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OUR TOWN – Aaron Copland

September 20, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Renowned producer Sol Lester was impressed by the run of 338 Broadway theatrical performances of the 1938 Pulitzer Prize winning play Our Town by Thornton Wilder. He believed its poignant story could be successfully adapted to the big screen and decided to oversee production with his company Sol Lester Productions. Screenwriters Harry Chandlee and Frank Craven were hired to collaborate with author Thornton Wilder in adapting the play, which presented challenges given that it was performed on a nearly empty stage, and the main character dies. To adapt the play, they made the creative decision to add indoor and outdoor scenery, narration, and the third Act was altered to have a dream sequence, which would allow the main character Emily to live. Sam Wood was tasked with directing and a fine cast was assembled, which included William Holden as George Gibbs, Martha Scott as Emily Webb, Thomas Mitchell as Dr. Frank Gibbs, and Fay Bainter as Mrs. Julia Gibbs.

The film is set in the opening years of the 20th century in the small New Hampshire town of Grover’s Corner. Dr. Frank Gibbs, his wife Julia, and two children George and Rebecca are neighbors to Charles and Myrtle Webb and their daughter Emily. George and Emily fall in love and after a courtship of three years get married. Sadly, Emily gets very sick following the birth of their second child. With her life ebbing, she descends into a dream where she manages to meet the many impactful people that have influenced her life, but have since passed away. In the end, she wakes from the long dream, regains her health and is able to resume living in the here and now. Budget and profit information is not available. The film received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Art Direction, Best Sound Recording, Best Music, Score and Best Music, Original Score.

Producer Sol Lester believed that this film offered classic Americana and so he sought to recruit the services of renown concert composer Aaron Copland, who had impressed him with his debut film score for Of Mice and Men in 1939. Copland happily accepted the assignment, which would constitute his second Hollywood film scoring assignment. He understood that this was a classic American story of a small-town family, to which he would have to imbue musically the requisite cultural, familial and romantic sensibilities. As such some classical pieces are woven into the fabric of his score. He also understood that Emily’s near-death encounter with the people lost in her life was at the core of the film’s narrative, and he was intrigued by the musical possibilities afforded by this transcendental dream sequence. Copland relates his approach in scoring the film;

“I tried for clean and clear sounds and in general used straight forward harmonies and rhythms that would project the serenity and sense of security for the story”.

Given the intimacy of the film’s narrative, Copland decided to use a small ensemble rather than a fifty-piece orchestra. To support his soundscape three primary themes were composed; The Music Of The Stars Theme serves as the score’s Main Theme and it permeates throughout the film. It is not free-flowing but instead very structured, emoting with a repetitive pattern of declarative string phrases answered by either string or horn responses. The Grover’s Corner Theme speaks to the small rural town in which our story unfolds. It offers a repeating five-note arpeggiated statement, which evokes the quiet, rustic, and simplicity of life of small-town America. This theme is classic Coplandesque Americana and for me, one of the finest themes in his film score canon. Love Theme speaks to the romance of George and Emily. Offers an undulating construct borne by strings tenero, attended by woodwinds pastorale. Most interesting to me is the clear lack of fervency, ardor, and demonstrable romanticism. They grew up next store neighbors and it seem it was just given that they would someday marry. For the Dream sequence Copland chose to create a surreal, other-worldly sound using a quivering metallic saw blade, which produces an effect quite similar to the Theremin. Cues coded (*) offers scenes where the music is not included on the album.

“Main Title” offers a wonderful score highlight where Copland perfectly establishes the small town, rustic tone of the film. We open dramatically with the Main Theme as the United Artists logo displays, and flows into the roll of the opening credits, which display as white script against a silhouette of our narrator Mr. Morgan silhouetted and walking alongside a wood fence. At 0:43 we segue into a meandering Grover’s Corner Theme borne by woodwinds pastorale and strings gentile, which emote as repeating calling and answering arpeggiated phrases. At 1:18 we commence a crescendo of yearning, which culminates grandly at 1:39 with a reaffirmation of the Main Theme. After concluding, a narrator speaks to us about Grover’s Corner providing both history and building locations. We segue into “Story of Our Town” carried by the folksy gentility of the Grover’s Corner Theme as our narrator takes us back thirty-nine years to June 7, 1901. We see the newspaper boy Joe out on delivery, and we are told that he will later die in France during the WWI. We see Dr. Gibbs walking home from a delivery of twins, while Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb get their family’s breakfast prepared. We are told that in ten years Mrs. Gibbs will visit her sister in Ohio, contract pneumonia, and die. As the scene and narration unfolds Copland achieves a perfect confluence with Bert Glennon’s cinematography and Morgan’s narration.

