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THE NORTH STAR – Aaron Copland


Original Review by Craig Lysy

In 1942 President Roosevelt created the Office of War Information (OWI) to serve as America’s official propaganda agency. The OWI pressured Hollywood studios to make war films that favorably represented the Soviet Union to generate public support given that they and America were now allies fighting Nazi Germany. Following a personal request by President Roosevelt, MGM executive Samuel Goldwyn decided to contribute with the film The North Star. Goldwyn, assisted by William Cameron Menzies, took charge of production with a $3 million budget. Lillian Hellman was hired to write the story and screenplay, and Lewis Milestone was tasked with directing. An exceptional cast was assembled, including Ann Baxter as Marina Pavlova, Dana Andrews as Kolya Simonov, Walter Huston as Dr. Pavel Grigorich Kurin, Walter Brennan as Karp, Ann Harding as Sophia Pavlova, Jane Withers as Clavdia Kurina, Farley Granger as Damian Simonov and Erich von Stroheim as Dr. von Harden.

The film is set in Ukraine 1941 and offers a story of the brutal Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. A Ukrainian village is occupied and a Nazi Drs. von Harden and Richter begin draining blood from children to transfuse into wounded German soldiers. So much blood is taken that some of the children die. The local doctor Pavel Kurin is appalled and joins the local partisans to launch an attack on the village to liberate and save the people. The partisans succeed in liberating the village with Dr. Kurin avenging the murdered children by shooting both Dr. von Harden and Richter. The film was a commercial failure, losing MGM $200,000. Critical reception was mixed, but the film still garnered six Academy Award nominations, including Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Sound, Best Effects and Best Film Score.

Goldwyn’s first choice to score the film was Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, but he declined. He turned to Aaron Copland as he believed he could express musically, the qualities of the Ukrainian common folk, as he had done in America for so many years. Copland eagerly accepted the assignment as he was intrigued by the film’s narrative, and also the fact that he would be paid $10,000 for five month’s work, an amount that exceeded his normal annual income. Copland felt an operatic approach was needed and so consulted four collections of Russian folk and revolutionary songs to provide the requisite cultural sensibilities.

Copland never adopted the leitmotif scoring style of the contemporary Hollywood composers of the European romantic tradition, such as Steiner, Rozsa, Newman and Tiomkin. He instead utilized his uniquely American musical voice and style to score films, focusing not on characters, but instead character emotional drivers and film setting ambiance. For his soundscape Copland interpolated melodies from five traditional folk songs, with Ira Gershwin providing the lyrics; “Song of the Fatherland, “Chari Vari Rastabari”, “The Younger Generation”, “No Village Like Mine”, and the “Song of the Guerillas”. The cinematography and film narrative established the pastoral and arboreal beauty of the Ukrainian countryside, as well as the idyllic life of the village. Both of these fit nicely in Copland’s wheelhouse and he once again provided the folksy, salt of the earth melodies, which have made him an American icon. For the action scenes he used a variety of techniques including dissonance, strident rhythms, marches, and anthems, offering a side of his compositional style not often seen in his film score canon. When all was said and done, critics lauded his score and it earned him his third Academy Award nomination.

Regretfully there is no full commercial release of this Academy Award nominated score. As such I will review the music in film context using scene descriptors and film time indices. 00:00 “Main Title” offers a score highlight where in a masterstroke, Copland perfectly establishes the film’s tone and setting. It opens with Coplandnesque fanfare as “Samuel Goldwyn Presents The North Star” displays against billowy clouds in azure skies under which peasants tend their flocks. As the opening credits unfold, Copland sows an idyllic rustic musical narrative borne by woodwinds pastorale and trumpets expressing alternating three-note arpeggios, graced by harp adornment. At 0:43 piccolo tenero ushers in a gentile folk dance melody as we see peasants with long-handled sickles walking down a road to their fields. The idyllicness continues as we see horses and cows meandering under the branches of white birch trees. 01:30 “Village Life” takes us into the film proper. Old man Karp in a horse drawn cart takes his pigs to market, passing children walking to school as well as prancing geese. Copland supports with a bouncy and playful musical narrative, which speaks to the idyllic happiness of the village. He stops by the town doctor’s house for breakfast, but Anna orders him on his way as the doctor was up late delivering a baby.

