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Emily Ansari
American Music, December 2011

In 2005, Naxos released a highly praised DVD of two classic Pare Lorentz docu­mentaries, The River (1936) and The Plow that Broke the Plains (1937), with new re­cordings of their legendary Virgil Thomson scores. The creative forces responsible for this venture—Joseph Horowitz, Angel Gil-Ordóñez, and the Post-Classical Ensemble—have now turned their attention to Aaron Copland’s music for the 1939 film The City. Once again they have transformed the viewer’s experience of an aged film by replacing the monaural soundtrack with new narration and a high-quality stereo recording of the music.

There are numerous excellent justifications for such an undertaking. First, there is no modern recording of this important Copland score. Joseph Horowitz, who is one of the United States’ leading cultural historians, describes the score in his liner notes as “arguably, Copland’s highest achievement as a film com­poser, but far from his best-known.” The City marked Copland’s first foray into film music, giving him, as he wrote in his autobiography, “the credit I needed to approach Hollywood again.”1 Meanwhile the film itself, which examines the social implications of town planning, is widely considered one of the finest early documentaries: it “tells its story without wasting a shot,” as Time magazine put it back in 1939.2

Beyond its attraction for Copland scholars and documentary specialists, this DVD offers an array of possibilities for classes on film music and American music history. For example, it would provide an excellent starting point for discussions of Depression-era politics and their impact on the arts. Produced for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, The City brought together a team of leading left-wing artists and thinkers from New York: cinematographers Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke; city planner Lewis Mumford, who wrote the script; Henwar Rodakiewicz, who created the scenario; actor Morris Carnovsky, who was the narrator; and, of course, Aaron Copland. Howard Pollack describes the film, which offers a vision for a better model for living and working in the United States, as an embodiment of the progressive socialist ideals and attitudes that these men shared.3 The City juxtaposes the countryside, a place rich in quality of life but poor in opportunity, with the urban center, its opposite. Mumford’s script proposes the union of the strengths of each lifestyle in new planned communities, which would offer a higher standard of living for American workers. In this context, Copland’s pared down and approachable score for The City serves as the musical expression of this quest for a more humane society, typical of his efforts to attract a broader public during the 1930s.

The three-part structure of the film—countryside, city, new planned city—meanwhile offers an excellent mechanism to compare and contrast Copland’s rural and urban musical tropes and thereby explore the nature of his musical Americanism. These tropes can be found across Copland’s output during this period but their straightforward juxtaposition here will aid in-class presenta­tion. The alternately disturbing and humorous features of city life are especially elegantly depicted in this score.

The newly recorded soundtrack is largely excellent, with the Post-Classical En­semble exemplifying the understated, light, and precise style of playing needed for Copland’s music. The striking saxophone solos are particularly evocative and compare very favorably to their counterparts on the original recording. (Such comparisons are easily made, since the DVD also includes the entire film with the original soundtrack as a bonus feature.)

A striking element of the new soundtrack—in marked contrast to the origi­nal—is the reduced volume of the narration in relation to the music. In his liner notes to the DVD, Horowitz explains that this approach is modeled on Virgil Thomson’s film music philosophy, which asserts that narration should be no louder than is required for it to be understood. The result is that the music of The City is much more noticeable than is conventional, thus going against com­mon practice in Hollywood. Overall this approach poses few problems in The City because narration and music mostly alternate. In the brief moments where they overlap, however, it can be a little more difficult to understand Francis Guinan’s fine new narration. Nevertheless, the decision seems entirely justified given that Copland’s music serves such a crucial role in expressing the message of this dialogue- and sound effects–free film.

The DVD comes with three fascinating bonus features that offer additional teaching-related opportunities: The entire film with the original soundtrack (mentioned above); a documentary about the town of Greenbelt, Maryland, where the final section of the film was shot; and a conversation between Joseph Horowitz and George Stoney, a documentary filmmaker and a historian of the genre. Stoney’s conversation with Horowitz will be useful for students of both film and music history. Particularly interesting is Stoney’s discussion of the role of music in the early documentary. In The City, he says, music serves both to emphasize the film’s political message and to provide relief from its weightiness. Elsewhere Horowitz assesses the influence of Thomson’s film music on Copland and describes the nature of their combined contribution to the genre. Together, he says, they crafted uniquely “American” soundtracks that differed markedly from the European-influenced Hollywood model, creating a leaner style with “fewer notes” that others would soon emulate. © 2011 American Music

Chris Mullins
Opera Today, April 2010

This disc neatly captures a central dichotomy of the career of composer Aaron Copland.

