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Films With a Classical Touch

Copland Centenary Festival explores the composer's work for the movie industry.


Aaron Copland stands near if not at the top of most lists of great American composers. Just about everyone has heard his "Fanfare for the Common Man," "El Salon Mexico," "Appalachian Spring" and "Billy the Kid."

But some important Copland music is more obscure--his film scores. Pacific Symphony will be honoring this music as part of its Copland Centenary Festival, Sunday through Nov. 19.

"His film music is a topic that's neglected," festival consultant Joseph Horowitz said in a recent phone interview from New York. "But Copland is the most important film composer among all the important American composers.

"His film scores were historic. They changed the sound of Hollywood. As David Raksin says in our program book, Copland validated an approach different from Max Steiner and Erich Korngold. He made it possible for composers to write in a different idiom--one that was more American and less European."

Copland scored a total of eight films, starting with the educational documentary "The City" in 1939.

His music for that movie so caught Hollywood's attention that studios commissioned him to write scores for "Of Mice and Men" (1939), after John Steinbeck's novella, and "Our Town" (1940), after Thornton Wilder's play. Copland received Oscar nominations for both films and won an Academy Award for his seventh film, William Wyler's "The Heiress" (1949).

(Screenings of "The City," "Of Mice and Men" and "The Heiress" are part of the festival, as is Spike Lee and Malik Hassan Sayeed's 1998 film, "He Got Game," which uses Copland music posthumously.)

"Hollywood was ready for him to write as many movies as he wanted," said David Schiff, a composer, critic and professor of music at Reed College in Portland, Ore.

"But he stopped after 'The Heiress.' He was quite upset that the score was tampered with after he left town. That was kind of the last straw and he did not deal with that again.

"He had, in a sense, to be in control of films he worked on. And he only wanted to work on films that were politically and psychologically sympathetic to him. He was not a Hollywood composer, to be part of the system and write on demand."

What fascinated Copland, Schiff said, was the way music "conveyed psychological information that nothing else in the movie was capable of doing. There's the famous incident in which he had to rewrite the music for a scene in 'The Heiress' because it was getting laughs, which it wasn't supposed to do.

"He saved the movie by changing the music. He made it very dark and menacing. No ["Rodeo"] hoedown at all at that point."

Interestingly, Copland's work on film predates his popular ballet scores.

"I think that working in film really helped him to simplify his style and gave him a sense of how you write for a general audience," Schiff said. "He really moved back and forth between film and ballet, but in a sense film came first."

Schiff and Horowitz will be joining Hollywood composer David Raksin and Pacific Symphony music director Carl St.Clair to elaborate on these thoughts in a panel discussion Sunday before that evening's screening of "The Heiress."

Immediately after leaving Hollywood and "The Heiress," Copland went on to write the opera "The Tender Land" and the "Poems of Emily Dickinson" song cycle.

"That's a kind of trilogy of female protagonists, of women who are stifled and repressed," Schiff said. "And again the film work came first. Copland went through this very interesting involvement with feminine psychology, and it begins with 'The Heiress,' which is a terrifying movie."

In fact, Schiff hears disquieting elements in Copland's music generally.

"There are qualities in Copland which people don't talk about too much," he said. "There's a scary, inexorable quality to it. It gets under your skin.

Schiff also said that many listeners don't realize how difficult his music is to play, especially for string players. "The music is very idiomatically written and not defective in any way, but it's this rhythmic nervousness which is there all the time . . .

"It's very tricky. Even the Short Symphony and 'El Salon Mexico' are very hard to play. That's a barrier to some of the music being performed, I think. People don't realize that."

But, Schiff said, the composer's biggest impact was to bring serious composition into the mainstream. "When you think how marginal American classical composition is to American culture in general, to have triumphed in any way is such an amazing achievement, to have broken through that and written music that many people feel comfortable with and not be on the fringe, you've got to hand that to him.

"His music has given us hope that it's possible to write American music which does reach people. How many composers are there who have done that? Only a handful."


Chris Pasles can be reached at (714) 966-5602 or by e-mail at


Pacific Symphony's Copland Centenary Festival runs Sunday through Nov. 19 at various venues. The opening program will center on a screening of William Wyler's 1949 film, "The Heiress" at the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center, 100 Academy, Irvine. 5:30 p.m. $75 (includes dinner and screening). For a full schedule of events, call (714) 755-5799.

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