First published in Film Score Monthly, May/June 2005
Aaron Copland arrived in Hollywood in 1938, and in little more than a decade he’d had enough. With his scores to Of Mice and Men (1939) and Our Town (1940), he created a new musical language in film. But when his score to The Heiress (1949) was chopped to bits, poorly dubbed, and rescored without his approval, Copland left for good, with his pride, popularity, and reputation intact.
During the late ’30s and early ’40s, Copland traded in the harsh dissonances and jagged rhythms of his earlier works and hit upon a uniquely “American” musical voice, one that conjures the open plains and pioneer spirit. Incorporating folk songs and what are now considered distinctly American harmonies, Copland’s music became more accessible to the general public than ever before. The decade also produced some of his most popular works, earning him the title, “Dean of American Music.”
His trio of ballets, beginning with Billy the Kid (1938) and Rodeo (1942), culminated in 1944 with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Appalachian Spring. The orchestral suites are now performed more than the ballets themselves, a sign of the music’s staying power. The decade also brought forth standards in the concert repertoire such as Lincoln Portrait and Fanfare for the Common Man (both 1942), and the monumental Third Symphony (1947).
Because concert work was not a particularly high-paying gig, Copland turned to film music to supplement his income. Though his film score output is relatively small compared to most film composers, each score is a gem; and together they constitute a singular musical voice and a unique, spare style of film scoring that bucks the 1940s’ trends of full orchestra and wall-to-wall music. He received two Oscar nominations each for Of Mice and Men and Our Town, and another nomination for 1943’s controversial The North Star. However, it is Copland’s score for The Heiress that is the jewel in his crown.
“An entirely mediocre and defenseless creature with not a shred of poise…”
The story of a painfully shy, rich spinster who falls in love with a fortune hunter much to the horror and dismay of her unloving father began life as an 1881 novella, Washington Square, by Henry James. It was later adapted for the stage as The Heiress in 1947 by Ruth and Augustus Goetz.
The original Broadway production starred Wendy Hiller in the title role and Basil Rathbone as her father, Dr. Sloper. A mid-’70s revival starred Jane Alexander and Richard Kiley, and a celebrated, Tony Award-winning revival in 1995 starred Cherry Jones, Philip Bosco and Frances Sternhagen as Aunt Penniman. A 1996 film version, Washington Square, directed by Agnieszka Holland, starred Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, Maggie Smith, and Ben Chaplin, and sticks closer to the plot of James’ book. But it is the 1949 film (adapted by the Goetz’s from their stage version and “suggested by” James’ book) that is the yardstick by which all future film and stage productions have been judged.
The Heiress was the first picture by director William Wyler following his multiple Oscar-winning The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946. Wyler’s sensitive direction, a meticulous production (including Oscar-winning sets and costumes), and the pitch-perfect casting of Olivia de Havilland as Catherine, Ralph Richardson, Montgomery Clift, and Miriam Hopkins, all but guaranteed success. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Richardson), and Black-and-White Cinematography, winning four, including Best Actress (de Havilland) and Copland’s celebrated score.
“He enlarged his capacities.”
The Heiress was not the first time that Wyler had approached Copland to score a picture of his. Though he had turned down the director’s request to compose the music for The Best Years of Our Lives (for which Hugo Friedhofer won a well-deserved Oscar himself), Wyler insisted on offering the Heiress job to Copland over the objections of Paramount production chief Y. Frank Freeman, who was concerned about the composer’s earlier involvement with the pro-Soviet The North Star, which had recently become the target of congressional investigations. Because of his burgeoning concert success in the ’40s, Copland could now command—and was paid—an impressive $15,000 for the score.
But Copland faced new challenges with the film. The story is a psychological drawing-room drama with little outside action that usually allows a composer free reign. Also, Wyler relied on intense close-ups of his actors making the drama even more intimate. As Copland stated in his autobiography, “Wyler had relied on the camera and the music to take over in several segments where dialogue was abandoned altogether. During those silent close-ups, I found that the use of a ground or passacaglia bass could generate a feeling of continuity and inevitability, as well as provide the necessary dissonance when combined with other music.”
Another challenge came from the setting of mid-19th-century Washington Square itself. This was not the small towns and open fields and plains of Copland’s earlier films. Copland took his cue from the “special atmosphere inherent in the James original,” one that “would produce a music of a certain discretion and refinement in the expression of sentiments.” To achieve this Copland employed a smaller-than-average orchestra and emphasized the violins, flutes, clarinets, and harp. In one scene, Copland even orchestrates for an unusual combination of three bass clarinets to illuminate Dr. Sloper’s (Richardson) illness, as he had done for sickness in The Red Pony earlier that year.
