The Golden Age of Hollywood was also the golden age of film scores. While in the silent era, a lone pianist or a quartet may be at hand to lend incidental music to punctuate certain moods (dark! sad! suspenseful! romantic!), the talkies ushered in “optical sound”. It was reliable and mimicked the experience of real theatre – where sound was physically recorded onto the filmstrip as a waveform.
The traditional Hollywood score began with composer Max Steiner, whose bombastic tunes were reminiscent of his idol, Richard Wagner. He used what was a large orchestra at the time – 46 players – to score King Kong, the first true motion picture with a plot-drive score as the through-line. No more incidental moods. Steiner created a film template driven by leitmotifs, consistent musical melodies that became associated with a character or an idea (later revived by John Williams). This model would be utilized for the next two decades by similar composers: Dmitri Tiomkin, Alfred Newman, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and on.
Aaron Copland was not the average Hollywood film composer. Our Town was different in so many ways, but especially in its transcendental, serene melodies. Though many of the other Hollywood composers had European and theatrical backgrounds, Aaron Copland was known primarily for his plays and ballets, and his music did not fit into the strata of Wagnerian movie motifs. His suites evoked the American experience, often sweeping or bouncing across bar lines like across the Western plains.
Hoe-Down from Aaron Copland’s ballet Rodeo, which became the model for Classical Western scores.
Our Town is Thornton Wilder’s story of a small-town. It is not a grand adventure, an epic romance, or a sprawling saga. It’s the story of a boy and girl (played in the 1940 film by William Holden and Martha Scott), growing up in the quintessential American town alongside milkmen, churchgoers, and schoolchildren, and how life and death is experienced in a place where everyone knows one another, and everyone knows they will either witness the birth or death of everyone they know.
The transcendental qualities of Our Town were already written into Wilder’s stage play. The Stage Manager takes us through the lives and thoughts of the townsfolk, telling us exactly what befalls each of them (what could have befallen some of them), and we are helplessly left to watch fate unfold and accept it.
When Aaron Copland accepted the duties to compose the film adaptation of Our Town, it was the expectations to recapture those themes of small-town destiny. In this way, Copland was revolutionary in deviating from Max Steiner’s established scoring templates. For instance, Copland did not succumb to what was known as “Mickey Mousing”, a technique Steiner overused in which music syncs the action on-screen, a lá Disney and Looney Tunes shorts. Nor did Copland establish any recurring leitmotifs. Instead, he begins with an evocative piece entitled Grover’s Corner, and continues through with what he called “clear and clear sounds”. His score did not oscillate or measure the mood of the plot or characters, it serves instead as a foundation for the setting, a sense of security, almost as if it were the heartbeat of Grover’s Corner itself.
In watching the film, it may be somewhat difficult to find the transcendental qualities of the score. For though Aaron Copland was a theatrical composer used to suites and ballets, he was limited by the technology of filmmaking. The limitations of sound quality, the lack of clear stereophonic in many movie theaters, and the electric noise in analog sound-on-film made for flatter, monophonic blaring. Passable for Steiner-esque scores, but limited in what it can pick up from a score that demands as much silence and pianissimo as Copland’s score.
The differences become apparent when you compare the score as recorded in the film with Copland’s personally-arranged suite for symphonic halls.
Rather than Mickey Mousing, Our Town is inspired by the styles of Leonard Bernstein (for whom the score is dedicated) and French composer Erik Satie, whose score for René Clair’s seminole short film Entr’acte in 1924 evoked brief, evocative melodies that were flexible and aleatoric enough to find their own rhythms rather than following the skeleton of the plot beats.
Copland’s score for Our Town weaves and bobs along in the background, building into a crescendo as Martha Scott’s Emily Webb falls into illness and she returns to the Grover’s Corner of her childhood. It is only then that the music, the exact same music, morphs from evocative to stirring without a single change in harmony.
It goes to show how much sound recording and reproduction matters in the case of an art form that demands as much for the mood as film score composition. To tell a story, to evoke the emotions of those characters, a certain amount of subtlety must be involved in both the form and the technology.
Aaron Copland’s uniqueness in defining the American experience through music truly made him the Dean of American Composers. The elegance and the inevitability of motion harmony created what we today consider the music of Americana. The small towns, the sprawling plains, the riverbends, meadows, and mountains – his music is common and precise, and much like the insignificant town of Grover’s Corner, worthy of reverence.