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THE HEIRESS – Aaron Copland

November 27, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

The genesis of the film lies with renown actress Olivia de Havilland who one night fell in love with the Broadway play The Heiress (1947). She sought out director William Wyler and pitched the idea of him directing her in a film adaptation of the play. Wyler, who had long admired de Havilland, jumped at the opportunity to direct her in this film. He obtained permission from Paramount studios executives to purchase the film rights from playwrights Augustus and Ruth Goetz for $250,000, and then hired them to adapt their play to the big screen. Wyler would produce and direct the film. Supporting Olivia de Havilland in the titular role would be a stellar cast which included Montgomery Clift as Morris Townsend, Ralph Richardson as Dr. Austin Sloper and Miriam Hopkins as Aunt Lavinia Penniman. The story takes place in New York City circa 1849 and centers on the life of Catherine Sloper, the shy, doting daughter of her recently widowed father Austin Sloper. She lives an insular life in luxury, content with embroidery and dutifully caring for her critical and unloving father. She is an heiress set for life as her mother bequeathed her a $10,000 a year stipend, which would increase to $30,000 once her father passes.

It comes to pass that the gregarious Aunt Lavinia moves in with the family and upends Catherine’s tranquil and uninspiring life. She coaxes her to attend a gala ball where she meets the dashing Morris Townsend, who sweeps her off her feet. Morris is charming, intelligent and attractive, yet down on his luck having squandered his inheritance. Mr. Sloper suspects he is a gold-digger and forbids the marriage. When she agrees to give up her inheritance for love’s sake, Morris abandons her, breaking her heart. Years later after her father has died, Morris returns to discover Catherine still unmarried and wealthy. He states that he left her as he did not want to see her destitute, and re-proclaims his undying love for her. She tells him to proceed with their previous elopement plan and return for her in the evening. When he does, she bolts the door and abandons him banging futilely on the door and calling her name. When Aunt Lavinia asks her how she could be so cruel, Catherine responds coldly, “I have been taught by masters.” William Wyler and his film were universally praised by critics and received an impressive eight Academy Awards, winning four for Best Actress, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design and Best Film Score. Despite the critical acclaim the film was a commercial failure, earning only $2.1 million to cover its $2.6 million production costs. Its legacy is assured as it was selected in 1996 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

From day one Wyler had Aaron Copland in mind for his composer. He was given a copy of the script and asked to provide his musical ideas. Copland related; “The picture will not call for a great deal of music, but what music it does have ought to really count. I can see that the music would be a valuable ally in underlining psychological subtleties. But it seems important to me that it also contribute its share of tone and style to the picture. My fear is that a conventionally written score would bathe the work in the usual romantic atmosphere. What I would try for would be the recreation in musical terms of the special atmosphere inherent in James’ original. That atmosphere – as I see it – would produce music of a certain discretion and refinement in the expression of sentiments.”

To that extent, Copland chose not to speak to the overt and obvious character emotions unfolding on screen, but instead to underlying unspoken emotions churning beneath its veneer. Wyler often filmed intimate scenes with close-ups for dramatic effect, which Copland responded with a passacaglia bass stating “I found that use of a ground or passacaglia bass could generate a feeling of continuity and inevitability, as well as provide the necessary dissonance when combined with other music.” He also understood that this was a mid 19th century Washington Square period piece and that he would have to infuse his soundscape with the popular dances of the time, the formal Gavotte and the more free-flowing mazurkas, waltzes and polkas. For the score Copland chose a small ensemble orchestra and decided to employ leitmotifs, which was popularized by Max Steiner.

Five primary themes and a motif are offered, which include two love themes. The film was de Havilland’s story, and her character arc reveals a sad and tragic transformation from a sweet, gentle, loving, and doting daughter, to a bitter, ruthless and vengeful woman full of cruelty. Copland grasped this and his music for Catherine’s Theme offers a bright and carefree four-note figure, which mirrors her sad and tragic on-screen transformation. The Love Theme for Morris and Catherine offers a repeating eight-note construct so full of yearning. Yet it lacks romantic ardor and we discern within the notes that it emotes from Catherine’s perspective, not Morris’ as he is in love with her money, not her. The French ballad “Plaisir d’Amour” by Giovani Martini and Jean-Pierre Clairs de Florian offers a schmaltzy faux Love Theme that emotes from Morris’ perspective, which he uses deceptively to first charm, captivate and then persuade Catherine to marry him. The Sloper Theme serves as the identity of the family’s life in Washington Square and residence. The theme unfolds in ¾ time as a beautiful quintessential Copland pastorale. Dr. Sloper’s Theme serves as his identity and is emoted by low register strings and muted horns.