Raised in New York City, Copland gained his greatest successes with scores that extol a rural, bucolic vision of American life. Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, Billy the Kid—compositions that present an idealized, perhaps even sentimentalized portrayal of a boisterous, green America, while containing enough musical sophistication and imagination to remain perpetually fresh. One of the composer’s early forays into film composition came when he was asked to score a 45 minute documentary called The City, which is in effect an advertisement for Lewis Mumford’s planned community, Greenbelt. Before the filmmakers (Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke) turn their film over to a rapturous hymn to Greenbelt, they set the stage by contrasting the virtues of country living with the veritable hell of city life, circa 1939—the very city life that produced Aaron Copland.

The booklet essay by Joseph Horowitz calls this disc a sequel to the Naxos DVD containing The River and The Plow that Broke the Plains, two short documentaries for which Virgil Thomson composed the scores. As that disc did, this one contains a fresh, high-quality audio performance of the score by Angel Gil-Ordóñez conducting the Post-Classical Ensemble, along with the original performance (in clear but flat mono) by a studio orchestra. Copland composed episodes, not just the typical brief cues of most film soundtracks, with the film’s portentous narrative interspersed. It’s high-quality film music—entertaining and yet not overwhelming the film’s objective. A sequence of 1939 traffic jams gets a strangely jaunty theme, as if city boy Copland found something fun in the sight of these city dwellers desperate to escape on a weekend to some beach or picnic refuge. In fact, the most interesting music underlies all the city sequences, which the filmmakers work anxiously to make as repulsive as possible. The soft core religiosity of the Greenbelt section may make some listeners sleepy.

Inevitably The City brings to mind the film Koyaaniqatsi, only with better music (sorry, Philip Glass fans). The City also claims that modern city life dehumanizes us, while the “old ways,” recreated in Greenbelt, will restore human life to a paradise lost. The narration ranges from the didactic to preachy, with dips into the bizarre: “A little gossip or a friendly hand is good for the complexion.” A bonus feature has interviews with adults who grew up in Greenbelt as children, and they speak honestly about both the beauty of the experience and the reasons why Greenbelt never became more than an experiment. A sleepy but insightful interview, the other bonus feature, also offers pointed commentary on Greenbelt’s ultimate failure to truly be a workable alternative to the urban/suburban sprawl just getting underway in 1939.

A fascinating disc, and highly recommended.

Lars Helgert
Notes: Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association, March 2010

To Aaron Copland, writing music for Hollywood films represented an opportunity to reach a much wider audience than was typically possible for composers of concert music. Hollywood film scoring was, however, according to George Antheil, “a closed corporation” (Modern Music 15, no. 1 [November-December 1937]). Hollywood studios were reluctant to hire composers without previous film experience; Copland would therefore need a film credit, and documentary films were a viable path to the requisite credentials.

The City, made for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, was one of several Depressionera documentary films with a quasi-socialist message. There is no dialogue or plot; the rhetorical technique involves only visual imagery, music, and a narrator. The filmmakers advocate a new approach to urban planning by contrasting the conditions of an industrial mining town (shot in Pittsburgh) and the interior of a large city (shot in New York) with a new type of planned community (shot in Greenbelt, Maryland) that is “organized to make cooperation possible between machines and men—and nature,” according to the narrator.

Copland’s score features contrasting musical styles to support the on-screen images and rhetoric. Idyllic rural and suburban life is represented by pastoral, consonant music, while urban conditions are shown to dissonant, rhythmically jarring portions of the score. Additionally, there is often a strong physical correlation between specific images and musical figures, such as the clarinet triplet passage that plays while the viewer is shown a water wheel.

The new recording of the score surpasses the original in many respects. There is greater dynamic range, more detail of orchestral color, and in general, the score works better as abstract music in the hands of the Post-Classical Ensemble. Yet one is also drawn to the charms of the original, also included on this DVD: period authenticity, nostalgia, and more seamless integration with the visual aspects of the film.

The DVD has numerous extras aside from the original version of the film, such as a seven-page booklet with liner notes by Joseph Horowitz, the artistic director of the Post-Classical Ensemble, photographs, and artist biographies. There is also an interview by Horowitz of filmmaker and documentary film historian George Stoney on topics ranging from Copland’s career as a film composer to the visual rhetoric of The City, and a film made in 2000 for the Greenbelt Museum entitled Which Playground for Your Child: Greenbelt or Gutter? The latter includes interviews with early residents of Greenbelt, one of whom was a cast member in The City.

This DVD release has much to offer in a variety of areas. It is important as a document of social history, reflecting Depression-era political thought and social activism. As music literature, Copland’s score is a little-known work, although some portions of it were later used in the orchestral suite Music for the Movies (1942). This and Copland’s seven subsequent film scores constitute a significant contribution to the art of film scoring, and this earliest of his efforts is worthy of musicological study for its innovative techniques.