05:36 “Everybody Must Work” reveals the Pavlov family eating breakfast as Marina bakes honey cakes for her trip to Kiev tomorrow. As the family discusses the coming work to load the train, a march like workmen’s song heard outside plays under the dialogue. 07:11 “Off To School” offers a delightful score highlight. It reveals carefree village children walking to school. Copland supports with a spritely and playful musical narrative led by woodwinds felice, which abounds with youthful energy. The music subsides, and inside, the headmaster announces that a graduating student with the highest score ever achieved has earned a scholarship to Kiev University; Damian Simonov. He then offers portentous counsel of the importance of living up to their culture’s historic values during these difficult times before releasing everyone for summer vacation. 10:07 “Song of the Fatherland”. The headmaster releases the children for summer recess and concludes the ceremony with Copland infusing Isaak Dunayevsky’s inspirational song, with lyrics adapted by Gershwin, which the children sing with piano accompaniment: “There is peace where once there was disorder, There is dawn where once was blackest night. Not a voice but sings in exultation, Not a heart but beats for liberty Side by side, the peoples of our nation, Build a world where man is ever free.

12:23 “Loading Time at Last Is Over” reveals the town has completed loading the train with produce and livestock. As the tows people sit and have a communal feast on a lawn, a minstrel plays the festive folk song “Chari, Vari, Rastabari” on his accordion with soloist and children’s choral accompaniment, later joined by people dancing merrily. In a cut-away, Marina privately frets to Damian that their separation for a year when he departs for university is going to be a very long time to be apart. He reassures her of his undying love and then reminds her that a scholarship will bring her to Kiev to join him next year. At 18:08 we return to the town’s festive dancing and merriment. In 20:41 “Nocturne” we see the moonlit sky and the children all restless with excitement for tomorrow’s trip. Copland supports softly with a tender flute borne nocturne. 22:04 “Dawn” opens with refulgent strings, which sparkle and are joined by woodwinds pastorale as kids wake, prepare to depart and say their goodbyes.

25:51 “Trip to Kiev” reveals Damian, Marina, Kolya, Clavdia with little Grisha and his dog setting off on their hiking journey to Kiev. As they happily walk along a birch tree lined dirt road Grisha sings a happy-go-lucky folk song “The Younger Generation”, accompanied by Kolya on balalaika. Marina then takes the lead vocal with Grisha adding his harmonica to Kolya’s balalaika.

At 27:33 the vocals fade away and the song’s prancing melody supports idyllic country vistas, and then the kids playfully soaking their aching feet in a fresh water pool. 27:51 “Kolya and Clavdia” reveals the two spending a quiet moment together, which Copland supports with a softer and more tranquil rendering of the travel song melody as they all drift off to sleep. 29:04 “Kolya Snores!” reveals a closeup of Clavdia sleeping supported by a tranquil nocturne, yet the music sours as she is awakened by Kolya’s snoring. She turns away and falls asleep as the camera ascends, carried by a nocturne tranquillo to reveal tree branches set against the starlit night sky. Copland uses trilling woodwinds to evoke the sight of birds nesting above them in the tree branch canopy.

29:51 “A New Day” reveals dawn supported by bubbling woodwinds full of life as the group starts a new day’s journey. A less vigorous rendering of the travel song melody carries their progress. Karp and three other horse drawn carts on their way to the local market arrive and he offers the kids a ride to the crossroad. At 31:55 “No Village Like Mine” a new traveling folk song supported by accordion and harmonica is sung, which everyone sings proudly about the simple pleasures of country life. Karp and Kolya are startled when they hear the sound of many plane engines and order the singing stopped. As the sound grows, alarm appears on their faces and the flock of sheep nearby become agitated. Bombs begin to rain down and explode around them and Kolya orders everyone off the cart and into the ditches with Damian throwing himself over Marina to protect her. Copland sows primal fear using random drum strikes as everyone flees for safety. The planes pass on but two men was killed, a little boy mortally wounded, and two of the carts have been destroyed. 37:57 “Lamentation” reveals the children trying to absorb the sight of dead men and the dying boy. A solo clarinet tristi joined by strings of woe offer an extended lamentation not only for the dead, but an end to an era as we see in their eyes that the brutality of war has come to shatter their idyllic life. The music descends into anguish at 39:20 as Clavdia weeps that the little boy’s shattered arm is his left, and that he was left-handed. Karp then comes over and says it is over, as he pulls a sheet over the dead boy.