In “Off To School” offers another wonder score highlight as we see Rebecca, George, Emily and Wally all departing after breakfast to school. Copeland weaves a wondrous free-flowing rendering of the Grover’s Corner Theme expressed with joie de vie by strings felice and bubbling woodwinds of delight. “Introducing The Professor” reveals the return of Mr. Morgan the narrator who introduces us to Professor Willard. Copland supports his introduction with a gentle Main Theme, which ends with solemnity. “Grover’s Corners” offers a score highlight with a beautiful exposition of the Grover’s Corner Theme to support a montage of scenes of the town in the afternoon. Strings tenero emote the repeating phrases of the melody joined by a meandering contrapuntal flute. Once again Copland achieves a perfect confluence with Glennon’s cinematography and Morgan’s narration. In “Emily In Love” George comes by and talks to Emily, and we can clearly see that he is attracted to her. Music enters after he departs as we see a smile on her face, which informs us the feelings are mutual. Strings offers a tender expression of a nascent Love Theme by strings tenero with woodwind adornment. There is a subtle yearning in the notes, but the melody while free flowing never resolves or coalesces into a full statement.

We resume with Morgan’s narration about the town as night descends. A woman’s church choir sings hymns, which permeate the town as we see George and Emily both studying by an open window. We shift inside the church where the choirmaster and woman’s choir are practicing the hymn “Art Thou Weary, Art Thou Languid” by Charles Wesley. Emily sees George at his window and they start conversing about their homework. Later George’s father shames him for not helping his mother enough and taking her for granted. After hearing the latest gossip about Simon Stimson’s drinking, Mrs. Gibbs returns home from choir practice. Music enters with “The Town At Night” as Mr. Webb greets the constable who is commencing his evening rounds. Copland sow a soft, and shifting nocturne as the men gaze at the moonlit sky. A subtle dissonance joins at 1:52 as the drunk Mr. Stimson arrives. The dissonance swells on a crescendo of pain as he steels himself to walk past them and not stagger. We crest at 2:25 when he refuses to converse, and walks past them with a blank stare without saying a word. The dissonance dissipates at 3:04 after Stimson’s departure is replaced by shifting string harmonics as Mr. Webb heads home, and the constable resumes his rounds. The Music of the Stars melody enters on solo oboe at 3:40 as Mr. Webb arrives home, the melody passed to strings tenero as he speaks to Emily about her being up so late. She relates being taken in by the moonlight and smell of Mrs. Gibbs heliotrope flowers. As he departs and we shift to Rebecca and George talking, and we conclude as we began on a nocturne.

“The Letter” was evidently attached to a scene deleted from the film. It offers repeating arpeggiated phrases of the Grover’s Corner Theme by ever shifting woodwinds and ethereal shimmering violins. At 0:46 the music swells and is joined by the Main Theme, which fades to nothingness. Returning to the film, Mr. Morgan’s narration returns as he says it is now three years later, July 7, 1904. Si Crowell is seen delivering the papers just as his brother did, and Howie Newsom continues to deliver the milk. We flow into “Grover’s Corners Again” as he relates how Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb have been cooking three meals a day for 25 and 21 years respectively, each tirelessly managing their homes. Copland supports with a most satisfying exposition of the Grover’s Corner Theme by strings full of nurturing maternal warmth with woodwind adornment. In the Gibb’s kitchen Dr. Gibbs informs us that today is George’s wedding day.

In “George and Emily” we are offered am elegant score highlight where Copland graces us with sterling thematic interplay. Narration resumes with Mr. Morgan saying that before proceeding with the marriage, we should see how it all began. We open with a Main Theme where we discern a subtle yet tangible unease. At 1:09 George carries Emily’s books as they walk home together carried by their Love Theme, which flows as a carefree danza felice. He senses that something is wrong and asks her why she is angry with him. At 1:38 Woodwinds delicato carry us into a wondrous, eloquent exposition of the Grover’s Corner Theme. Emily has a heartfelt conversation with George where she expresses her disappointment in him for focusing on baseball to the extent that she does not feel wanted. At 2:55 we shift to a questioning Main Theme as they argue over whether a man can be perfect, with Emily saying both their fathers are. At 3:15 a gentle variant Grover’s Corner Theme by woodwinds delicato support her confession that she too is imperfect as she begins to cry. We conclude on the Main Theme as he offers to treat her to a sundae at the drugstore.