Andrew Druckenbrod
Gramophone, October 2009

The soundtracks to The City is a fine showcase of Copeland’s American style

We think of Aaron Copland’s music as referencing classic American scenes such as rural towns or Western landscapes. But in The City, his characteristic wide-open spacing, gentle melodies and wind and timpani volleys paint a picture of emerging suburbia. Copland penned the soundtrack to a 43-minute documentary made for the 1939 New York World’s Fair and its theme of “The World of Tomorrow”. Scripted by city planner Lewis Mumford, the film depicts America’s industrial cities as dirty, polluted, overcrowded—necessitating a flight to the refuge of newly planned cities where people live away from factories and “close to the soil again” in residential communities. Even with its pie-in-the-sky hopes, the film somewhat predicts the social trends of post-war America. But it is propaganda through, presenting a naïve, one-sided argument akin to the footage of Atomic Café.

Though Copland’s score goes along with the plot, it is anything but shallow. Brought out in its full glory in this new performance by the Post-Classical Ensemble, a complexity of feeling lingers in every scene. The ensemble, led by Francis Guinan, was able to re-record the soundtrack because the film contained no dialogue, marking the first time this music has been heard in its entirely in decades beyond a few excerpts Copland chose for his suite “Music for Movies.”

In what can only be called a spectacular improvement from the original monaural recording (which is included on the DVD as an extra), the newly performed score showcases every aspects of Copland’s Americana style, from majestic splendor accompanying wide-angle shot’s to an almost minimalist pulse of customers eating at busy lunch counters, to heart-rending looks at the urban poor. It was this masterful treatment that led to Copland’s successful run in Hollywood in films such as Our Town and the Red Pony. Anyone who us a fan of that music will surely not want to miss the full soundtrack of The City.

Anne Midgette
The Washington Post, July 2009

Ralph Steiner and Willard van Dyke’s Utopian documentary “The City,” made for the 1939 World’s Fair, depicts an ideal community where children grow big and strong, work is close to home, and every citizen has a right to amenities like public tennis courts: the federally planned community of Greenbelt. The film also represents an artistic Utopia, bringing together aestheticized images of city life (hearkening back to Walter Ruttmann’s 1927 documentary “Berlin, Sinfonie einer Grossstadt”) and a score by Aaron Copland, carving out his American identity in strong, sure musical strokes.

Following their remastering of Pare Lorentz’s earlier “The Plow That Broke the Plains” and “The River,” with music by Virgil Thomson [2.110521]—films that influenced “The City” considerably—the Post-Classical Ensemble has given this Copland score its first modern recording (conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez) and issued it on a bountiful DVD that includes a version of the film with the original soundtrack, a discussion between Joseph Horowitz and the filmmaker George Stoney, and a documentary about Greenbelt.

“The City” unfolds without dialogue, to Copland’s score and/or a narration that, hokey as it is, sounds slightly better in the rotund, golden-age-Hollywood diction of the original narrator, Morris Carnovsky, than in Francis Guinan’s retake. The film’s four-part structure—a pastoral introduction about country life, an anguished section about the modern city (belching smokestacks and all), a scherzo-like interlude of traffic jams, and finally the ideal community—let Copland stay clear and relatively spare, identifying certain sections with repeated motifs. The crisp new recording sounds great, though giving pride of place to the music means the narration is sometimes drowned out and the clarion sounds of the instruments don’t always blend as smoothly with the on-screen action as the blurry, less distinct original. Nonetheless it’s a worthwhile recording that deserves watching more than once.

Gary Arnold
The Washington Times, June 2009

Better known as a recording company that takes a special interest in American classical compositions, Naxos has recently expanded into movie restoration, reviving semi-legendary documentary films whose musical scores have proven more durable than their pictorial aspects and thematic pretensions.

The first example was a Pare Lorentz set: his Depression period pieces about water and land reclamation, “The River” and “The Plow That Broke the Plains,” both scored by Virgil Thomson [Naxos DVD 2.110521].

A recent follow-up, which has arrived as a 70th-anniversary item, restores the urban planning polemic “The City,” originally shown at the U.S. pavilion during the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. This project prompted Aaron Copland’s first film score, and two of its movements were later incorporated into his suite “Music for Movies.”

Both the Thomson and Copland scores were newly recorded for the Naxos editions, utilizing the Post-Classical Ensemble, organized eight years ago in the Washington area by conductor Angel Gil-Ordóñez and artistic director Joseph Horowitz. A supplementary feature of the “City” DVD is a half-hour conversation between Mr. Horowitz and the esteemed documentary filmmaker George C. Stoney, now 93 and a faculty member at New York University.

They discuss “The City” and how it has aged—severely in the case of its defective line of argumentation, supplied by Lewis Mumford’s commentary, which envisions a planned community of the New Deal era, the original Greenbelt, Md., as the idyllic answer to the ills of factory towns and congested metropolitan habitats. The most conspicuous habitat: a bustling New York City, destined to play host to the earliest public showings of “The City.”

Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Stoney let their subject down gently, with the former deferring to the latter on points of documentary methodology and the latter deferring to the former on points of musical stylization. Despite the circumspect approach, it’s difficult to get around the fact that “The City,” even when melodically enhanced by Aaron Copland, labors under the burden of an outmoded agenda.

Moreover, Mr. Stoney’s presence calls attention to the fact that his most famous documentary, the beautifully titled and durably heartening “All My Babies,” circa 1952, is also available in a recent DVD edition, augmented by an authoritative commentary from the filmmaker. Both “The City” and “All My Babies” have been named historically significant movies by the Library of Congress.

Lawrence Hansen
American Record Guide, May 2009

Rarely has music been more closely interwoven with cinematography, even in straight dramas, let alone a documentary. Excerpts from the score have been recorded, but they’re less interesting and evocative when separated from the visual element. So praise to executive producer Joseph Horowitz and Naxos for giving us the opportunity to experience the score in its intended setting—and in modern sound (Dolby and DTS Surround).

Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, May 2009

Copland’s score is indeed good, just not great. Its effectiveness, as Horowitz aptly points out, is in the use of “less notes” than the overblown Romantic Hollywood style of Max Steiner, Erich Korngold, etc. The City is the missing link in the WPA triumvirate that also produced The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River, with even better scores by Virgil Thomson [available on Naxos DVD 2.110521 & CD 8.559291]. As a city boy, Copland’s best music is in the “big bad city” portions of the film; identifying himself and his music with the artificial idyll of Greenbelt came harder, and is less effective. This DVD gives us two complete versions of the film, one with the original soundtrack conducted by Max Goberman and narration by Morris Carnovsky, the second with an all-new soundtrack by the Post-Classical Ensemble conducted by Gil-Ordóñez with narration by Francis Guinan. Gil-Ordóñez is the better conductor, and, of course, the modern digital sound does wonders for the music, but Carnovsky is the finer narrator. Which Playground for your Child? is a documentary produced by the Greenbelt library in 2000, featuring some of the original residents’ children.

Phil Hall
Video Librarian, May 2009

Closer to a cinematic essay than a documentary, Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke’s 1939 The City—written by noted urban planner Lewis Mumford and made for the “World of Tomorrow” exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York—offers a utopian view of how American cities might be transformed from bleak dehumanizing environments into pleasant living spaces. The City begins with a recreation of a pre-industrial small town community, before progressing into the Dickensian squalor of the then-contemporary industrialized urban setting, and closing with the possibility of building a clean and friendly city of tomorrow. Narrated by Morris Carnovsky, The City is heavier on gung-ho advocacy than actual details on how this idealized future might be achieved (who would pay the bill to raze the slums and start new construction?), but to its credit the film was ahead of its time in its lobbying for healthier environments. Unfortunately, The City’s homogenous vision of tomorrow’s cities is notable for its blatant lack of diversity (progressive notions only went so far in 1939). The reason for the documentary’s release is as much (if not more) related to music than urban history, offering a newly recorded world premiere version of the original classic Aaron Copland score (replacing the old monaural soundtrack). DVD extras include a short conversation with filmmaker George Stoney about The City, and a featurette on Greenbelt, MD, which the film used as a model for a clean urban landscape. An interesting curio that combines a historical look at forward-thinking urban planning with a noted musical score from a legendary American composer, this is recommended.

Paul Turok
Turok’s Choice, April 2009

Pare Lorenz’s third film for the U.S. Government, made in 1939, was “The City” (Naxos 2.110231). The score was by Aaron Copland, who provided copious, high-quality music. The film reflected Louis Mumford’s utopian ideas on urban living, which rejected big cities like New York or Chicago in favor of planned, self-contained smaller communities. In 1936, the Federal Government actually built several of these, with Greenbelt, Maryland chosen to be used in Lorenz’s movie. (A separate section of the DVD offers a documentary produced in 2000 by the Greenbelt Museum, featuring children brought up there reminiscing on how pleasant and fruitful life was.) The only problem was that it did not work out the way it was supposed to; unemployed workers and their families obtained houses, the idea being that factories would relocate to the area because of the pool of available skilled workers. It never happened, and because the houses were strongly built, the town is now a bedroom community whose residents drive to work elsewhere. Copland’s marvelous movie score has been newly recorded by Angel Gil-Ordóñez and the Post-Classical Ensemble and sounds wonderful, with a new narration by Francis Guinan. The disc also contains the original film, narrated by Morris Carnovsky and conducted by Max Goberman, in which the musical sound is not too bad. It seems a tighter performance. The disc also contains Joseph Horowitz discussion of “The City” with famous documentary film maker, George Stoney.

Michael Barrett
PopMatters, March 2009

Oh, what beauty is here. What harmonies of sound and image. What nobility of purpose, evidence of a quaint and nearly vanished optimism.

