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OF MICE AND MEN – Aaron Copland

September 27, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

GREATEST SCORES OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

Original Review by Craig Lysy

In 1938 producer Lewis Milestone saw opportunity after witnessing John Steinbeck’s play Of Mice and Men achieve a milestone of 207 Broadway theatrical performances, and win the prestigious New York Drama Critics’ Circle award in 1938. He convinced Hal Roach Studios and United Artists Studios to fund and distribute the film. Milestone would also direct the and tasked screenwriter Eugene Solow in adapting the play and original novella for the big screen. A fine cast was assembled, which included Burgess Meredith as George, Betty Field as Mae, Lon Chaney Jr. as Lennie, Charles Bickford as Slim, Noah Beery Jr. as Whit, and Bob Steele as Curley.

The story takes place in the American west during the ravaging dustbowl of the 1930s and explores the dreams and aspirations of several characters, which sadly are never realized. The central narrative of this tragic tale centers on two migrant ranch hands trying against the odds to realize their dream. George Milton is an intelligent, and quick-witted man who is the brains, while Lennie Small who is a large, immensely strong man with a mental disability is the brawn. The film explores their efforts to earn enough money to buy some land and set-up their own ranch. Their dreams goes awry when they end up working on a ranch plagued by a sadistic Curley who suffers from a small man Napoleonic complex, and his flirtatious wife. Lennie ends up accidentally killing Mae, and although they escape, they are eventually trapped by a vengeful mob led by Jackson and Curley. George tells Lennie the tale of their ranch dream one last time, and then shoots him in the back of the head to spare him a gruesome and painful death. The film’s commercial performance could not be assessed as budget and profit information is not available. However, the film was universally praised for its acting and story-telling, earning four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Sound Recording, Best Music, Score and Best Musical Scoring and Best Original Score.

Aaron Copland was an established composer in the concert world who had never scored a Hollywood film. His score to the documentary film “The City” for the 1939 World’s Fair caught producer-director Lewis Milestone ear during a home viewing, and elicited an offer to come to Hollywood to score the film. Copland was familiar with Steinbeck’s work and was happy to take on the challenge. He understood the harsh realities and brutality of this sad depression era story, and that he would have to speak to George and Lennie’s aspirations and failed dream, which ends in heart-breaking tragedy. To accomplish this he realized that he would have to adapt his highly rhythmic, complex, and dissonant compositional style by embracing simplicity, and a more forthright, consonant and emotionally accessible aural warmth.

Scoring the film was a pleasant experience for Copland because the production company was an independent producer, and so he did not suffer the intrusion and meddling of a Director of Music. He had unfettered and direct access to Milestone, who provided significant latitude to him to score the film as he saw fit. Indeed Milestone offered extraordinary support, which even included lengthening a scene to accommodate Copland’s composition. For his soundscape Copland composed three primary themes and a motif including the Tragedy Motif, which offers repeating phrases of doom and despair. It is used by Copland to speak to the tragedy, which will befall George and Lennie in the pursuit of their dreams. In the Prelude we hear it in its most powerful iteration with repeating dire declarations by horns dramatico buttressed by portentous strings. While in the cues “Mae’s Death” and “Lennie’s Death” we are draped with a profound sadness and despair. The song-like and aspirational Main Theme offers a free-flowing, carefree, long-lined melody borne by vibrant woodwinds felice and strings. There is a stream-like fluidity to its motion, which soothes, comforts and reassures. Copland uses it to speak to the idyllic natural beauty of the land and pastoral beauty of the ranch. I believe it to be one of the finest compositions in Copland’s canon. The intimate Lennie’s Theme supports the bond of friendship and loyalty between George and Lennie. It also speaks to Lennie’s child-like love and fascination with rabbits and other small farm animals. Copland uses it for quiet intimate moments where the two men share stories and their dreams, or when we see rabbits. It emotes tenderly, as a sublime pastorale full of affection, by a wondrous woodwind chorale supported by soothing strings gentile overflowing with warmth. Like the Main Theme the music carries you along like a leaf on a stream. Mae’s Theme offers a descending five-note construct borne by flute triste and kindred woodwinds. She is a pathetic figure, the only woman on the ranch, ridiculed, mistrusted and neglected by her husband, and dying of loneliness. Copland speaks to her pathos of despair and loneliness with a truly sad testament. Lastly, cues coded (*) offer scenes where the music is not included on the album.

