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Music for Movies

“New England Countryside”

“Barley Wagons”

“Sunday Traffic”

“Grovers Corners”

“Threshing Machines”

For composers, the allure of writing music for Hollywood films is great: huge audiences can be reached with a film score, and the fee from a single film can easily surpass several years of commissions and performance fees. (A case in point: Aaron Copland received a commission fee of $500 for Appalachian Spring. Hollywood filmmakers would have spent more than that on renting props for a six-second scene.) As many composers of “serious” music for the concert hall soon discover, however, the process of composing for the movies is very different.

Film composers work on ridiculously tight schedules, often having only a week or two to create massive amounts of music. And music is almost always subordinate to visuals, to dialogue, and to sound effects. Scenes are cut, with compositions pieced together to fit the new scenes; directors or producers might even throw out entire scores at the last minute. Composers are at their mercy.
Nevertheless, Aaron Copland (1900-1990) mastered the medium quickly, noting while writing his first score, for the 44-minute documentary film The City: “I [have] learned the most basic rule: a film is not a concert; the music is meant to help the picture.” The City made a splash at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and became a classic of its genre. It also opened the door for Copland to score other films. His next score for Of Mice and Men, an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic story, received a 1939 Academy Award nomination for best score, as did his scores for the film version of Thorton Wilder’s Our Town the very next year, and The North Star in 1943. Copland won an Academy Award for The Heiress in 1949; Copland wrote one more film score, Something Wild, in 1961.

For the 1942 concert suite Music for Movies, Copland took selections from his first three scores which he believed would be successful in concert – sans film. It begins with the moody and spare “New England Countryside,” the first scene from The City. Next is the bucolic “Barley Wagons” from Of Mice and Men. The middle work in the suite is “Sunday Traffic,” from The City, a satirical look at the droves of people who flee the urban jungle on any given Sunday afternoon. “Grovers Corners,” from Our Town, is moody and gestural, bringing to mind the expanse of space just beyond the confines of town. The suite closes energetically and buoyantly, with “Threshing Machines,” from Of Mice and Men.
–Notes by Dave Kopplin