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CD Review

Aaron Copland

Celluloid Copland

  • From Sorcery to Science
  • The City Suite
  • The Cummington Story Suite (arr. Sheffer)
  • The North Star Suite
Eos Orchestra/Jonathan Sheffer
Telarc CD-80583 59:24
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Music to watch shadows by.

The CD consists mostly of Copland film scores, in close to their original form. Some of Copland's manuscripts wound up at the Library of Congress, and on those Jonathan Sheffer has based his program. The joker in the pack is From Sorcery to Science, incidental music Copland wrote to accompany a puppet play, a pharmaceutical exhibit, at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Copland had been interested in film music for a long time. Among other things, George Antheil had sent enthusiastic letters from Hollywood to his New York composing colleagues about all the gold heaped on composers' heads. Still, it took Copland a while to commit to Hollywood, and when he did, he managed largely on his own terms. Copland, a shrewd negotiator, finally got Hollywood work while, unusual for the times, retaining the rights to the scores. Copland wrote slow and careful and husbanded his music, to the extent of sometimes re-using or rewriting it for other pieces. It's worth noting, I think, that Copland never worked on a great film, though he worked on a couple of very good ones. He was reserved mainly for the prestigious "A" films, so few of which during the period were actually good films. I would have loved to have heard he would have come up with for a John Ford Western, Jean Renoir's Southerner, or maybe even Hawks's Big Sleep.

From Sorcery to Science comes from Copland's Modernist side, although the lighter parts of it, like Music for the Theater and The Second Hurricane. The suite isn't top-drawer Copland, but it still delights. Furthermore, minor Copland is better than major a lot of others. A fine bon-bon.

At the urging of Harold Clurman, already in California at the time, Copland traveled to the studios to find work. He walked away empty - whether or not his decision, I don't know. A few years later, however, he decided to compose a "calling card," something he could show the studios, and chose to score a Pare Lorentz documentary (narration by Lewis Mumford) called The City, basically about city planning. I've actually seen it and think the music by far the best part of the film. It too comes from Copland's Modernist side. Some of it turned up, in slightly different form, in Copland's concert suite Music for the Movies. From the very beginning, Copland recognized a difference between film music and concert music. Film music, particularly Hollywood film music, where composer and director mainly worked apart, illustrated the moment. Concert music built an argument over a long span - cumulative, rather than local in effect. The score is unusual in that it does indeed illustrate the images, sometimes, as in the "Sunday Traffic" sequence, with its convoy of flivvers chugging out of the city. On the other hand, the music also stands apart. In it, you hear echoes from The Second Hurricane and the Short Symphony.

Copland took on The Cummington Story (1945) - a documentary about European refugee children temporarily relocated in the United States - as a wartime job for the Office of War Information. This is the first I've heard even of the score. By this time, Copland's idiom has lost some of its aggression - its demand that audiences had damn well better take it seriously. Much of it looks toward the score for The Red Pony (1949), arguably Copland's best film work, and part got recycled into the Clarinet Concerto. Copland wrote it in a week, very unusual for him, but the ideas are first-rate, in that New England countryside vein that instantly calls up Copland in listeners' minds.

The North Star, produced by Samuel Goldwyn, is a train wreck, fascinatingly, notoriously bad. You wouldn't have thought the talent involved could have failed so miserably outside a De Mille epic. Lillian Hellman wrote the script, about a Russian village's fight against the Nazis. Walter Huston, wise and avuncular in an Uncle Joe mustache, played the moral center of the film, and Erich von Stroheim did his turn as the morally empty Nazi commander. Surprisingly, the comedian Jane Withers turns in the best performance as a sensitive (naturally) young girl. Copland wrote the music. He even collaborated with Ira Gershwin to come up with Genuwine Imitation Russian Folk Songs. This wasn't Ira's métier, exactly - either the folk song or the Russian part of it. The "Song of the Guerillas" has become one of the great Hollywood howlers, as the Russians sing words that could have come from A Damsel in Distress. There's certainly nothing wrong with the music, far better than any score by Max Steiner you care to name, but it's not really Copland's métier either. Echoes and borrowings from mainly Prokofieff's Nevsky infest the score like pesky gnats. This strikes home most forcefully in the battle sequence. Close your eyes and you can envision the knights Templar riding across the ice. Copland, of course, owed a lot to the Russian Stravinsky, but not his sense of melody, embedded in the American vernacular. The ersatz Russian themes always jar, since Copland hasn't really absorbed their spirit. Other, more characteristic ideas Copland put to better use in The Red Pony.

I liked this CD quite a bit. Sheffer gets the Eos Orchestra to play with spirit, if a bit roughly. The ensemble doesn't seem to have a true pianissimo in its kit bag, but it doesn't seem to matter. Eos does better with bright colors than with pastels. Nevertheless, Copland's tenderness comes through when he calls for it.

The sound is a bit piercing at times. You may want to work your way up to your usual volume-control setting.

Copyright © 2004, Steve Schwartz