Thanks to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, pioneering city planner Lewis Mumford designed the “new city” of Greenbelt, Maryland in order to express his vision of gracious living as the harmony of man, machine and nature. The City, a documentary made to be shown at the 1939 World’s Fair—an event both seminal and ultimate, and iconic in all senses—is a propaganda piece designed to trumpet Greenbelt as the model city of the future.

The film lists no director and is usually credited to its brilliant photographers Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke, but it’s primary shaper and influence is Pare Lorentz, the mastermind behind two landmarks of lyrical American documentary: The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937), both scored by Virgil Thomson. The City was the first film scored by Aaron Copland, and his work is the impetus for this DVD. The Thomson films have been released on a Naxos DVD as part of a project to provide newly recorded scores for what has previously been available only in its original monaural form, and The City is now added to that project. Some passages of Copland’s score had been omitted from the original film for creative purposes (such as putting in narration), but now it’s all here in vividly recorded glory.

The original version is included as a bonus, and I advise watching it first. The 43-minute film is in three movements. In the beginning, as it were, was the Eden from which American culture fell, or at least that’s the lapsarian myth Mumford’s narration (delivered by Morris Carnovsky) spells out. The paradise is a quaint, bucolic town in New England, a world where boys skinny-dip while old folks jaw at the Town Hall and everyone else is dignified by the “art” of their work, which is largely the handcrafting of pottery and the spinning of looms, or the use of watermills to grind grain. Here and there are rows of cheerful fellows hewing the fields with scythes, but in general there’s no sense of backbreaking labor, child mortality, religious intolerance or class or racial strife in this golden age. During this nostalgic and elegiac web of vanished purity, Copland’s music too spins and weaves in gentle trills of Protestant Americana.

Then comes the Dickensian inferno: the factories pumping “smoke by day and fire by night”, the smelting of metal that flows like lava and that hovers over the dirty mill towns where the workers’ families dwell in a dismal hell of railroad yards and hand-pumped water. One fellow has a peg-leg, another seems to be washing his face with grease. One thing the captivated viewer may observe, however, is how eye-poppingly lovely is this smoky, almost mystical landscape as shot by Steiner and Van Dyke. Their eye is for beauty even in misery, and their compositions make this part of the movie a pleasure to visit, even if we wouldn’t want to live there.

And the result of this industrial fall is the towering, thronging city, introduced with a reference to Carl Sandburg’s “The People, Yes”. Here is the film’s most dynamic and witty segment, as well as its most visually and musically innovative. The juxtaposed imagery, with its fabricated little dramas (most actions are staged in this essayist-evangelist brand of “non-fiction”), is intended to convey Mumford’s point that modern city life is random, enervating, reckless, dangerous, frustrating, and bad for you.

It’s a funny thing, though. The rapid editing of human hustle and bustle, combined with the neck-craning shots of skyscrapers and the hectic willy-nilly of the streets, creates an invigorating delirium that, will he or nil he, places this film with such celebratory city-symphonies as Berlin—Symphony of a Great City and The Man with a Movie Camera. This sequence also uses an aural montage of voices for certain sequences, mainly the diner scene and shots of secretaries in endless rows of desks (flashing back to King Vidor’s The Crowd and forward to Billy Wilder’s The Apartment).

The use of rapid editing as a visual correlative for city life wasn’t new, but the diner sequence, with its montage of food and customers in a fragmented assembly line of consumption, will make you think you’re watching Koyaanisquatsi decades ahead of time, just as the repetitive chords and triads of the following traffic sequence ring with proto-Philip Glassian panache. The Janus-headed Copland is famous equally for his music of lilting wide-open mythological America and the jagged, jarring, spiky urbanism where he actually lived. Thus this film combines both his modes into program music of the highest order.

Then comes a sequence called “Sunday Traffic”, with humorously bouncy music counterpointing the images of stalled traffic that undercuts the commuter’s Sunday dreams. This way of life is metonymized in the image (stock footage?) of a single jalopy crashing down a hill to a semi-comic decrescendo.

Third movement: Shiny new airplanes fly through the clouds! The thrill of science carries us to a brave new world—the new city, not too large, where city and country are integrated in a clean, green, cholesterol-free vision. A hosanna is sung (not literally) to aerial shots of “the multi-highway” (cloverleaf intersections), whose perfect geometries symbolize the rational endeavors of minds at peace with eternity. The supermarket and the laundromat are celebrated as communal spaces.

This Paradise Regained is the vision to which the film has been building, but as Joseph Horowitz indicates in the liner notes, there’s some danger that this happy land seems a bit dull, unreal or antiseptic after what has come before. This is especially true if we observe that the only non-white folks in the film seem to live in the hellish mill town.

