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CLASSICAL  December 2009

CLASSICAL December 2009

Subject:

Copland and The City

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 9 Dec 2009 17:14:10 -0800

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text/plain

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Aaron Copland
The City

Francis Guinan (narrator)
Post-Classical Ensemble/Angel Gil-Ordonez
Naxos 2.110231 DVD  TT: 131:44

Summary for the Busy Executive: Far from the madding crowd.

In 1939, Aaron Copland landed a gig to score a documentary to be shown
at the New York World's Fair.  He had long been interested in film music
for its own aesthetic sake and for the opportunity it afforded the modern
composer to connect with a large audience.  Also, George Antheil had
regularly sent him reports from California of all the money to be made
in the Hollywood studios.  Copland decided to create a musical "calling
card," which eventually got him the Hollywood work he sought.  Along
with Virgil Thomson, Copland created some of the finest and most
influential film scores the U.S. has produced.

The film, The City, directed by Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke and
with a script by architectural critic and city planner Lewis Mumford,
ranks, along with the work of Robert Flaherty and Pare Lorentz, among
the classics of the American documentary movement.  Essentially, it's a
sermon on the virtues of city planning.  The modern city is viewed as a
chaotic, dangerous, crime-infested place.  The alternative is the planned
community, exemplified by the New Deal's Greenbelt, Maryland, project
outside of Washington, D.C. -- a government enterprise that provided
affordable housing for government workers during the Depression.  The
DVD's contents consist of the film with a newly-recorded soundtrack, the
film with its original soundtrack, a documentary on Greenbelt, and a
conversation with filmmaker and historian George Stoney on the importance
of The City.

The City represents, among other things, the pre-war faith in science
and in the efficacy of large-scale planning.  The government undertook
the building of Greenbelt both as a way to create jobs during the
Depression and as a model for the private sector to emulate.  New,
rationally-designed communities would be located in the healthful
countryside, linked to the city by broad highways.  If it sounds familiar,
it is because unfortunately, after the war, the government got its wish.
Planned communities sprang up and continue to spring in the form of
suburban development, the epitome of the bland and the sterile -- something
that The City captures but doesn't notice.  Greenbelt seems a bit as if
it should house the Village of the Damned, with its Mondrian-like,
surprisingly plain Deco architecture and orderly inhabitants, including,
most distressingly, children.  In context, the earlier part of the film,
the city sequences, comes over as far more interesting and exciting.
The children seem, somehow, more real, finding play space on the sidewalks
and in the streets rather than on adult-designed playgrounds.  Among the
most delicious aspects of child's play is that it occurs away from the
supervision (and taint) of adults.  As a boy, I lived across the street
from a rather nice playground, flanked by an extensive woods.  We used
the playground mostly as a passage to the woods.  Despite Mumford's
script, the filmmakers and certainly Copland draw more inspiration from
city life rather than from Alphaville.  To be fair, I should point out
that the Greenbelt kids, now seventy years older, seem to have loved the
place.

Copland's music is wonderful, long considered a peak of film scoring.
He did reuse some of the sequences, notably "New England Countryside"
and "Sunday Traffic," in his Music for the Movies.  These undoubtedly
count as the most familiar, but the entire score is worthy of a hearing.
But the real test of a film score lies in its interaction with the screen
image.  Almost from the beginning, Copland shows himself a master.  An
idle mill-wheel suddenly becomes alive with river current, and the music
instantly brightens in a spray of notes.  In the most famous sequence
(one that film students generally study), "Sunday Traffic," Copland works
against the image to hilarious, ironic effect.  A jaunty march accompanies
roadway gridlock.  I remember watching either Leonard Bernstein or Michael
Tilson Thomas perform this bit to the film for one of their TV specials.
Cinematically and musically, this is the documentary's highpoint.

Naxos has also provided new performances for Thomson's scores to Lorentz's
Plow That Broke the Plains and Flaherty's The River and synchronized
them to the films.  To me, it's a great idea.  I wonder why nobody thought
to do it earlier.  After all, you also get the film with its original
soundtrack, so it's not as if you really lose anything, except crappier
sound and the original narrator.  The great tragedian Morris Carnovsky
speaks the "voice of God" narration of The City.  Francis Guinan replaces
him.  Frankly, I think Guinan does the more nuanced, more effective job.
On the other hand, I'm not sure I'd want to see his Shylock or Lear.

The very good performance fits the images well.  No disrespect to Max
Goberman's original, rather gritty performance, but seeing the film with
its now-stereo soundtrack reminds me of seeing a house with a fresh coat
of paint.  I learned a lot from the Stoney interview (Joseph Horowitz
is the interloculator) about film history and about certain technical
features of Thirties documentaries.  Most important, I heard all of
Copland's contribution to this project for the first time.  Someone
should make this wonderful score into a concert suite.

Steve Schwartz

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