thing, movie scores are usually made up of short snippets. Only very rarely do you have an extended stretch lasting for more than two minutes. In fact, often composer fights director. The composer wants room so that the music can grow; the director wants the dialogue heard and the drama paramount. For these reasons, you rarely have a nine-minute musical sequence as in Hitchcock's Man Who Knew Too Much. To come up with a concert work, usually a composer must substantially recompose.

To me, Copland's best "movie" concert work is his suite from The Red Pony, with Music for a Great City running a very close second, although really his work stands above comparisons. My affection for The Red Pony stems from my love of the film, with wonderful performances from Myrna Loy and Robert Mitchum (as Billy, the hired hand). The score emphasizes the myths of the West, giving the rather sparse dialogue a cavernous resonance. The fusion of the sequence that became the suite's "Walk to the Bunkhouse" with the image of Mitchum the cow hand loping along just about stopped my heart and, I'm sure, begat many screen children, including Elmer Bernstein's Commancheros and The Magnificent Seven. I'm no Westerner, but it's the rare American kid who hasn't played Cowboys and Indians. So most of us have seeded the landscape of the West somewhere in our imaginative life.

All the music on this disc has been previously recorded, with the exception of the music from The Heiress. Most of the performances have the usual Slatkin virtues – clarity, a certain amount of rhythmic drive – but they don't substantially better previous versions, especially Copland's own of Music for the Movies and Our Town. Copland's own account of The Red Pony is a bit stodgy in the opening movement, but he manages to get an epic sweep later on that Slatkin misses. It's really a toss-up as to which you choose. The best recorded performance of this music remains, in my opinion, Previn's. He debuted on CBS/Odyssee as a classical conductor, leading the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in the Copland and in Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem (which wowed the composer). Previn turned the suite (often considered Copland lite) into a flat-out masterpiece, with the opening movement almost a call to arms. Sony has not transferred it to CD, as far as I know.

The Heiress Suite is Copland "reconstructed" by Arnold Freed, who does a competent job splicing and joining separate fragments. Here, however, the music makes much less impact than in its movie form. It's the difference between Copland's "Grover's Corners" (from Music for the Movies) and his extended treatment of the same material in Our Town. To quote Copland himself, "A film is not a concert," and Freed's arrangement seems to meander. The sections themselves knock you out with music that takes from Copland's Americana idiom and extends it almost neo-Romantically. It's like Tristan with the fat removed. If only Copland himself could have rescued this music.

"Prairie Journal" has a curious history. Copland originally titled the work "Radio Serenade." CBS, who commissioned it, decided to use the piece as part of a promotion. It invited listeners to send in their suggestions for a new title, to be picked by the composer. In the meantime, it called the work "Music for Radio" (the title under which you normally find it) until the contest winner was announced. Copland found no title completely satisfactory but chose Saga of the Prairie as a subtitle. Now the piece was known as "Music for Radio: Saga of the Prairie." In 1968, when radio no longer commanded the attention it had in the 30s, Copland renamed the piece "Prairie Journal." I have performances under all titles but the first.

Slatkin's "Prairie Journal" reading electrifies. Far and away, it's the best thing on the disc and one of the highlights of Slatkin's series. It is the definitive performance, in fact. There's a breathless urgency to it and a constant moving forward. For some reason, the work never made it into Copland's Greatest Hits (possibly because of its earlier titles), but it nevertheless sings and dances, much as the wonderful Short Symphony does. If the readings of the other works had reached this level, this CD would have become a must-have for a Coplandsmann.

Copyright © 1996, Steve Schwartz