Like him, the music is formal, stark and austere, devoid of empathy or compassion. Lastly, we have the Discord Motif that is simple in construct and offers a two-note descent, which is prominent during scenes of stress and discord. In the end Wyler was not pleased with the main title. He insisted that Copland rewrite it so as to interpolate the 1784 French ballad “Plaisir d’Amour” by Giovani Martini and Jean-Pierre Clairs de Florian. The piece was used later in the film and Wyler wanted it referenced during the opening credits. Copland felt his version was better, refused and departed to New York only to discover after the film’s release that the main title had been rewritten by Nathan Van Cleeve to include “Plaisir d’Amour”. Additionally, the pivotal scene where Morris and Catherine reunite saw Copland’s Love Theme again replaced by Wyler with “Plaisir d’Amour”. Copland was blind-sided, incensed and issued a press release disavowing the main title, and other changes to his score. Ironically Copland would win the Academy Award for Best Film Score, never collect his Oscar statuette having disavowed his butchered score, and never again scored another Hollywood film, turning down offers by Wyler to score Carrie (1952), Friendly Persuasion (1956) and The Big Country (1958).

“Prelude” opens the film and supports the roll of the opening credits. I review Copland’s original conception, not the mutilated film version demanded by Wyler. The cue is a wonderful score highlight, where Copland graces us with a parade of his major themes, and perfectly captures the film’s emotional core. We open powerfully with horns dramatico, which usher in a formal rendering of the Love Theme. We transition atop a diminuendo to a statement of the gossamer like Catherine’s Theme so full of yearning before concluding on bubbling woodwinds animato expressing the Sloper Theme, which carries us through the Washington Square neighborhood and into the Slope residence. In “The Cherry Red Dress” Catherine is excited with the arrival of her new dress and carried with the carefree joie de vie of the Sloper Theme. At 0:28 Catherine’s Theme enters tentatively as she seeks approval from her father for her new cherry colored dress. His response “But, Catherine, your mother was fair…she dominated the color,” leaves her devastated as she so wanted to please him.

Catherine joins her father and Lavinia at a ball, which Copland supports with various dances of the time, opening with the festive Hand Organ Polka (cue 28). After witnessing the announcement of her cousin’s engagement Catherine is manipulated into dancing by Lavinia with a friend of the family, which Copland supports with the classically structured First Love Mazurka (cue 25). The dance ambiance continues with the carefree eloquence of the Croquette Polka (cue 26) as Dr. Slope relates his profound disappointment with Catherine to Lavinia. We conclude with Catherine’s introduction to the dashing Morris Townsend, who takes her to the dancefloor where they dance to the formal rhythms of the Gavotte (cue 27). We see in her eyes that she is captivated by his beauty, lets down her guard and warms to him. Her father insists on departing early and they part with his promise to call on her in the morning. “An Early Morning Visitor” reveals Morris walking to the Slope residence carried by the energetic four note phrases of Catherine’s Theme, which informs us that she is in his thoughts. When she arrives home and greets him, we see in her eyes that she is overcome by his charm and beauty. He then plays the piano and sings diegetically the romantic lyrics of the “Plaisir d’Amour”. As he confesses his affections Copland sustains the ballad’s melody in his compositional style (not found on the album).