In “Prelude” we commence in the film proper, opening with a thunder clap in a storm swept sky. At 0:09 we segue into a tender Lennie’s Theme as we see an idyllic scene of rabbits and chickens frolicking. At 0:19 they suddenly disperse as George and Lennie flee for the lives from an armed pursuing mob. Surging waves by menacing horns irato erupt and propel the angry armed mob that is in hot pursuit. At 0:33 we a down shift into a flight motif as George coaches Lennie into a narrow drainage ditch where they take cover under the overhanging foliage on the leading edge. The pursuit music while still grim, loses its menace as we see the armed men leaping over George and Lennie, unaware of their presence and running on. At 0:54 the pursuit music shifts to woodwinds as we see George and Lennie desperately running to board a train in the town of Weeds. As they struggle to reach an open car the music gains increased urgency. At 1:15 we see some men sitting in an open car and the music shifts to a folksy melody borne by Jewish harp as George and Lennie climb aboard. As they pull the doors closed, we flow seamlessly into “Main Title”, a magnificent score highlight, which supports the roll of the opening credits that display on the train car door. The Jewish harp is joined by the repeating four-note opening phrases of the Tragedy Motif on violins. The melody shifts to woodwinds and the erupts at 1:48 for a fortissimo declaration by horns bravura with the orchestra churning with energy below as “Of Mice and Men” displays. Proud, unabashed statements of a marcia orgoglioso resound bringing drama and anticipation to the audience. At 2:53 a diminuendo of relief unfolds as the train slowly disappears and the screen fades to black.

George and Lennie exit a bus and prepare to seek employment at Ranch No. 3, a long ten-mile walk. They decide to rest by a pond, quench their thirst, and cook some beans for dinner. “The Wood Scene”, which was dialed out of the film, offers a beautiful score highlight, which Copland intended to speak to the idyllic beauty of the pond and surrounding forest. It offers an oboe delicato led pastorale of Lennie’s Theme as they rest and quench their thirst in the lap of nature. The contrapuntal writing for piccolo and flute, and the peacefulness created is wondrous. Later, a frustrated George goes off on a tirade of how Lennie always gets into trouble, which requires him to bail him out. Lennie asks like a child for George to tell him again the story of the ranch they will own, and the rabbits and livestock they will have. Lennie is a classic case of arrested development, a child trapped in a man’s body. We see how dependent he is on George. We flow into “The Wood At Night”, which offers a score highlight. Copland offers a nocturne of sublime beauty where we are graced by a wondrous exposition of Lennie’s Theme as George and Lennie bed done for the night. We are graced by sublime writing for woodwinds with the soothing melody taken up by solo oboe tenero, and the flute supported by kindred woodwinds and strings gentile.

“On The Ranch” offers a score highlight where Copland offers wondrous writing for strings and woodwinds. It reveals Candy escorting George and Lennie on a tour of the ranch and ending as he shows them their beds in the bunk house. We are graced with the Main Theme, which emotes as a gentle flowing promenade led by solo oboe pastorale. Slowly, repeating calling phrases by woodwinds and answering phrases by soft horns swell and the promenade melody blossoms at 0:56 for a sublime iteration, which just sweeps us away. In “Threshing Machine No. 1” we see a threshing machine removing the grain from the stalks. Copeland creates a mechanistic ostinato by strings, woodwinds with horn accents to simulate the machine’s operation. In “Threshing Machine No. 2” Curley confronts Slim for giving a puppy to his wife Mae. Slim just takes it all in and goes back to work. Copland reprises the mechanistic ostinato motif, adding more embellishment and aggressive energy as Curly rides off full of anger, deliberately trying to run over Lennie. In “Threshing Machine No. 3” again reprises the mechanistic ostinato, this time with bassoon accents as we see Mae lurking around the worksite. At 2:20 the ostinato’s energy resumes as the George and Lennie get back loading sacks of grain onto the wagon.

