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Composed: 1939
Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: flute (= piccolo), oboe (= English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bell, suspended cymbal), piano, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

Copland, once described as exuding “a kind of Old Testament grandeur,” is a secure part of American cultural mythology, his music conveying an almost prophetic majesty and confidence in keeping with that status. But it’s important to recall that Copland developed the “American voice” for which he is best known as a deliberately pursued populist style. His urgent need to communicate with a wide audience instead of speaking only to a rarefied elite naturally directed his interest toward the possibilities of film.

Copland’s rapport with the film industry – above all his ability to get around the dominant paradigms constricting composers – is a fascinating part of his career. His initial efforts to make his entrée into Hollywood in fact went nowhere until he was able to add a movie score to his resume, which he accomplished by composing for the independent film The City. The idea originated with Pare Lorentz, the maverick documentary filmmaker whose Steinbeckian essays with music by Virgil Thomson (The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River) have recently been reissued on DVD to great acclaim.

Lorentz drew together an extraordinary team, including directors Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke and social critic Lewis Mumford, with funding (unironically supplied) from the Carnegie Corporation. The $50,000-budget, half-hour social documentary they produced was unveiled at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the overall theme of which was “The World of Tomorrow.” The film presents itself as “a lively plea for town planning and housing” in its depiction of the “plight of the urban citizen” toward the end of the Depression. Aside from the cultural context in which its propaganda – both explicit and implicit – operates, The City can’t help but intrigue with its premonitions of our own belated quest for sustainable living and “green cities.”

The film follows a basic tripartite structure. First we see a nostalgic but vanished American Eden in the form of an old New England town and its self-reliant community. The most powerful and lengthiest part of the film descends into the Satanic mills of the industrial age, with images that range from Dickensian squalor to poisonous slag heaps. The contemporary urban plight is also illustrated by episodes of mechanized, tachycardia-inducing modern life – and the futile attempts to escape it in autos that jam the roads (a segment later excerpted as “Sunday Traffic”). A utopian – but practicable – alternative occupies the final section, with its focus on the “new city” which is planned rationally and humanistically and not according to the dictates of profit.

Copland’s score forms an active part of The City’s argument. Rather than provide unobtrusive atmospheric background, it is tightly integrated with the sequence of imagery and Lewis Mumford’s rhetorically resounding commentary. Copland takes full advantage of stretches where his music is given prominence. Bold, assertive, fanfare-like intervals striding through the opening credits will echo in the closing moments to link the paradise lost with the promise of the new city. Initial gravitas gives way to a jaunty playfulness, reassuring cadences, and a nostalgic melody for the New England idyll.

But the most haunting music is reserved for the sequences of urban hellishness, where Copland thins the orchestra to lonely, shadowy solo lines. There are also some remarkable moments of a kind of proto-minimalism as brief fragments are spliced together in a satirical look at early fast-food culture. (Could Godfrey Reggio have taken a hint here for his trilogy of film collaborations with Philip Glass?) The new city evokes a noble simplicity, with a lucid, uncluttered motif appropriately shared by different voices in the ensemble. Copland graphically illustrates the choice laid out at the end with an abrupt transformation of this motif before bright harmonies conclude the score on a note of hope.

Thomas May writes and lectures about music and the arts.