40:04 “Village Bombing” a V shaped squadron of German dive-bomber planes flies towards the village. Copland supports daily morning life idyllically with piano gentile. All is shattered as German Stukas descend to mercilessly strafe and bomb the village. 42:14 “The War Has Come!” offers a patriotic score highlight. It reveals an army radio announcer declaring that war has come as German forces have attacked us. He declares that we will furiously defend the homeland, which Copland supports with an orchestral rendering of the patriotic song, “Song of the Guerrillas”. The patriotic anthem is rendered alla maestoso as a montage unfolds of people grieving over the dead and wounded bodies of their family members and fellow villagers. It concludes with strength as Rodion gives a defiant and rousing patriotic speech to the people who have assembled in the town square. He orders all able-bodied men to join the militia and flee to the hills, while the remaining men and women are to destroy all crops, livestock and burn their homes to deny the Germans food and shelter.

The militia assemble on horseback and collectively swear an oath to defend the homeland and defeat the fascist invaders. Then the remaining towns people repeat the oath in solidarity. 47:03 “Song of the Guerillas” reveals the militia riding off carried by a choir singing their proud patriotic anthem. In the countryside Boris is driving a truck full of ammunition for the militia but a German Stuka strafes him and he crashes. Kolya and the kids are nearby and rush to rescue him. 50:58 “Boris Dies” offers a score highlight. It reveals Boris ordering that they save the guns from the burning truck. As he lies dying, he gives Kolya directions as to where to take the guns. Copland supports the death scene of Boris and his two sons with threnody for the fallen, which is supremely moving. They mark his grave, and elegiac trumpets resound as we see the honorifics carved into the tombstone epithet. As the camera pans out for a vista shot, a crescendo of hope swells to fill the cloud swept skies. Kolya then departs to rejoin the air force, tells Karp and Damian to deliver the guns and ammunition, to stay off the roads, and to only travel in the woods at night.

In the village the villagers try to get all the livestock out of town as the German column approaches. 57:42 “The Village Aflame” offers a powerful score highlight. One by one we see villagers tearfully setting their houses aflame. Tortured strings slowly empower a shattering crescendo affanato as we see the village being consumed. The Germans see the conflagration from afar and the Commander orders the column to pick up its pace. As the Germans enter the town, they machine gun down the people without mercy. Copland supports the carnage with an orchestral maelstrom, which joins in an evil synergy with the onscreen violence. A mechanized cadence joins the tempest to support the ordered German fire brigades working efficiently to put out the fires. Then a marcia bellicoso joins and carries the arrival of the German command staff. As a crowd assembles, they demand Olga Pavlova come forth as her family oversees the commune. She does, refuses to provide information, and so the Germans break her right arm and leg to send a harsh warning.

In the forests, a German patrol arrives and Grisha’s dog’s barking exposes their camp. Karp and Damian have guns and wait in ambush as the girls and Grisha hide. Copland sows a mounting tension as three Germans approach. 1:08:33 “Ambush” a crescendo of violence erupts as Karp and Damian ambush and kill the Germans. Afterwards Karp and the kids depart with the wagons full of ammunition. Back in town the German occupation and fortifications are seen. We then cut to Kolya flying in a Soviet bomber who takes the pilot’s chair after his crewmates are all killed by German anti-aircraft fire. The plane is heavily damaged, cannot land, and so he exacts revenge with a suicide crash into the German tank column.

1:14:52 “The Children” reveals that blood is needed for surgery on German soldiers. Word spreads that the Germans are bleeding excessive blood from the children, with some dying from blood loss. Copland offers a bleak musical narrative as the Doctor Kurin recoils from the horrific news. He sneaks out and peers in the hospital window and sees the village kids sitting in the hallway. The music assumes a child-like tenderness bathed in portentous foreboding auras. At 1:16:00 dire horns resound and empower a crescendo of terror as a young girl is dragged into a room. Kurin sneaks in and tries to kill Dr. von Harden, who remarkably spares his life and takes him into another room. Von Harden, a fellow Leipzig University graduate, rationalizes the necessities of war while praising Kurin for his medical accomplishments. He grants his request to aide a small boy who is severely weakened by blood loss and orders his release over Dr. Richter’s objections.