“Barley Wagons” reveals the cook banging a metal triangle signaling mess call and the end of the work day. We see many wagons returning to the ranch carried by a thankful Main Theme, which flows with a gentile pastoral wonder. At 0:22 an oboe moves to the forefront to offer a more intimate rendering of the theme as we see Candy feeding puppies in the barn. The rest of the crew joins and take a look at the litter. At 1:01 the melody brightens with happiness as Lennie request for two puppies is granted. At 1:21 the mood takes on a tinge of sadness when Carlson suggests that they put down Candy’s old dog and give him a puppy to replace it. In “Mae At Home” she is dining with her father-in-law Jackson and husband Curly, but is put-off by their poor table manners and eating habits. Copland supports with an uncomfortable staccato rhythm, which speaks to her displeasure. At 0:56 saxophone sardonica provides a more animated rendering as she covers her ears to block out their slurping. At 1:44 a comic Main Theme enters as Curly reneges on his promise to take her to the movies and walks out. We close with her visible frustration and unhappiness with a return of the opening, harsh staccato rhythm.

“Carlson And The Dog” (*) reveals the men playing horse shoes after dinner, which Copland supports with strummed guitar. As Slim and George plays cards Carlson again complains that Candy’s dog stinks and that he should put it down. Carlson tells Candy he will personally put him down to save him the pain. In “Death of Candy’s Dog” we open with grieving strings and forlorn woodwinds as Candy asks Slim for guidance, and Slim agrees, put the dog down and take one of the puppies. Copland weaves an aching threnody full of sadness as we see a distraught and inconsolable Candy grieve on his bed. A pause at 2:57 supports a single gunshot, which causes Candy to rollover in pain as the threnody surges and then dissipates into nothingness. In “Mae In The Barn” Mae is bored at home as no one ever talks to her. She turns on the radio and Jackson yells at her to turn it off. She hears a dog barking, exits the house, and enters the barn where she finds Slim. Music enters as she does and we hear the pathos of her lonely and yearning theme as she beseeches Slim to talk to her. At 0:47 the music darkens as Slim rebukes her saying she should not be here or talk to any of the men. Yet she persists and the fervor of her theme swells as she begins to weep. Unknow to Mae, Slim hears her anguish and reproaches himself saying “I should have let her talk”. Curly enters the bunkhouse searching for his wife, with everyone denying knowledge. When he hears that Slim went out to shoe a horse, he rushes out followed by the men.

“In The Bunkhouse” offers a wonderful score highlight with some of Copland’s most evocative writing. Lennie hears George again tell the tale of how one day they will own their own ranch. Aspirational woodwinds and cello support their dream of how good life will be as free men when they finally own their own land, rather than working as ranch hands. At 0:58 the melody blossoms as Candy inquires about this place’s location, offering $340 to buy his way in, adding that he will leave his share to them in his Will should he pass. At 2:43 an oboe delicato and kindred woodwinds take up the melody as George calculates in his mind that they could indeed possibly do it. At 3:48 a diminuendo of sympathy enters as Candy pleads that he with only one arm cannot get work anywhere else and that this is his only hope for ever owning a ranch. At 4:08 stings energico surge with happiness as George yells out, “We can do it!” All three men are filled with the hope as Candy turns over his three hundred to George who counsels him and Lennie to keep this secret, as they need to continue to work and earn the rest of the money needed. We close at 5:39 atop a sad rendering of the Main Theme full of regret when Candy says that he should not have agreed to have a stranger kill is dog.

In “Preliminaries to Fight” grim celli portend doom as Curly once again harasses Slim about his wife. Slim has had enough, stands up to him and tells him to lay off. At 0:53 discordant horns raise the stakes as Carlson joins in and also criticizes Curley, saying he would take his head off in a fight. Lennie laughs and we close on a crescendo of anger As Curley pulls him up and prepares to fight. We flow seamlessly into “The Fight” with irregular shifting rhythms and angry dissonant strikes, which sync with each punch that Curley lands on Lennie’s face. At 0:33 a crescendo of desperation rises as George repeatedly exhorts Lennie to fight back. At 0:41 wailing horns resound as Lennie finally grabs Curley’s fist. A grotesquely dissonant orchestra writhes in swelling agony as Lennie, now crazed with anger, begins crushing Curley’s hand as George pleads with him to stop. The rage dissipates as Lennie comes to his senses and releases Curley who falls to the floor. When Curley wakes Slim and the men say that the official story is that he hurt his hand in a machine, and then threaten to tell the truth if he tries to get Lennie fired.

