Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Copland and Ives

Its been a while since I have written anything here, but life is what it is. Neither terrible or gorgeous. Just a lot of stuff between smiles and frowns.

I happened to have my Sirrius radio turned to the classical station earlier today as I was doing the semi-weekly dump run and suddenly I felt myself tumbling head first into a Currier and Ives print.
Not for the first time has this composers music transmorgified me.
Here I fell.

It swelled out of the radio; these throat catching melodies written by Aaron Copland as a soundtrack for the 1940 movie Our Town, based on the Thornton Wilder play of the same name.
Copland wrote for many Hollywood films, having been influenced by Bernard Herrman, and Eric Wolfgang Korngold among others.
He believed and said that movie music had to achieve a balance and should be ..."secondary in importance to the story being told on the screen" while notably adding to the dramatic and emotional content of the film-but without diverting the viewers attention from the action.
His scores include Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1939), The Red Pony (1949) and William Wyler's The Heiress also from 1949. (That was a terrific year for Copland with the release of two of his soundtracks and for which Heiress won the Academy Award for best score.)

But back to Currier and Ives.

I grew up in Wilmington, a small hamlet in Vermont, perhaps not much different then Grover's Corners in New Hampshire. It was a farming community with many dairy farms in the surrounding country side which dotted an emerald valley pierced by the Deerfield River.
Wilmington Vermont, looking southwest from Lilac Hill Road

I see the mother, in the place of her belonging, apron and hair tied back. A plain cotton dress. No makeup but only what the years have lovingly sculptured.Somehow, when I hear this music, I can smell the inside of a farm house. The stale air filled with clutches of wood smoke, dried paint from the kitchen, left over apple pies, many meals of salt pork, ham, beans and corn.

And there is a porch. Screened in, door banging early in the morning when the man and woman awake and the dog is let out. There is fog. Late summer. Early fall. Sound seemed more amplified back then.
Outside the farmhouse windows the stonewalls, marking the boundaries of the land, wander through meadows green, pastures dotted with bits of granite dropped carelessly by a passing glacier and orchards groaning with first fruits.

The old man coughs and hitches up his overalls but will not light his first pipe of the day until the cows have been milked watered and fed and he has time to step into the kitchen for a cup the blackest of black coffee
Randy Newman borrowed liberally from Copeland to slide his soundtrack into the movie The Natural.
But hey. If you're going to copy someone, copy from the best.

Copeland was born in 1900. His mother, Sarah Mittenthal Copland, sang and played the piano and arranged music lessons for her children. At the age of 11 he devised an opera scenario he called Zenatello which included seven bars of music, his first notated melody. He went to Paris in 1925 to study with Nadia Boulanger an extraordinarily gifted composer, conductor and teacher. Many Americans followed, including Quincy Jones, Daniel Barenboim, Philip Glass and Virgil Thompson among others who swam up in the rarefied atmosphere of genius.

He was a lover of jazz and much of his early work reflected this, such as Music for the Theater and his 1927
Piano Concerto.He would later in life write a Clarinet Concerto commissioned by The King of Swing himself, Benny Goodman. (Goodman also being a superb interpreter of classical music!)

But it was nationalistic leanings that caught the attention of a growing number who recognized his genius. He had a remarkable ability to capture the music of the people, their ballads, folk music and such and weave them into his compositions such as Rodeo, A Lincoln Portrait (which accompanied a written recitation.),  Fanfare for the Common Man (1940). It's interesting to note how this piece has bookmarked so many things. I remember watching a CBS TV show in the 1950's called Air Power, which the fanfare was featured as it's theme and later the Rolling Stones and Emerson Lake and Palmer tacked it to their performances. (Rolling Stones ?)

As he wrote with America in mind, he was becoming a populist (a phrase being battered around in politics these day ala' Trump) much like Vaughn Williams who drew on a well of English country songs or Smetana who did the same for Czechaslovakia.

But Copland went a little farther and used actual folk ballads, such as the Shaker hymn It's a Gift to be Simple from 1944's Appalachian Spring.
Movie poster from 1940

Listening to the music from Our Town, I can see the graveyard above the town. The kitchens, the church, the porches of this simple village. I can hear their ghosts and I smell the rich black earth and hear the rustle of the elms and birches, scattering their leaves upon the gray granite tomb stones and moss covered stone walls that wander through the green fields and, in vain, have tried to stop the encroaching woods.
 I feel so much, age, dust, bitter-sweet and time spinning away when I hear the horns and reeds washing over the strings. The sheer simplicity of Copland takes my breath away.

So, in essence, the music, it seems, can act as a memory booster, or, in my case it gave me a memory I never had. Prememorization. Hah! I just invented a word.

In Donald Grouts book, The History of Western Music (1960 W.W. Norton) he mentions that."....his (Copland's) material is subtly transfigured and its essence absorbed in a work that sincerely and simply expresses the pastoral spirit in authentically American terms." Of course the book doesn't mention that, as a gay man, (something that was toxic to mention back then) he allegedly had affairs with many prominent men of music, including Serge Koussevitsky and Leonard Bernstein.

But back to Our Town. The play and the movie followed the same structure, except for the ending. In the movie, (spoiler alert) one of the main characters, Emily, does not die.

Ah Hollywood. You gotta love it.

The play and movie have been thought of as "metatheatre". This word, coined by Lionel Able in 1963, has entered into common critical usage. Lionel Ables, a prominent Jewish playwright and critic was the first to use this phrase and it essentially means to  reflect comedy and tragedy, at the same time, where the audience can laugh at the protagonist while feeling empathetic simultaneously. Sort of like about every one of the last few years episodes of  M*A*S*H.

As for Wilder, (the guy who wrote Our Town - remember?) he wrote the play while in his 30s. In June 1937, he lived in the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, one of the many locations where he worked on it. During a visit to Z├╝rich in September 1937, it is believed he drafted the entire third act in one day after a long evening walk in the rain with a friend, author Samuel Morris Steward.

Of course this has nothing to do with Copland, Newman or Currier and that other guy. But, what the heck. It is information.

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