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April 2006 Film Music Editorial

Film Music Editor: Michael McLennan
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster: Len Mullenger

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Editorial: Golden Age Column
The Red Pony (Copland)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Having only really started delving into film music history in the last couple of years, I always found myself at a bit of a loss when it came to sampling past glories. What composer? What score? What recording? One man I found who tended to have an opinion on as many things as I could think to ask about was Tom Kiefner, so I’ve invited him to share his thoughts on a classic score of his choice in a column that will accompany our future updates. - MM

Welcome to a new and exciting feature of Film Music On The Web!  I will be doing a monthly column with the primary focus being on golden age films from the thirties to the sixties.  As a way of a small introduction let me tell you a little bit about myself.  As a result of attending a young people's concert at the age of ten, I was introduced to classical music by Antal Dorati and the Minneapolis Symphony.  Not too long afterward I was in a band playing the trombone for many years and my love of music grew even more.  At twelve I purchased my first soundtrack: Peter Gunn by Hank Mancini.  To this day I still have the recording and although it is not playable anymore, I keep it as a small memento of my life.  While I collected some soundtracks my real love for many years was classical music and I collected quite a lot of Russian Music.  It wasn’t until fifteen years ago that I became a lot more serious about my film music collecting.  Up to that point I had perhaps 150 albums in my modest collection compared to well over 2000 in the classical genre.  Today my soundtracks far surpass my classical collection but I still enjoy both genres especially when there is a crossover work, which is what I will discuss later.

After 38 years of managing a camera store in San Diego I suffered an acute stroke on the right side of my brain in August of 2004.  Luckily, I survived, and through a lot of rehabilitation therapy, physical and mental, I have managed to partially recover.  My thinking has greatly improved, I am typing this at normal speed, and I am now able to drive again.  I have known the editor Michael McLennan through a soundtrack discussion forum for about three years, and when I was approached to do a column and some reviews I accepted.  My review of Marlon Brando films will be found in the March 2006 Program.  While there is only one review in this issue there will hopefully be many others in the future.  I hope you will find my columns interesting and informative as well.  I look forward to any feedback or topics of interest you might have in the future.  I can be reached at

I had originally decided to write of the passing of Akira Ifukube but I will do this next month as I still have two more recordings to listen to which have not yet arrived.  However, what did arrive was a long awaited copy of the original score to the film The Red Pony.  Alas, it is only available on a long play album and while the film was produced by Republic Pictures in 1948, the Varese Sarabande recording was not "premiered" until 1986.  And this was the world premiere recording!  How can such an important score be neglected to this day?  There is no CD release.  Unless you wish to purchase the DVD, the only recording of this fine music is to purchase one of the many concert suites.  His Oscar winning score The Heiress released in 1949 has no release either.  (In fact this film is still only available on VHS tape!)  Apparently there is little or no interest in Aaron Copland anymore, which to me is something I cannot understand.

While The Red Pony itself seems simple on the surface, the adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel tells the story of a boy and his pony that goes so much deeper than so many films of this ilk. [Dreamer and National Velvet seem lesser derivates of this classic.] The story observes the relationships between the little boy Tom (Peter Miles), Billy Buck (Robert Mitchum), his mother (Myrna Loy), his father (Shepperd Strudwick), and his grandfather (Louis Calhern).  The grandfather lives with the family and tells the same tales of coming west over and over, the father wants to get into the manufacturing business with his brother, and his relationship with his wife is strained.  The pony dies from a deadly cold after it is let in the rain. Tom blames Billy Buck, but who taught the pony to get out in the first place?

In doing the score Copland explains he preferred seeing the film with both the director and the producer deciding where they wanted the music placed.  He would then screen and rescreen using the piano and cue sheet.  The resulting score is filled with great melodies in the “folk” style Copland created so well.  All of the themes from The Ringmaster Circus March to The Morning on the Ranch are little works of art.  And seminal works too. If you listen to ‘Walk to the Bunkhouse’ and you can't hear a hint of Goldsmith and Bernstein (successors of Copland), you should start again.  While the dominant theme throughout is Tom's Theme, it is not overused and the variants are interesting to listen to.

Copland arranged a suite of seven movements (really six as one has a part a and b) from the score. It is all original material, something the composer took pride in. Copland conducted a performance in October 1948 with the Houston Symphony.  The suite is easily obtainable on several different recordings.  The OST is another story.  The following is a short list of what I have heard in regard to The Red Pony.  This is by no means complete.  There are many other choices:

1.  (CD) RCA 61699 Slatkin/St. Louis is my #1 choice as it includes much of his film music in suites such as The Heiress, Our Town, and “Prairie Journal” (radio program).  The 8 minute suite reconstructed by Arthur Freed is a welcome addition to your collection.  The music is quite tranquil and pastoral, stressing a softness of texture and sparse but effective instrumentation.

2.  (CD) Delos 3221 Litton/Dallas Symphony is a nice listen very similiar to Slatkin but includes Symphony for Orchestra and Organ as well as Music for Theatre.  Many times the case with classical music is to decide what other material you might want with the work you are really interested in, and while this material isn’t quite the insight into Copland’s film scoring career that the Slatkin is, the additional works here are also good. [ED - See also Ian Lace’s review here].

3.  (LP) Varese Sarabande STV 81259 is from the 78 acetates.  This release has horrible sound but an extra (9 minutes) material and is the original soundtrack recording.  You will hear fresh and extended approaches to much of the material if you are familiar with the suite.  There is also some material on this LP not in the suite such as “Moth 'Round A Flame” and “Knights At Arms” and there is also some unused score material.  However, you have to first find the recording – not an easy task.

4.  (LP) Odyssey 31016 Previn/St. Louis was how I became introduced to the work so it has a soft spot for me.  Again to my knowledge it has never been transferred to CD so you would need access to a turntable.  It too is a nice recording but there are so many other choices I would not seek this out.  If I remember correctly Odyssey recordings were in the $4.00 range in the 70's which is likely why I bought it. [ED - Actually Sony Classical issued this on CD with a number of other Copland re-recordings, reviewed here by Jonathan Woolf.]

[ED:  (CD) SK 64 177 Williams / Boston Pops. Along with suites from Williams’ own score for Born on the Fourth of July and The Reivers, this suite includes memorable restrained and hearty performances of Copland’s Quiet City for Strings, Trumpet and English Horn and the suite from The Red Pony respectively. Those who have never sampled Copland, but are fans of John Williams, might find this a good place to start – as the suite from Born on the Fourth is incredibly stirring, and you’ll get the Boston Pops performing the suite as a bonus. Highly recommended. - MM]

Copland once spoke of film scoring a thought worthy on ending on:  "I wish more audiences could have the experience of watching the movie without any music and then seeing it a second time with the music added.  I think that would give them a full sense of what music does for making the cold movie screen seem more humane, more touching and more civilized."

Tom Kiefner

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