May 2001

Celluloid Copland
Telarc CD 80583
Released: 2001

by John Crossett

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

[Reviewed on CD]When you hear the name of composer Aaron Copland, what do you think of? His Fanfare For The Common Man, Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, Third Symphony, Billy the Kid? Of course you do, and so do I. Those are some of his most famous works, justly loved and performed the world over. There is another side to Aaron Copland, however, that many of us may have never heard, a side that offers a new perspective on Copland’s talent. And that's his body of work composed for films.

Yep, you heard me right. Aaron Copland did Hollywood. Well, sort of, anyway. Copland was never one to restrict himself -- if he was commissioned (or just plain asked) to write music for someone or some event, he usually did. Witness Appalachian Spring (written in 1943-44), for a ballet by Martha Graham. Or take Fanfare for the Common Man (written in 1942), composed at the request of conductor Eugene Gossens of the Cincinnati Symphony, who commissioned it as one of a group of 18 fanfares. So when asked to write film scores, Copland simply wrote music the way he always did -- meaning he poured his heart and soul into these scores. Most of these titles will be unfamiliar, yet each of the four film scores, From Sorcery To Science (1939), The City (1939), The Cummington Story (1945) and The North Star (1943), offer additional insights into Copland the composer.

From the beginning of Celluloid Copland, we hear vintage Copland music. These works resound with whispers (and sometimes outright statements) from his other, more famous, scores. I hear references here to many of the above-mentioned compositions, and especially to Appalachian Spring. This is not too surprising, considering that much of the music contained within Celluloid Copland was composed around the same time as many of those more famous works.

This music screams "Americana" -- which is another way of saying it screams "Copland." It could have been written by no one else. I find Copland’s use of brass uncanny. He knew just when to add a fanfare, when to quicken the tempo, when to employ strings to calm it back down. There is a yearning quality to Copland’s music, a sense of wanting to know what’s beyond the next hill. There is also that brash, powerful, "get out of my way, I’m coming through" side of America that shines through here. These qualities pervade the American psyche, and Copland recognized them and expressed them in his music inimitably.

The City was a documentary that illustrated how social engineering could cure the problems of industrial society in utopian cities. (Copland, after all, was a Socialist.) From Sorcery To Science was essentially an infomercial for the pharmaceutical companies, shown at the 1939 World's Fair. The North Star was a WW II drama about the Nazi occupation of an Eastern Russian city. The Cummington Story was commissioned by the Office Of War Information to depict the resettlement of European refugees in a rural Massachusetts town. This is a diverse group of films, yet Copland managed to write scores for all of them that are musically distinct yet still possess his sonic signature.

Sonically, we have here yet another sterling effort from Telarc. The dynamic range is impressive, from soft and gentle to brash and powerful. There is good bite to both the brass and strings. The bass is firm and deep, setting a solid foundation for the music. The soundstage is layered, in both width and depth. The only thing holding this disc back from a better sonic rating is that it’s a 20-bit PCM recording, as opposed to Telarc’s now customary DSD. Still and all, it’s a worthy effort, and one that you will enjoy listening to again and again.

I’m an Aaron Copland fan and have been ever since I first heard Fanfare for the Common Man many, many years ago. Yet I had never heard any of this music before I received this disc for review. Many thanks go both to Telarc, for recording it, and to Jonathan Sheffer and the Eos Orchestra (a group founded by Shaeffer with the express purpose of bringing neglected works such as these to light) for this wonderfully musical and superb-sounding disc.