We have posted Schubert’s Moment Musicaux a few times in the past, usually musing over how quickly the days go by or how much time we spend working. We’re not certain the six works for piano were intended to inspire introspection, but we appreciate their potential. Today, we chose to sit back and think to a different work for solo piano. It is adapted by Aaron Copland from his score for the film Our Town.
Anyone involved in the theater program in high school is probably familiar with Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play, Our Town. It is probably being performed in a community auditorium somewhere in America this weekend — if you have attended the performance you certainly recall it is the play which does not use any props, and which from the beginning breaks through the fourth wall to have the stage manager interact directly with the audience as well as a character in the story.
Our Town follows the lives of people in a small community, Grover’s Corner, over a little more than a decade and uses its metatheatrical devices to explore metaphysical questions, mostly about mortality. The Pulitzer Prize winning play was adapted into a film in 1940.
There seems to be little interest in the film’s copyright, which has not been renewed since the sixties. You can watch it for free on Youtube here.
Many great composers of Copland’s generation were attracted to cinema, for a variety of reasons. Copland came to appreciate the paychecks (he was one of the highest paid film composers of the 40s), but he also appreciated the opportunity to work on films with American themes related to his own oeuvre, notably those derived from novelist John Steinbeck.
It’s said Stravinsky negotiated several times to compose for Hollywood producers, all unsuccessfully. His music, nonetheless, appears in a variety of movies dating back to Fantasia in 1940. His ballet, Le Sacre du Printempts (The Rite of Spring) is so magically theatrical to have been borrowed for dozens of movies. We recently posted about a scene in Star Wars which borrows from a passage in the famously surreal ballet.
Copland’s score for the film was his third project in Hollywood, and he hadn’t really settled into the successful formula he would find in later in the 40s, which balanced his personal style with the emotions of the characters in the story. From the beginning, his approach to film music was far more subtle than the average Hollywood movie.
Copland’s Our Town was nominated for a “Best Original Score” Oscar, losing to Pinocchio. Nominated several times, he finally won his only Academy Award for William Wyler’s The Heiress in 1949. He adapted Our Town into an orchestral suite, but it never found the success of his other similar adaptations, notably the score he composed for The Red Pony. He also wrote a piano adaptation of the suite, heard here as recorded by James Tocco in 1984, when Copland’s music was enjoying a resurgence of popularity in America.
The piano adaptations of Our Town accentuate the music’s roots in New England church music. Around the same time he was working on this film, Copland finished his Piano Sonata, a similar but less accessible piece, and began work on his Piano Fantasy, which is uniquely complex in his collection of work for the instrument. And in a reversal of his piano adaptation of the film suite, Copland expanded his 1930 Variations for Piano into Variations for Orchestra many years later. In all, these piano works are not as often performed or recorded, or as highly regarded, as his famous orchestral works.
We love these short piano themes, and always associate the piano adaptation of Our Town with the play’s introspective, philosophical questions. It is perfectly fit to Emily’s question, “Does anybody realize life while they live it … every, every minute?”