Techniques new to Copland on the picture were his first-time use of the click track, a common practice in film scoring for over a decade, which was used mainly for the dances at the garden party. He also experimented with a technique known as “sweetening,” in which a smooth “sheen” can be obtained by dubbing a string orchestra over a full orchestra. This can be heard at the very end of the garden party, where Copland pits an ominous “sweetener,” depicting Morris’ (Clift) less-than-honorable intentions, against the concluding measures of a waltz. This was also used for the end of the film when the dramatic situation called for an intense sound.
For the first time in his film work, Copland used the Wagnerian leitmotif style to represent the primary characters and situations. However, Copland’s leitmotifs do not always appear as aural signposts in the typical Hollywood tradition (à la Max Steiner) but occur more as themes might in a Copland symphonic work.
The score’s main themes are separate and recognizable, yet often interrelated. The love theme for Catherine and Morris is a beautiful, yearning melody, yet without sentimentality, betraying Morris’ lack of love. The music associated with the Sloper residence is a charming sequence of chromatic triads in three-quarter time heard as we get our first glimpse of Washington Square. Irwin A. Bazelon states that this music features “Copland at his very best. The music is quiet, tranquil, and extremely pastoral in nature. It is a musical mood in which the composer is completely at ease.” Dr. Sloper’s theme is dark and stately, usually heard in the low strings or muted brass.
Catherine’s theme is a simple, innocent four-note figure that rises through the triad and drops the interval of an eleventh. The motif is so short that we are almost unaware of how seamlessly Copland integrates it into the score. It is as if each note in the triad is a vote of confidence followed by the seventh that plummets and shatters that confidence. A memorable instance of this occurs at the beginning of the film as Catherine shows off her “cherry red” party dress to her father. The color was chosen because her mother, whom her father idealizes “beyond all human recognition,” used to wear it in her hair ribbons. As Dr. Sloper replies, “But, Catherine, your mother was fair…she dominated the color,” Copland uses the bottom seventh as a stinger chord. (Copland’s judicious use of stinger chords is particularly effective in the film.)
A descending two-note stepwise figure is prominent throughout the score and is used as a sign of trouble, transferring from the doctor to Catherine as she finally standing up to him (“So you’ve finally found your tongue”). The figure is always descending until the final moments of the score when the second note rises instead of falls, as Catherine ascends the stairs in triumph.
In addition to his original music, Copland researched pieces that were current in New York in 1850 for the dances at the garden party. These included Gossec’s Gavotte, Ketterer’s Queen of the Flowers, and several dances of unknown authorship, most of which were arranged by Paramount staff composer, Nathan Van Cleave. To this Copland added an original mazurka and waltz in period style. Most of the dances skip lightly except for the stately Gavotte (arranged by Copland), accompanying Catherine’s first tentative steps on the dance floor with Morris. The square rhythms of the dance match Catherine’s self-conscious diction as she engages in “small talk.” The smoothness of Copland’s mazurka that follows subtly tells the audience that in one dance Catherine is already beginning to fall in love.
Wyler insisted that Copland incorporate the melody from “Plaisir d’Amour,” a mid-18th Century French ballade with music by Giovani Martini and lyrics by Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian. In later years, the melody was adapted by George David Weiss, Hugo Peretti, and Luigi Creatore for the Elvis Presley hit, “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You,” and a reggae remake of the Presley song by the British pop band UB40 went to number one on the charts for seven weeks in 1993.
Copland placed the “Plaisir” melody in only three cues in the score: immediately after Morris plays the song on the piano; after he proposes to Catherine and takes his leave; and as Morris sees Catherine off on her trip to Europe. Each cue grows in intensity. The first statement of the melody is very slow and tentative in the low violins, violas and cellos; the second in the high strings as if in a dream; and the third is full of confidence, employing the full orchestra, as if nothing could stop Catherine and Morris’ love. Without Copland’s knowledge, “Plaisir” was inserted in the main titles at the studio’s instigation. (More on that later.) The studio also decided to replace Copland’s love music with another statement of “Plaisir” for the scene in which Morris and Catherine are reunited. It is unlikely that Copland sanctioned this change either.
One change that Copland did make was the devastating scene following Morris’ desertion. As Catherine sits there in silence growing more and more frantic, preview audiences laughed and Wyler begged Copland to replace his “very romantic kind of music.” Copland dug in his “trunk” and found an unused variation originally composed for the Piano Variations (1929) to employ in the scene. The cue features slow-paced, sustained string tones with an arching melody line, accompanied by dark chords as the harp plucks the minutes ticking by. The music intensifies to a fever pitch as Catherine, realizing she has been deserted, cries out in animal pain, “Morris, Morris, Morris!” As Copland said, “Clearly nothing could be considered funny with that dissonant, rather unpleasant-sounding music going on!”
“You have cheated me.”
