CD Review: Of Mice and Men/Our Town

Aaron Copland only wrote a handful of film scores so the release of any new film music from this legendary composer is just cause of celebration. And the new Naxos premiere recording of Copland’s complete scores for OF MICE AND MEN (1939) and OUR TOWN (1940) is, dare I say, a landmark event in film music.

Copland was invited to Hollywood following the success of his score for the THE CITY, a documentary for the 1939 World’s Fair. In short order, Copland scored these two film adaptations based on works by two giants of American letters. Both films were prestigious productions, racking up numerous Oscar nominations including nods for Best Picture for both films.

In my interview with music curator Mark Leneker yesterday, he stated how the complete scores were just sitting in the Library of Congress and must have fallen under the radar to get produced. Through his tireless efforts over a decade, we now have reason to celebrate that this music has finally seen the light of day. Written within months of each other, the two scores explore different facets of Copland’s populist musical language and yet serve as excellent reminders of Copland’s unique harmonic landscape.

John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella, OF MICE AND MEN, follows the tragic Depression-era story of George (Burgess Meredith) and slow-witted Lennie (Lon Chaney, Jr.), two displaced migrant ranch workers in California. The harsh realities of the story can be heard in the bold brass statements over the main titles. The music bears the same Americana stamp as many of Copland’s popular concert works, like Billy the Kid, written the same year, and the later Appalachian Spring. And yet he delves deep into dissonance to convey the brutal and tragic elements of the story.

Of Mice and Men & Our Town film scores
“Death of Mae” from OF MICE AND MEN
“Scene in the Cemetery” from OUR TOWN

Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play OUR TOWN is a true American classic, and it’s a shame that the 1940 film isn’t accorded the same status. Wilder’s play is usually performed with minimal sets and props, while the film obviously plays it a bit more realistically. The film has some lovely elements to it, but they are hidden behind the awful quality of surviving prints of the film, which has now lapsed into the public domain.

In 1947, the Soviet Union banned Our Town and another Wilder play, The Skin of Our Teeth, for making family life seem “too attractive.” And Copland contributed a score of exceeding attractiveness to the film version.

Like OF MICE AND MEN, the score is based on a series of folk-like themes. A simple 5-note arpeggiated motif evokes the rusticity and quiet qualities of small-town life in the fictional Grover’s Corners. There is a sweet love theme for Emily (Martha Scott) and George (William Holden) and “music of the stars” that can be heard in numerous cues throughout the score, including the main titles and the famous cemetery scene.

You’ll hear some interesting instruments in the scores, instruments that you may not associate with Copland’s music. A Jew’s harp gives a folksy twang to OF MICE AND MEN and the saxophone sashays and sways with Betty Field’s flirting Mae. During “Emily’s Dream” in OUR TOWN, listen for the eerie sound of a musical saw that gives a theremin-like, otherworldly sound to the cue.

Copland extracted two OF MICE AND MEN cues–“Threshing Machines” and “Barley Wagons”–for the 5-movement concert suite, Music from Movies, which also contains a cue from OUR TOWN. Copland further arranged the OUR TOWN score into an 8-minute concert work for orchestra.

Copland garnered a total of four Academy Award nominations for the two scores, one for each film in the categories of Best Original Score and Best Scoring. Only Franz Waxman was so honored with his 1938 score for THE YOUNG IN HEART.

This music has been around for 70 years and if you’re a Copland fan, you may think you’re already familiar with the scores. But this recording is a revelation and an important release in film music reconstruction. Andrew Mogrelia leads a subtle and nuanced performance from the Czech-based Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic Orchestra.

This is an important release for the Copland canon as well as film music. Naxos should be applauded once again for its efforts to rescue film music from the sands of time. Bravo!

  1. Jim t,,this is great news I’ve had the Columbia Lp’s for years. Did Mark say if the complete score for The Red Pony is also in the works?

    1. Hi Paul. Yes, he said RED PONY and THE HEIRESS were the two next logical choices to do and he is pursuing them. I don’t know that they’re in the works yet. Keep your fingers crossed!

  2. FYI, there was a Varese Sarabande LP of the complete score from The Red Pony, but for reasons unknown to me this has never been reissued.

    1. Hi James, thanks for commenting. I thought I remember seeing that LP oh so long ago. When I checked on, apparently that was the original soundtrack conducted by Copland too! Would love to see that reissued. Perhaps the new recording is even more complete. I’ve never seen the movie so I’m not sure if what Varese issued was the complete soundtrack. And the Andre Previn/St. Louis Symphony re-recording appears to be the concert suite. Do you have any more info on this? Would love to know more.

      1. Hi Jim – I borrowed the album from a friend and made a tape which runs about thirty minutes. I wish Naxos would issue THE CITY soundtrack as well. And does anyone know what happened to the complete sCore to THE CUMMINGTON STORY? Sheffer only recorded ten minutes worth.

        1. Makes sense that the LP is roughly 30 minutes. I wonder how long the actual score is.

          I was hoping Naxos would issue THE CITY soundtrack as well. I doubt it’ll happen though. I have no idea what happened to THE CUMMINGTON STORY.

  3. Cunningham Story is available on the Telarc label on an album called Celluloid Copland (CD 80583). I picked mine up from Berkshire on a closeout.

    What has now happened to the download of Our Town? Will there be a release in the US from Naxos? Is the Copland estate involved?

    1. Hi Thomas. I also have the Celluloid Copland disc. A good overview of some lesser known works. I don’t know what happened to the download. I’ve sent a message to Classics Online through their Twitter account. There will be a physical CD release reportedly in August. Not 100% sure about the date though.

  4. I have been informed by reliable sources in the music publishing business that the Naxos Recording has been delayed because of litigation from the Copland Estate and the music publishers. The producer, Mr Leneker, proceeded without securing the proper authorisations. I don’t believe that given his lack of knowledge about copyright he will be involved in any future projects of the kind.

  5. But the shame is that recording is not issued on a physical media, such as cd’s, Naxos informed me that there are legal problems, but I find this very strange and I am not convinced at all. Of course, it is impossible to find anything on the label’s website, therefore, if this performance was not uploaded on You Tube, I have never known these fine compositions. I hope, sooner or later, in a regular, official issue.

  6. I was lucky to get this after hearing the Our Town post on YouTube. The post appears to have been pulled (copyright?) but the CD doesn’t seem to be available for sale.

    Doesn’t make sense. This music is as sublime and meaningful as any out there.

    1. There never was a CD, just digital download. And it was pulled months after it was released because of a copyright issue with the Copland Estate. So if you have a digital copy, hang onto it. It may be the only complete recording we hear of these two great scores for a long time.

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