And yet, the inherent beauty and rightness of the Mumfordian vision must finally overturn any modern impulse to cynicism and condescension, for the people really seem happy here amid their well-designed parks and walkways and libraries and the schools where “boys and girls achieve a balanced personality”. The testimony is provided in a bonus segment in which four ex-children of Greenbelt (not three, as the notes say) fondly recall growing up there during that pioneer period and still sing the town’s praises today; a fifth resident, a newby, is also interviewed. One of the interviewees appears in the film as the boy on a bicycle.

This bonus video, shot in 2000, is named after a Greenbelt project poster, Which Playground for Your Child: Greenbelt or Gutter?. This underlines the point that Greenbelt was sold to parents as an ideal place for their kids. Children at play are a constant visual motif, and the baptism of recreational swimming is especially significant. In the first and last segments, skinny-dipping boys emphasize communion with nature.

Indeed, the boys are the first humans we see in the film, and its final images are provided by the camera looking up toward joyful young faces as Copland closes on a kind of fanfare for the common tyke. There’s also a Greenbelt segment where grown men unshirt one of their number after a baseball game and toss him off the dock in a healthy splash of effervescence. The boys who try to swim in the city harbor, however (not naked of course), are chased away from this busy workplace by an officious lumbering lumpenprole.

In another bonus, Horowitz converses with documentarian George Stoney about the film. I watched it after writing the above review and found they mostly bring up the same points, by which observation I intend not to underline my insightful brilliance but the clarity of the film’s intended and unintended meanings. Stoney points out that these aren’t only modern insights. He says that Archer Winsten’s laudatory 1939 review makes the same reservations about the lesser dynamism of the final section. Stoney agrees with him, though he adds that the film’s use of humor, especially in the final third, is a device to entertain middle-class audiences who attended the World’s Fair. Horowitz compares Copland’s score with Thomson’s in the Lorentz films, explaining influences and differences and Copland’s subsequent impact on film scores.

Funded by the Carnegie Foundation, the film was part of the science and technology exhibit of the Fair’s American pavilion where, according to Stoney, probably more Americans saw it than had seen any documentary before. Its orchestral soundtrack was conducted by Max Goberman. The new soundtrack highlighted on this DVD, which is labeled the world premiere recording of Copland’s full score, is performed by Post-Classical Ensemble under Angel Gil-Ordóñez. Both the original version and the newly recorded one use the same filmprint, which is unrestored and somewhat worn. It’s too bad no one has burnished the image or tried to clean up the original soundtrack a bit better.

As for the new recording with its new narration, there is one caveat which Horowitz’ notes try to explain as a positive feature: “A note on balances: contradicting Hollywood common practice, Virgil Thomson once advised that when film music is mixed with the human voice, voices should be no louder than is required for words to be understood. The present DVD endeavors to follow this ‘sound’ advice. We feel that we have honored the contrapuntal density of a rare transaction between word, music and image—and that otherwise Copland’s score would not project with full weight. And so where Francis Guinan ingeniously impersonates a worn mill worker, his tired voice becomes, in effect, another musical instrument in the mix. Viewers desirous of a more traditional balance, favoring the narration, are directed to the original film.

Honestly, Thomson’s sounds like bad advice, and in any case they haven’t followed it. When the music and narration are together, the words frequently can’t be understood. Guinan’s soft voice becomes an instrument in the sense that a distant, distracting mumble may be an instrument. Indeed, the music-free narration can hardly be heard without strain unless you turn up the sound enough for the music to blast you out of the room. If viewers desirous of a more traditional balance must resort to a copy where the music doesn’t sound nearly as glorious or full, a fair weighting hasn’t been achieved. I’m going to suggest, superfluously at this point, that two new soundtracks should have been prepared, the second track having either a traditional balance or dispensing with narration entirely.

Ballet Review, March 2009

COPLAND, A.: City (The) (NTSC) 2.110231
THOMSON, V.: Plow that Broke the Plains (The) / The River (NTSC) 2.110521

The City, his first film score, was written in 1939, right after Billy the Kid. Based on an idea by Pare Lorentz, the film contrasts slums and New York at rush hour with idyllic views of a New England village and a modern garden city. First shown at the New York World’s Fair, it’s now a classic in part due to Copland’s imaginative score. This DVD offers it with both a modern soundtrack and the original, plus interviews with older residents of Greenbelt, Maryland, where parts were filmed, and with film experts. It makes a fine companion to the earlier pairing (on Naxos 2.110521) of Lorentz’z famous documentaries from 1936–37, The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, both with scores by Virgil Thomson, again with modern soundtracks played by the Post-Classical ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordoñez, with similar extras.