“The Drugs Store Scene” reveals George and Emily having a strawberry soda together. George informs her of his decision to not go to agricultural college, preferring to stay and work on his uncle’s farm so he can be with her. They both reveal that they care for each other and we see that she is happy he is staying. Copland scores the end of the discussion with a wonderful exposition of the Love Theme by violins felice with woodwind adornment as Emily’ happiness has returned. As she waits outside George informs Mr. Morgan that he needs to go home to get money to pay him, and the understanding man offers his unconditional trust in the boy, much to George’s relief. (*) “The Wedding” reveals Morgan’s narration regarding George and Emily’s marriage. We move into a montage of scenes where we witness a stream of unspoken thoughts in several people’s minds; from the Reverend’s mind we hear of all the people he has married, from Julia Gibbs the joy of raising Emily, from Emily fretting that she will no longer be daddy’s little girl and could she possibly delay this, and lastly from George who realizes that he is growing up and getting old, and that he does not want to get old and take on all these responsibilities. Copland interpolates the traditional “Bridal Chorus” from the 1850 opera Lohengrin by Richard Wagner to support Charles Webb escorting his daughter Emily up the aisle. As the happy couple depart, Copland interpolates an organ rendering of Mendelssohn’s “The Wedding March” from A Midsummer’s Night Dream.

“The Hill Top” offers an exceptional score highlight, which showcases some of the score’s finest music. We open with a contemplative rendering of the Grover’s Corner Theme as we see Mr. Morgan walking on a hilltop set against billowy cloudscapes. He states that nine years have passed, it is the summer of 1913, and Grover’s Corner is seeing gradual changes as horses are being replaced by automobiles. At 0:39 we segue into a pensive Main Theme as he relates that places like this never change as he revels in the natural beauty. He reminisces about people buried here in 1670, and then moves on to the civil war graves where he extols the sacrifices of the men who died. He then moves to the new part of the cemetery where he relates the loss of several people including Emily’s mother Julia Gibbs three years ago and choirmaster Simon Stimson who hanged himself. At 3:32 a slow building crescendo commences as Morgan relates the inevitable cycle of life and death, cresting powerfully at 4:09 as he states once the memory is burned away, what remains is something eternal. The music swells and crests with religioso auras again at 4:39 as he relates that too often people forget that there is something eternal in all of us as human beings. The music slowly dissipates on a diminuendo that fades into nothingness as Morgan informs us that Emily will soon give birth a second time, yet she is very sick and has her father worried. “The Crisis” reveals Dr. Gibbs at bedside as Emily lays sick, voicing in her mind that she wants to live as she gazes at a wall with photos of Gibbs family members and relatives past and present. Copland supports with a pensive Main Theme joined by ethereal shimmering violins and Grover’s Corner Theme, which entwine as he holds vigil.

“Scene In The Cemetery” offers a poignant score highlight full of the pathos of loss. We see Emily lying in bed as we shift to the cemetery. What unfolds is a stream of consciousness conversation from those who have passed, regarding Emily who will soon be joining them. Music enters as we see a funeral procession walking up the hill in a rain storm, which Copland supports with the Main Theme rendered as a dirge. At 1:04 as the Reverend reads the burial prayers, we hear Emily in conversations with those that came before her. Woodwinds triste emote a threnody, which unfolds with great pathos. The town folk depart and Dr. Gibbs brings flowers, which he sets on his wife’s grave. At 3:38 a grieving Grover’s Corner Theme rises as the camera shifts upwards to behold the vast star lite firmament. We then see dozens of people who have passed standing motionless on the hill. Emily says that she is so tired, and asks, when will this go away? She is answered by her mother who says “Hush dear, and to be patient”. Emily then begins a conversation with her mother informing her of how they improved their farm thanks to the money she left. Emily cannot seem to let go, and her mother coaches her to let go and focus on what is ahead. A plaintive Main Theme at 4:23 as Emily struggles to let go, reminiscing about her happiest days and wanting to relive them. Her mother says to instead chose the least important day as it will be important enough. At 4:59 the music brightens and we ascend with hope as she chooses her birthday, we return to the town, and she relives the imagery of her former life. At 6:06 the Grover’s Corner Theme joins for a heartfelt exposition as Emily revels in the memory of her 16th birthday.