In “Fun In Town” (*) the men are partying in the town saloon having a fun time, which Copland supports with festive source music. Curley arrives with his arm bandaged and, in a sling, to throw a wet towel over the fun, but he is told to shove off and grudgingly departs. The following two scenes are unscored. Back at the ranch in “Crooks And Lennie”, Lennie is lonely and visits Crooks, the ranch black man who is forced to live separately from the white ranch hands off the stable. Crooks warms to the friendly Lennie, as he is unaccustomed to being treated nicely by white folk. Crooks shares with him his sad life of living alone but then provokes Lennie to anger by repeatedly asking him what he would do if George goes away. Crooks relents, the storm passes, and Candy joins them as they begin talking about their planned ranch purchase. George returns and is angry that Lennie and Candy disclosed their secret plan to Crooks. Mae then arrives, again complaining of being alone on Saturday night. She looks at Lennie’s bruised face and figures out that he was the one to hurt Curley. George demands she leave, and when she refuses prepares to slap her, only to be stopped when Jackson arrives and forces her departure. “Curley Throws Mae Out” reveals Mae humiliating Curley in front of his father by exposing his lie of how his hand was injured. He is furious and tells her he is done with her and is throwing her out, which leaves her weeping on the stairs.

“Death Of Mae” reveals Mae in the barn playing with the puppies. She becomes curious when she hears a man weeping. She looks over into the next stall and finds Lennie weeping over his puppy, which he accidentally killed. She tries to comfort him but he recoils, saying George told him never to talk to her. Never the less they sit down and start talking, yet we see neither is listening to the other, as Lennie talks about his rabbit farm, and Mae dreams about a new life in Hollywood. She starts talking about her hair and how smooth it is, invites Lennie to stroke it, which he does but gets his hand entangled. She screams in pain and he covers her mouth so George does not find out, but he is too forceful and her neck snaps, instantly killing her. Copland scores the aftermath opening with a foreboding statement of the Tragedy Motif as Lennie touches her limp body. At 0:18 an aching oboe triste enters emoting Mae’s Theme as Lennie begins to panic. He bolts out of the barn and woodwinds of distress swell cresting at 0:30 with tension strike as Slim’s dog enters and lies with her puppies. The Tragedy Motif swells as Candy comes in to feed the puppies and notices one is missing. The motif entwines with a plaintive rendering of Mae’s Theme as Candy leaves the barn. At 1:39 repeating soft, portentous statements of the Tragedy Motif by woodwinds supports Candy informing George that one of the puppies has gone missing and that Lennie may be playing with it somewhere. George decides to go find Lennie at 2:30 as tension rises on the motif, cresting in terror to end the cue as George finds Mae’s shoe in the dog’s mouth.

“George Determined” reveals George and Candy run into the barn where he finds Mae’s dead body. They find Lennie’s hat nearby and we see a sad recognition in George that Lennie once again did not realize his great strength and accidentally killed her. George is determined to save Lennie and conspires with Candy to buy time. Soon the ranch hands find Mae’s dead body, Lennie’s hat, and arm themselves to hunt him down for murder. They head out as George and Slim discuss options, agreeing that it will be up to George to take care of this as he shows Slim the solen Luger pistol. A struggling and tragic rendering of the Tragedy Motif joins here on strings tristi. As Slim pats George on the back a forlorn solo oboe and violins affanato carry him on his mission of dread. He knows that Lennie will be waiting for him as trained by the pond, and fully appreciates what he must do to spare him from Curley’s vengeful cruelty. At 0:49 ominous repeating orchestral surges support Curley and the men closing in on Lennie. Bleak woodwind cries rise up as we see a rabbit, deer, and black bird flee, wary of the approaching men.

“Near The Brush” offers a tragic score highlight, which opens ominously with repeating descents of doom as we see George and Slim searching for Lennie. At 0:21 French horns full of heartache sound as they hear him. Slim moves off, remaining nearby knowing this is something George must do himself. At 0:38 the thankful warmth of a string borne Lennie’s Theme supports Lennie coming out of hiding to join his buddy, George. At 1:04 the melody expands for a a sumptuous exposition when Lennie asks for more of George’s ranch and bunny stories. George realizes the end is near and indulges his buddy with the theme becoming wistful as he tells the tale one last time. At 1:59 grave music surges as Jackson and the men are alerted of their presence nearby’ He pauses and whistles to alert Curley’s group, who acknowledge. A growling, stepped orchestral menace supports both groups closing in on George and Lennie. At 2:18 George agrees to tell Lennie a story of their ranch and asks him to sit on a log and stare across the river. A molto tragico iteration of the Tragedy Motif joins as George stands behind him. A last wistful reprise of the Main Theme enters as George shares his vision to a thankful and happy Lennie. At 2:38 we commence a slow building crescendo dramatico on entwined Lennie’s and Main Themes as George fills Lennie with joy and visions of just how happy they will be on their ranch, as he draws his pistol. We build to a glorious climax, which is shattered into silence as George shoots and kills Lennie.