Rad Bennett, March 2009

This historically important documentary was produced to be shown at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which coincided with the end of the Great Depression. The fair was designed to provide visitors with a glimpse of the future, so it was subtitled “The World of Tomorrow.” Lewis Mumford, the script writer for The City, was an idealist who believed that cities were intrinsically evil and stifled the human spirit. His ideal planned city was to embody the balanced principles found in the New England village of the Revolutionary War period in America.

The filmmakers filmed most of their footage in Greenbelt, Maryland, adjacent to Washington, D.C. Greenbelt was not only supposed to offer cleaner, better living but provide employment to thousands of workers who had been laid off during the Depression. It’s sometimes amazing how much like today yesterday can be. What happened back then is that the Second World War came along, prosperity returned, and builders made fortunes selling suburban homes to GIs returning from deployment. Mumford’s suburbs, originally in his vision a planned Utopia, became a hotbed for capitalism.

The City might be America’s boldest documented nod to socialism. It is not racially diverse; all of the planned city’s residents look like typical Caucasians. Blacks, Latinos, and Asians were apparently denied escape from the stifling air of the metropolis. The film is not liberating as to gender, either. Women were supposed to have better methods for doing the laundry, for instance, but it was still “women’s work.”

There are dramatic visual comparisons in this short film that load the dice as far as city-country comparisons go. The squalor of a bad section of the city is documented graphically. There seems to be smoke everywhere, and if there’s no smoke there’s dirt and grime. Children play in dangerous streets. These images are contrasted with those of children joyfully bicycling through a peaceful wooded town that holds absolutely no menace.

Aaron Copland wrote his first film score for this movie, and this is really the reason for its re-release by Naxos. Because (like The River and The Plow That Broke the Plains) the film contained no dialogue, only music and minimal narration, it was possible to record the score again in modern sound. This was done at the University of Maryland with the Post-Classical Ensemble, conducted by Angel Gil-Ordonez. The original was conducted by Max Goberman, and it is also available on this DVD so you can compare. The new recording comes off very well, and it certainly sounds fantastic. Naxos also opted to replace the narration, which was originally done by Morris Caranovsky. I believe his narration has more bite than the new one by Francis Guinan, but thanks to Naxos again the viewer has a choice between the original and the new.

The film has not been completely restored so its presentation is a bit inconsistent. It never looks awful, and 90 percent of it is sharply contrasted black-and-white done from a good, relatively blemish-free source. There are a few scenes, though, which are not up to the overall standard. But in comparing it to the clips shown inserted in the supplemental film Which Playground for Your Child: Greenbelt or Gutter?, one can see how miserable it must have looked before this release set most things right. A second supplement features an interview with documentarian Joseph Horowitz, who is the artistic director of Post-Classical Ensemble.

All told, this is a well-produced, very interesting slice of Americana that offers in modern sound what many feel to be Aaron Copland’s greatest film score.

Rad Bennett
Home Theater Sound, March 2009

The City might be America’s boldest documented nod to socialism. It is not racially diverse; all of the planned city’s residents look like typical Caucasians. Blacks, Latinos, and Asians were apparently denied escape from the stifling air of the metropolis. The film is not liberating as to gender, either. Women were supposed to have better methods for doing the laundry, for instance, but it was still “women’s work.”

There are dramatic visual comparisons in this short film that load the dice as far as city-country comparisons go. The squalor of a bad section of the city is documented graphically. There seems to be smoke everywhere, and if there’s no smoke there’s dirt and grime. Children play in dangerous streets. These images are contrasted with those of children joyfully bicycling through a peaceful wooded town that holds absolutely no menace.

Aaron Copland wrote his first film score for this movie, and this is really the reason for its re-release by Naxos. Because (like The River and The Plow That Broke the Plains) the film contained no dialogue, only music and minimal narration, it was possible to record the score again in modern sound. This was done at the University of Maryland with the Post-Classical Ensemble, conducted by Angel Gil-Ordoñez. The original was conducted by Max Goberman, and it is also available on this DVD so you can compare. The new recording comes off very well, and it certainly sounds fantastic. Naxos also opted to replace the narration, which was originally done by Morris Caranovsky. I believe his narration has more bite than the new one by Francis Guinan, but thanks to Naxos again the viewer has a choice between the original and the new.

The film has not been completely restored so its presentation is a bit inconsistent. It never looks awful, and 90 percent of it is sharply contrasted black-and-white done from a good, relatively blemish-free source. There are a few scenes, though, which are not up to the overall standard. But in comparing it to the clips shown inserted in the supplemental film Which Playground for Your Child: Greenbelt or Gutter?, one can see how miserable it must have looked before this release set most things right. A second supplement features an interview with documentarian Joseph Horowitz, who is the artistic director of Post-Classical Ensemble.

All told, this is a well-produced, very interesting slice of Americana that offers in modern sound what many feel to be Aaron Copland’s greatest film score.