With such a detailed production, it is a shame that the one aspect that suffered on the film was Copland’s music. Following the final recording session, Wyler decided to replace Copland’s love music in the main titles with a statement of “Plaisir” in the fourth bar (in what Fred Karlin calls a “pedestrian” arrangement by Van Cleave) and then returns to Copland’s original music as his name appears on the title card, a full minute later. Copland had not authorized the change and was incensed. “All I could do was to issue a statement to the press disclaiming responsibility for that part of the score. It was a disagreeable incident that marred an otherwise satisfying collaboration.” Because the film was already being shown in theaters, Copland’s name could not be removed.
Reaction to the replacement was not positive. Hugo Friedhofer was present on the sound stage as the main title was being rerecorded. Wyler asked, “What do you think of the main title, this substitution?” Friedhofer replied, “Well, Willy, it’s none of my business, but I think that Aaron’s main title was probably more apt and more fitting, and I’m sorry you did it, but that’s your business.” Lawrence Morton stated that “I have heard privately a recording of the title music that Copland composed… It is not pretty, perhaps, as its substitute, but it is certainly much more relevant to the film that Wyler produced.” Composer Ingolf Dahl stated after having seen the film, “The main title, of which I was forewarned, was a scandal.” André Previn likened the return of the Copland music on the heels of “Plaisir” to “suddenly finding a diamond in a can of Heinz beans.” Whatever one thinks of the “Plaisir” melody (and it is pretty), the effect is jarring to say the least.
To add insult to injury, Wyler also replaced Copland’s music with another Van Cleave arrangement of “Plaisir” during Catherine and Morris’ climactic reunion in the rain. Once again, the change is noticeable and the syrupy arrangement is completely at odds with the rest of the score, jolting the listener out of Copland’s precisely structured harmonies.
Still, the score met with positive reviews and is considered a high water mark in the scores of that period. According to Films In Review, Copland provided a “literate” score and “the music…is conceived with taste and executed with style.” Dahl expressed “how deeply impressed” he was with The Heiress music. Howard Pollack states that “the score turned out to be, if one of his shorter Hollywood scores, his most complex and subtle one, the one that most resembled his serious concert work.” A copy of the original tracks resides in the Fine Arts Library at the University of Texas.
At Oscar time, only three nominees, instead of the usual five, were deemed worthy for Best Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture—Copland, Max Steiner (Beyond the Forest), and Dimtri Tiomkin (Champion). Steiner showed his usual flair for the Bette Davis hack melodrama (in which she utters the immortal line, “What a dump!”) but Tiomkin’s nomination is undeserving, the popularity of the opening march notwithstanding. Copland’s score for The Red Pony should have been nominated but it was probably felt that the composer’s two scores would cancel each other out.
Copland stated, “When I won, I was told that it was the only instance of a score winning an Oscar after having been shorn of its overture, the part of a score that usually makes the strongest impact.” Dahl gushed, “At last Oscar has found a worthy home—congratulations! We are terribly happy about the fact that sometimes (all too rarely) Hollywood shows good sense. [His wife] Etta and I were fully determined to walk down Hollywood Boulevard with picket signs in case Tiomkin had received the award!” Even with this vote of confidence from the film community, Copland never bothered to collect his award.
“I will never be in this house again.”
The Heiress was to be Copland’s final Hollywood film and one cannot help but blame the butchering of his score as the main motive. However, producers may have been reluctant to hire him because of his outspoken criticism of studio policies, or because of his problems with McCarthy, or because of his now even higher fee of $25,000 per film. Whatever the reason(s), Copland could now be choosier since he no longer had to score films for financial reasons.
Wyler’s blasphemy did not stop him from offering Carrie (1952), Friendly Persuasion (1956), and The Big Country (1958) to Copland. The only project in the ’50s that intrigued the composer was Fred Zinnemann’s film of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1958). “The story lends itself so wonderfully to musical treatment,” he wrote Zinnemann, “or so it seems to me, that I can’t resist the temptation of telling you how much I would enjoy working on such a film, especially with you at the directorial helm.” For whatever reason, Zinnemann offered the job to Dimitri Tiomkin who went on to win his fourth Oscar. Copland only scored one more film: the low-budget indie Something Wild in 1961.
Copland declined to arrange the music to The Heiress into a suite, as he had with Of Mice and Men, Our Town and The Red Pony, feeling that the music was so wedded to the images onscreen that it could not stand alone as a concert work. In 1990, Arnold Freed arranged seven sections of the score into a single, continuous, eight-minute piece, recorded by Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony. It is a welcome introduction to the music for those who are unfamiliar with the score, however the work does not quite do justice to Copland. This could be a result of Freed’s unimaginative placement of the cues or the orchestra’s lackluster performance (so far the only recording of the suite). What Freed’s arrangement does do is restore Copland’s original main title music at the beginning, thereby giving listeners a chance to hear what might have—and should have—been.
Unlike Catherine, no one could ever accuse Copland of not having “a very true ear.” The Heiress stands as a supreme accomplishment in Copland’s oeuvre and in the world of film music.