1:19:45 “The German Advance” reveals a return to the forest. Damian and Marina surveil, time, and catalogue a massive German column moving east towards the front. Copland sows a subtle undercurrent of tension as they elude detection. At 1:21:18 Damian and Marina share an intimate moment as they realize they will soon reach the guerillas with the vital guns and ammunition. Romance enters warmly on strings tenero as they share a loving kiss. Later Damian offers his plan to ambush the column in a diversion, which will allow Karp and Marina’s wagons to cross the road and reach the hills to deliver the weapons. In 1:23:27 “Damian Departs” Marina offers to join him, but he refuses saying she needs to drive one of the carts. Woodwinds doloroso led by bassoon speak to her anxiety as Clavdia watches, her expression informing us of her heroic decision. A stealthy and plodding dichotomous cadence of low register woodwinds set against violins carries Damian to the ambush site. Unbeknown to him, Clavdia trails behind with a rifle.

1:24:30 “Grisha’s Revelation” reveals him advising Marina that Clavdia will not be joining as she has followed Damian. Woodwinds tristi usher in strings affanato as Marina is distraught, but Grisha tells her that it is too late to intervene. 1:25:03 “Damian Advances” reveals him, followed by Clavdia, advancing to the ambush point. Copland reprises his tension motif, which carries their progress. At 1:24:35 Clavdia weeps and call to her grandpa asking for guidance as she contemplates her approaching death. Aching strings, full of longing speak to her anxiety. Refulgent strings brighten the musical narrative as she conquers her fear and finds her will to push on.

“The Ambush” is unscored. It reveals Damian and Clavdia poised to open fire on the next motorcycle group, which will halt the convoy’s progress, giving Karp and Marina time to safely cross the road downstream. They take out two cyclist and run away as the Germans fire a flare warning, which stops the convoy. Karp and Marina safely ride across the road, while the Germans fan out into the forest. Damian and Clavdia are caught and a fire fight commences, but they are outgunned and outmanned. Clavdia is mortally wounded and a grenade blast knocks Damian unconscious. The Germans mistake and deride them as dead children and depart. On the hill Karp and Marina set off to rescue Damian and Clavdia, leaving Grisha with the wagons.

1:29:23 “I’m Blind!” reveals Damian waking up and discovering that he is blind, which Copland supports with grotesque dissonance. A crescendo of horror surges as he realizes his now dire circumstance, and weeps that Clavdia is dead. Strings affanato emote his pain as he crawls off, surging atop a fugato borne by strings of desperation as he reaches the road’s wood guardrail. Terror surges as he is frightened and unsure how to proceed. Karp and Marina close in with scurrying strings carrying them across the road. 1:31:00 “Damian is Rescued” reveals Marina and Karp finding Damian. They are relieved, but a woodwind threnody supports his revelation that Clavdia is dead. They carry Damian back to the carts, unaware that he is blind. Strings, so full of heartache and woodwind tristi support the four again traveling on the carts through the forest to the rendezvous point. At 1:32:20 a crescendo of pain surges as Marina finally realizes that Damian is blind. Aching strings support her ardent and supportive kisses as she consoles her man.

In unscored scenes, at the guerilla base Dr. Kurin exhorts the men to attack as the Germans are bleeding the children to death. Rodion says that he understands, and is sympathetic, but declares that they need to understand that without guns, they will be massacred by the well-armed Germans. They nevertheless agree to assemble outside town and pray that Boris brings the weapons in time to support their attack. Outside town the men divide into three attack groups, each with a defined mission – the goal being to blow up the fuel depot and in the resultant chaos, rescue the children. We see the men stealthily infiltrating the town at a number of points, with Rodion leading the main group in the water under the docks. They ambush a guard, don his uniform and prepare to release gasoline to fuel the explosion.