After dining with the family, we see that Dr. Slope has become suspicious of Morris’ intentions, suspecting that he is an opportunistic gold-digger. He departs, and Lavinia feigns a migraine, which leaves Catherine and Morris alone. He wastes no time advances on her, declares that he loves her, and proposes marriage, which she accepts instantly. As they embrace and kiss music enters with “Proposal”, a beautiful score highlight. Copland graces us with an extended rendering of the Love Theme so full of yearning. Yet slowly, and inexorably the melody begins to lose its eloquence and lyricism, and becomes beleaguered as we see Morris manipulating her and calling for her support should her father reject him. The “Plaisir d’Amour” enters at 2:38 and supplants the Love Theme, informing us of his ignoble intentions to marry her not for love, but instead for her fortune. When Dr. Slope returns, Catherine informs him that she is engaged to be married. We see in his eyes that he believes Morris has for ignoble purposes taken advantage of Catherine’s naivete. He commits to speaking with Morris in the morning and Catherine flies upstairs carried by the happiness of her theme to inform Lavinia. In the parlor repeating statements of Dr. Slope’s grim theme inform us of his displeasure. The music for this scene is not found on the album. The next day after interrogating Morris’ sister, Dr. Slope meets with Morris and makes it very clear that he is unfit to be his son-in-law, forbids the marriage and dismisses him. When Catherine finds out as he is departing an argument ensues, where she discloses that she will honor her promise to marry him. Dr. Slope asks her to wait six months and to join him in a European trip, secretly hoping that Morris will tire and move on to hustle another woman. This pivotal scene was unscored, letting the intense dialogue carry the narrative.

In “The Departure” we see Catherine and her father boarding a luxury liner. Morris joins them to wish them bon voyage and to give Catherine a gift, kissing her hand as he departs. Catherine’s Theme carries her walk to the ship, but is overtaken by “Plaisir d’Amour”, which supports Morris’ arrival and conversation on the ship. Its prominence again informing us of his determination to marry her and her fortune. “Reunion With Morris” offer a score highlight where we are again graced with interplay of the two love themes. It reveals Catherine and her father’s early return from Europe, and his discovery that Morris had been visiting. He confronts Catherine and when she insists, she will go forward and marry Morris he devastates her with a cruel declaration that she is a woman of without charm, talent or personality and that the only reason Morris is marrying her is for her money. After he departs her plaintive theme informs us of her sorrow. By chance she sees Morris in the backyard and runs to him carried by her theme as flight music. As they embrace and kiss in the falling rain a refulgent Love Theme unfolds with great passion. “Plaisir d’Amour” joins when Morris explains his plan for their elopement, marriage and honeymoon. She informs him that she does not want to wait for tomorrow and discloses that she is disinheriting her father, and thus losing his $20,000 inheritance for love of him. He says nothing, but his eyes speak volumes as he contemplates life with her without her fortune. He departs promising to pick her up at 12:45.

“A Plan to Elope” offers another score highlight where Copland demonstrates mastery of his craft. We see Catherine packed and preparing to elope supported by her yearning theme, yet its articulation is unsettled and trilling woodwinds disquiet us, informing us that something is not right. At 0:44 we segue frantically with alarm into “Anticipation” as Catherine hears a carriage, runs out in anticipation, carried with vigorous and discordant statements of the Discord Motif, only to be disappointed when it drives by. Lavinia suggest that he might not be coming as $10,000 a year may be insufficient, when he was expecting $30,000 a year. We conclude at 1:09 with “Love Not Consoled” supported by plaintive statements of the Love Theme, which dissolves in the growing belief that Morris is not coming. Copland sows a swelling heartache and devastation with eerie string figures, chords of doom, and a ticking clock effect by harp, which culminate in a crescendo of pain as she realizes that she has been jilted and screams in agony Morris! Morris! Morris! “Hatred” offers a powerful scene where Dr. Slope advises Catherine that he is dying and she reveals that Morris had deserted her and left for California. All pretenses between them are dropped as she reveals her complete disdain and contempt for him. Calling his bluff to disinherit her. Repeated dire statements of the Discord Motif and his theme interplay with an angry iteration of her theme, which releases the fury of her pent-up emotions. The confluence of music and film narrative is excellent.

