Suite from Our Town

Printer Friendly VersionSend by email

            Aaron Copland is a man who is hard to pin down.  Clearly America’s most well-known and respected “classical” composer, he was the creator of some of the country’s most beloved compositions that brought the “American” style to the concert hall.  Yet, for all that, he was a musician with a remarkably broad range of personal interests and musical styles.  His deep intellect and discerning tastes probed and were influenced by about all of the important composers and approaches to composition of the twentieth century.  He spent time in his early maturity in France, where he immersed himself in the European musical avant-garde; he was interested in and was influenced by jazz; he maintained a life-long interest in the music of Latin America; he participated fully in the burgeoning interest on the part of the arts community in American folk elements and nationalism during the 1930s and 40s; and later in his life explored the dissonant musical idioms of the European avant-garde, yet again.  But, he was not an artistic chameleon, rather a man who saw vitality, authenticity, and artistic possibilities in most of what his probing mind and “big” ears encountered.

            During the Great Depression difficult economic conditions, as well as other political and social factors, led American artists to ally themselves with public intellectuals in a variety of sectors in celebrating and promulgating the American common experience.  It was perhaps the dominating artistic paradigm of the times, and even today remnants may be seen in such unexpected places as Post Office lobbies, where the WPA commissioned murals on populist themes.   Copland’s compositions from this time—the ballet, Billy the Kid (1939; Fanfare for the Common Man (1942); and A Lincoln Portrait (1942)—all are signature works of the man and the era.

            Like other “serious” composers of the late 1930s, Copland responded to the opportunities that lay in greater exposure by writing for Hollywood films.  However, unlike some, his approach lay not in lush neo-Romantic scores that provided musical accompaniment “tit for tat,” attempting to portray everything on the screen.  Rather, he conceived of a general mood appropriate to the dramatic content, and in a rather spare manner, blended it into the whole.   And it must be said, the reflective, universalist nature of much of his inherent musical style of the time was perfect for the 1940 film setting of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Our Town.

            Those who have seen the play, and there are many, know that it is a melancholy affair. It is about the ubiquity of everyday life, of small town folks, with predictable joys and tragedies, and the inevitable conclusion to our lives. It is the simple truth of the “most universal lament of them all: that we, our loved ones, everything living, dies.”  It is not a play of action, but one of reflection—no zippy tunes here, but an atmospheric musical underpinning to the quiet drama of every life, stripped of the quotidian diversions necessary for sanity.  Copland was nominated for an Academy Award for his score to the film, and justly so.  Its eloquence is a perfect evocation of the timeless cycle of death and rebirth of all living things.   It reflects the truth in the play of the Stage Manager’s response to Emily’s query if anyone truly understands the value of life while they live it:  "No. The saints and poets, maybe—they do some."

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2017 William E. Runyan