“Emily’s Dream” offers masterful writing as we hear in Copland’s music futility and the realization that Emily needs to let go. We open with shifting violin harmonics and beleaguered woodwinds as she says she cannot bear this and questions why people grow old, speaking to her mother in vain. At 0:38 a pensive Main Theme joins as she watches her younger self walk down the stairs as George enters with her birthday gift. At 1:56 Copland creates an eerie surreal Theremin like sound using a quivering musical saw blade, which transforms the Main Theme. Emily tells her mother that twelve years have gone by, that she is dead, and that Wally is dead also; crying out can’t you remember? At 2:25 yearning woodwinds rise as she states that we are all together and let’s be happy, just for a moment. Yet as she watches herself, we see her becoming distressed, more so when her mother says that Wally and your father have gifts for you too. At 3:08 when her father calls out “Where’s my girl!” the music writhes in pain as Emily breaks down, saying “I Can’t I can’t go on!” Adding that life goes so fast with no time to look at each other. At 3:34 distress dissipates and a reconciled Main Theme returns as Emily realizes that it is time to say goodbye and go back to her grave. Yet at 4:43 distressed stings rise up as Emily cries out that the earth is too wonderful for people to realize. And she begins fervently, and repeatedly crying out “I want to live!” as a dissonant crescendo erupts. Yet the music dissipates as she opens her eyes and hears her father’s voice as he slaps her baby, who starts to cry.

In “The Epilogue” Emily looks up with love at a smiling George who is peering through the door. A warm, and rewarding rendering of the Grover’s Corner Theme supports and is sustained as we close the film with Mr. Morgan’s narration saying “You got to love life, to have Life. And you have to have life to love life.” At 0:41 we close the film as we began, atop a contemplative Music of the Stars Theme, which ends in a warm and comforting flourish as we see Mr. Morgan say goodbye and walk away, a silhouette against the evening sky. “Cast of Characters” supports the actor credits, and we are graced by a final, heart-warming, and most satisfying statement of the Grover’s Corner Theme.

Please allow me to thank Karol Kopernicky and Naxos Records for the long sought complete score to Aaron Copland’s masterpiece “Our Town”. The audio quality is excellent and the performance of the Bohuslav Martin Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Andrew Mogrelia superb. This film offered a classic American story of a small-town family living in rural New Hampshire, which offered a perfect fit for Aaron Copland’s musical gift. He understood and relished the opportunity to infuse his soundscape with the requisite cultural, familial and romantic sensibilities called for by the story’s narrative. He also understood that Emily’s transcendental dream sequence offered a unique opportunity for music to enhance its imagery, pathos of loss and epiphany. Copland composed three primary themes to support the film’s narrative. The main Music Of The Stars Theme permeates the film, and sustains its narrative flow as the essential thread woven into the score’s tapestry. The Grover’s Corner Theme speaks to the small rural town in which our story unfolds, speaking to its charm, history, and culture. Its repeating five-note arpeggiated phrasing masterfully evokes the quiet, rustic, and simplicity of life of small-town America. For me, this theme is classic Coplandesque Americana and one of the finest compositions in his film score canon. The Love Theme speaks to the romance of George and Emily and offer an undulating construct borne by strings tenero, attended by woodwinds pastorale. Most interesting to me is the music’s clear lack of fervency, ardor, and demonstrable romanticism. Yet this reveals Copland’s insight into these characters, who were not by upbringing or culture overtly demonstrative of their affections. I believe what sets this score apart is that all three themes are kindred, interrelated and synergistic in their application and interplay, offering a testament to Copland’s mastery of his craft. The suite I have embedded below will demonstrate how well and effortless these themes join in confluence. I believe this score offers Copland at his finest, consider it to be an early opus masterwork, and a gem of the Golden Age. I highly recommend you purchase this quality compilation album, which also includes the complete score for the 1939 film Of Mice and Men, or your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to a wonderful nine-minute suite; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UzYPE7FpqaQ

Buy the Our Town soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (2:15)
  • Story of Our Town (2:08)
  • Off To School (1:24)
  • Introducing The Professor (0:57)
  • Grovers Corners (0:58)
  • Emily In Love (1:02)
  • The Town At Night (5:02)
  • The Letter (1:18)
  • Grovers Corners Again (1:02)
  • George and Emily (3:53)
  • The Drugs Store Scene (0:57)
  • The Hill Top (5:29)
  • The Crisis (1:29)
  • Scene In The Cemetery (7:29)
  • Emily’s Dream (5:07)
  • The Epilogue (1:53)
  • Cast of Characters (0:42)

Running Time: 42 minutes 58 seconds

Naxos 9.70124 (1940/2009)

Music composed by Aaron Copland. Conducted by Andrew Mogrelia. Performed by the Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic Orchestra. Original orchestrations by Aaron Copland. Recorded and mixed by Otto Nopp. Score produced by Aaron Copland. Album produced by Karol Kopernicky .

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