“A New Catherine” offers a dark commentary as Catherine refuses Mariah’s request to honor her father’s last wish that she come to her father’s deathbed. She coldly refuses and Copland supports the scene with a dark, dirge like rendering of her theme. At 0:48 we change scenes to Catherine bidding goodbye to relatives who had come to visit, which is supported by the pastorale of the Sloper Theme. “Five Years Later” reveals Catherine living her insular existence, content with her embroidery. Her theme supports the scene, but it is shorn of its happiness and the notes reveal a weariness of life. In “Morris Unmasked” we behold Copland’s mastery of his craft. His music speaks not to the overt narrative unfolding on the screen, but rather the covert unspoken emotional drivers. Aunt Lavinia has met Morris who has returned from California, and invited him to call upon Catherine. Catherine rebukes her and when he rings the bell she orders Lavinia to say that she is not at home. Yet when she hears his voice, her resolve weakens and she calls to him to come in. Grim muted horns support her call to him. She is aloof and distant as he explains that he abandoned her so she would not lose her inheritance. She outwardly seems receptive and after he reproclaims his love she agrees to marry him. She presents him with a wedding gift of ruby cufflinks and asks him to get his clothes and return to her. After he departs, she returns to her embroidery and relates to Lavinia that Morris has returned with the same lies but is now greedier as now he wants both her money and her love. She declares she has no intention of marrying him. The music is grim, her bright theme now transformed into a sinister articulation, which speaks to a darker purpose. When Aunt Lavinia asks her how she could be so cruel, Catherine responds coldly, “I have been taught by masters.”

“Catherine’s Triumph” reveals Catherine prepared to enact a ruthless retribution on an unsuspecting Morris. Her bitter theme, now shredded of any warmth, love and tenderness achieves a chilling confluence with her on screen composure. At 0:44 a happy Morris arrives, yet tension rises in the music as his knocks are greeted by Mariah bolting the door closed. A terrible crescendo of pain rises as a frantic Morris begins pounding on the door and repeatedly cries out – Catherine! We close triumphantly as we see Catherine ascending the stairs, her eyes cold and filled with a grim satisfaction. At 1:14 we segue into “The Heiress Cast” with a final grand, yet plaintive statement of the Love Theme.

I would like to thank Douglass Fake, Roger Feigelson and Intrada for the premier release of the long-sought film score of Aaron Copland’s Academy Award winning masterwork, The Heiress. The reader is advised that the source acetate discs for the score were found to be in “very poor condition”. Despite Herculean sonic restoration efforts by Chris Malone and mastering by Douglass Fakes and Mike Tarrantino, the sound quality achieved is “archival at best”. Having said that, I have only praise for Copland’s music and am thankful that we finally have a CD release to enjoy. Wyler’s insistence on forcing “Plaisir d’Amour” into Copland’s brilliantly conceived score was misguided, as its effusive music was incongruous, and ultimately disrupted the narrative flow of Copland’s music. Despite Wyler’s artistic error, Copland’s genius shines through, undiminished. The film was de Havilland’s story, and her character arc reveals a sad and tragic transformation from a sweet, gentle, loving, and doting daughter, to a bitter, ruthless and vengeful woman full of cruelty. Copland grasped this and his music is a testament to his brilliance as we see her theme share in her on screen transformation. This score in my judgment offers one of the finest in Copland’s canon, and a gem of the Golden Age to be treasured. I highly recommend you explore this score both on album, but also in film context where Copland’s genius is on full display.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have provided a YouTube link to a magnificent suite, which offers the score’s finest themes; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B2ytscqbesw

Buy the Heiress soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prelude (Original Version) (2:42)
  • The Cherry Red Dress (1:37)
  • An Early Morning Visitor (0:43)
  • Proposal (3:34)
  • The Departure (1:55)
  • Reunion With Morris (2:43)
  • A Plan To Elope/Anticipation/Love Not Consoled (3:03)
  • Hatred (1:15)
  • A New Catherine (2:02)
  • Five Years Later (0:55)
  • Morris Unmasked (2:25)
  • Catherine’s Triumph/The Heiress Cast (1:35)
  • Prelude (Revised) (2:41) – Bonus
  • First Love Mazurka (2BB1) (2:23) – Bonus
  • Croquette Polka (2CC2) (1:28) – Bonus
  • Gavotte (2DD2) (1:45) – Bonus
  • Hand Organ Polka (2:27) – Bonus

Running Time: 35 minutes 36 seconds

Intrada ISC-373 (1949/2017)

Music composed and conducted by Aaron Copland. Orchestrations by Aaron Copland. Dance Music and Plaisir d’Amour adapted by Nathan Van Cleeve. Score produced by Aaron Copland. Album produced by Douglass Fake and Roger Feigelson.

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