1:37:04 “The Attack” offers a rousing score action highlight. Rodion’s men pour gasoline into the river, which flows downstream towards the German fuel depot supported by a woodwind tension motif. Slithering strings of tension carry the gas-tinged waters behind a German machine guard post. At 1:37:50 all hell breaks loose as Rodion hurls a grenade that causes the gasoline to erupt in flames. This signals the calvary to ride into town, propelled by the patriotic “Song of the Guerrillas” anthem as the villagers fight to retake their town. Copland whips his orchestra into a patriotic maelstrom as a brutal battle unfolds. At 1:39:0 horns eroico propel Karp and Marina bringing the wagons filled with guns and ammunition into town to support their men. At 1:39:36 familial warmth and joy burst forth as Grisha, Marina and Damian arrive and are hugged by their families while the guns are distributed. The orchestral torrent of violence continues as the battle rages. Slowly, despite grievous loses, the tide of battle turns against the Germans who slowly succumb in brutal hand to hand combat to the relentless Ukrainian assault. At 1:31:45 warm strings and horns support the rescue of the children.

In the unscored “The Confrontation” an avenging Dr. Kurin enters the hospital and unleashes a diatribe against Dr. von Harden’s faux sanctimony and complicity with the Nazis. He shoots the irredeemable Dr. Richter in the back and then kills Dr. von Harden. 1:43:53 “Evacuation” reveals the men evacuating the town and everyone fleeing east to escape the slaughter of the coming German counterattack. A non-martial rendering of the Guerilla anthem joins in communion with the three-note Village Motif to carry their progress. We close with a paean of hope, which ends in a grand flourish as Marina declares; “Wars don’t leave people as they were. All people will learn this and come to see that wars do not have to be. We’ll make this the last war. We’ll make a free world for all men. The earth belongs to us, the people, if we fight for it. And we will fight for it.” 1:45:25 “Cast Titles” is supported by a triumphant choral reprise of the patriotic Guerilla Anthem.

Aaron Copland only scored five feature-length Hollywood films; Of Mice and Men (1939), Our Town (1940), The North Star (1943), The Red Pony (1949), and The Heiress (1949). He received Academy Award nominations for all except The Red Pony (1949), winning one for The Heiress (1949). The film’s story was of courageous and noble small-town villagers, who rise up heroically to defend their land, and way of life from brutal fascist invaders. Although this film was set in the Ukrainian heartland, Copland’s director and he himself realized that the land was not dissimilar to the farmland of the American heartland. They believed that his singular talent for evoking folksy, salt of the earth music would translate well to the film’s cinematography and setting, which offered pastoral and arboreal beauty and idyllic small-town life. To enhance and imbue his music with the necessary cultural sensibilities, Copland and lyricist Ira Gershwin collaborated in adapting five native folk songs into their musical tapestry. This was a masterstroke, and Copland’s music succeeded in every way in attaining a timeless confluence with Lewis Milestone’s directing, Lilian Hellman’s storytelling, and James Wong Howe’s cinematography. Folks, Copland scores are few in number, with each one being precious. This is a score that offers beauty, heart, folksy charm, heroism, and dynamic action, which I believe demands a complete re-recording and commercial release. Until this happens, I recommend you take in the film, which has been beautifully colorized and HD restored by the “Old Time Movie and TV Channel,” or explore the short suite of Copland’s music from The North Star which was included on a 2001 compilation album called ‘Celluloid Copland’, released by Telarc Records in 2001. The track listing is shown below. The music was recorded by the Eos Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Sheffer.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cL2WvaSPCVU

Buy the North Star soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (2:17)
  • Death of the Little Boy (2:13)
  • Going To School (1:50)
  • Damian is Blind (2:55)
  • Song Of The Guerillas (1:11)
  • North Star Battle (1:42)
  • The Childrens’ Return (1:03)
  • Guerillas Return (1:51)
  • Leaving the Village (2:16)

Running Time: 17 minutes 22 seconds

Telarc CD-80583 (1943/2001)

Music composed by Aaron Copland. Conducted by Heinz Roemheld. Orchestrations by Jerome Moross, Arthur Morton and Gil Grau. Ukrainian lyrics by Ira Gershwin. Recorded and mixed by XXXX. Score produced by Aaron Copland. Album produced by Jonathan Sheffer and Philip Traugott.

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  1. May 19, 2023 at 9:37 pm
  2. May 19, 2023 at 9:39 pm

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