“Lennie’s Death” opens with a resounding declaration of the Tragedy fanfare as George lowers his gun visibly crushed by heartache. Strings sofferenti emote the Tragedy Motif as a dirge as Jackson, Curley and the men rush in to find Lennie dead, as George stands still in agonal silence. At 0:40 we commence a crescendo of heartache full of regret on the Tragedy Motif as Slim and the Sheriff join George. He pulls out the gun, which is acknowledged by Slim, and hands it to the sheriff. Slim and George depart and we close at 1:41 with the tender woodwind happiness of Lennie’s Theme, offering memoriam to Lennie, and to what could have been, as we look one last time upon the idyllic beauty of the pond. We conclude the film dramatically with a reprise of the Lennie’s Theme, which entwines with the Tragedy Motif, and end gloriously in a horns brilliante flourish. “End Title” offers a display of the cast of players, which Copland supports with a final interplay of the Tragedy Motif and Lennie’s Theme, which culminates in a grand flourish.

Please allow me to thank Karol Kopernicky and Naxos Records for discovering, and rescuing the Copland’s forgotten and sequestered score from the Library of Congress. This recording of the long sought complete score to Aaron Copland’s masterpiece “Our Town” offers a Holy Grail to collectors. The audio quality is excellent and the performance of the Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Andrew Mogrelia is superb. This was Copland’s first score for a Hollywood film, and he understood the harsh realities, and brutality of this sad depression era story of dreams unrealized. Director Milestone gave him unfettered artistic latitude to score the film as he saw fit, which unleashed Copland’s genius. Copland understood that to effectively transition for the concert hall to the big screen, that he would have to adapt his highly rhythmic, complex, and dissonant compositional style to also embrace simplicity, and a more consonant and emotionally accessible aural warmth. I believe Copland masterfully found the creative balance between consonance and dissonance by using consonance to emote times of happiness, joy and hopefulness, while using dissonance to speak to tragedy, tension, and conflict.

He composed three primary themes and a motif, with his Main Theme, a woodwind pastorale abounding with happiness, standing as one of the finest in his canon. From the film’s opening scene the Tragedy Motif hangs as a grim pall over the film, its opening notes portending tragedy. The child-like gentleness and innocence of Lennie’s Theme, a pastorale borne by woodwinds delicato, which belies his massive strength and stature, instead beautifully speaking to his little boy psyche as well as his love of the deer, rabbits and birds. Mae’s Theme supports the pathos of her broken spirit, her lonliness and unfulfilling life, as she see her dreams remain ever illusive. In the final analysis I believe Milestone achieved his vision, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, thanks to Copland’s evocative score, which potentiated Steinbeck’s tragic narrative. In scene after scene we bear witness to an extraordinary confluence of acting, film narrative and music, which elevates and enhances the film. Folks, I consider this score an early opus Copland masterpiece of both conception and execution, as well as a gem of the Golden Age. I highly recommend you purchase this quality compilation album for your collection, which also includes the complete score for the 1940 film Our Town.

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 Of Mice and Men soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prelude and Titles (3:15)
  • The Wood Scene (2:07)
  • The Wood At Night (1:15)
  • On the Ranch (1:54)
  • Threshing Machine No. 1 (0:44)
  • Threshing Machine No. 2 (1:11)
  • Threshing Machine No. 3 (1:12)
  • Barley Wagons (1:44)
  • Mae at Home (2:36)
  • Death of Candy’s Dog (3:10)
  • Mae in the Barn (1:38)
  • In the Bunkhouse (5:53)
  • Preliminaries to Fight (1:19)
  • The Fight (1:20)
  • Death of Mae (2:56)
  • George Determined (1:16)
  • Near the Brush (3:41)
  • Lennie’s Death (2:17)
  • End Title (0:33)

Running Time: 39 minutes 52 seconds

Naxos 9.70124 (1939/2009)

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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