John von Rhein
Chicago Tribune, February 2009

Copland never composed anything finer for film than the music he provided for this documentary, a period curiosity made for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The didactic script by city planner Lewis Mumford draws a simplistic contrast between life in America’s crowded urban jungles and the idyllic life afforded by planned suburban communities.

The film’s true worth lies in its seamless integration of music, cinematography and narration, newly recorded by Chicago actor Francis Guinan. Copland’s score, reflecting both his homespun manner and a harder-edged proto-minimalism, is recorded for the first time in its entirety by the Post-Classical Ensemble under Angel Gil-Ordóñez. This refurbished artifact from an earlier recession era amounts to a valuable and splendidly produced release.

Mark J. Estren
The Washington Post, February 2009

Like Stravinsky with his “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto, Aaron Copland had a musical tie-in to the Washington area—his music for the 1939 documentary “The City.” The film’s scriptwriter, urban historian Lewis Mumford, envisioned a future of planned communities such as Greenbelt—an optimism that Copland’s music rather wanly reflected.

Copland also had a less happy association with Washington: He was grilled by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1953 about communist influence on the arts.

At Georgetown University on Saturday night, both connections were on display in “Copland and the Cold War”—part piano recital, part film screening, part reenactment and part academic analysis. Portions of “The City,” an American indulgence in socialist realism that is just out on DVD with the score recorded by the Post-Classical Ensemble under Angel Gil-Ordóñez, showed Copland’s populist outreach. The composer’s communist sympathies in the 1930s came through in an audience singalong of “Into the Streets May First,” an embarrassing call to destroy the bourgeoisie and raise the hammer and sickle. (Copland later disowned it.) Members of Georgetown’s theater and performance studies program led the singing and reenacted some of Copland’s awkward, squirming congressional testimony. Joseph McCartin, an associate professor of history, put Copland’s politics in the historical context of the Great Depression.

Through it all, pianist Benjamin Pasternack vibrantly traced the composer’s musical development, from “The Cat and the Mouse” (1920) through the dramatic Piano Variations (1930) to, finally, the expansive Piano Fantasy (1957). The latter piece employs an esoteric use of Schoenbergian principles, showing Copland in full post-McCarthy retreat from any attempt to appeal to the populace at large.

Robert W Plyler
PostJournal, February 2009

This film is likely to especially appeal to two audiences: Classical music lovers will be fascinated in how the composer sought to enhance and better communicate the messages of the film. Environmentalists will be fascinated by the film’s ideas of city planning, including both their successes and their failures.

Not surprisingly though people who aren’t members of either group may readily find they like both the music and the way the ideas on how people live brings out ideas of their own on city planning and environmental control.

“The City” was made for the 1939 World’s Fair. It begins with the open quite villages which are common throughout New England. That part is intended to represent how the majority of Americans lived before the industrial revolution and the enormous growth of cities.

Then, it switches to cities and the life of the average person among the noise, smoke and complete isolation from nature which was so common then. People had been sold on the idea that “smoke makes wealth,” and they had adopted a way of living which now seems monstrous.

The conclusion of the film deals with a social movement towards what we now call suburban living. Experiments such as Greenbelt, Md., were planned communities in which relatively low-cost homes were built on lots large enough to have yards, there were open park lands and playgrounds, and limits on the number of people who could live there. The contemporary re-creation of the film was done by musician and musicologist Joseph Horowitz. You may remember that we wrote a column about another of his documentary updating, which was titled “The Plough That Broke the Plains” and “The River.” That double film had scores by American composer Virgil Thomson.

In addition to the 43-minute historic film, with its moving score, now both presented in the sharpest of focuses, there are other features on the DVD, including the choice of seeing the film in its original form with the crackling soundtrack which originally accompanied it. There is also a documentary on Greenbelt, Md., and a filmed conversation between documentary filmmaker George Stoney and Horowitz.

I think most Americans think of Aaron Copland’s for his music which was inspired by the Wild West, including “Rodeo” and “Billy the Kid.” Probably even most classical music lovers are unfamiliar with this score. The recent recording of it by the Post-Classical Ensemble, with Angel Gil-Ordonez conducting, is clear, precise and clean, and very moving to hear.

Anyone who enjoys being educated and inspired, in addition to being entertained, will enjoy this DVD. It’s on the Naxos Label. Find it through the Naxos Web site or other vendors…

David Denton
David's Review Corner, February 2009

The black and white documentary film, The City, was created for New York’s 1939 World Fair and gave the young Aaron Copland his first taste of writing music for films and provided his entry point into Hollywood’s film studios. By today’s standards the sound track was basic, and has now been replaced by a new sound recording made by the Pro-Classical Ensemble. It was a highly emotive film that showed the emerging United States with the squaller that city life entailed and how much better it could be for everyone, and children in particular, if rural areas could be attached to city life. It was a piece of blatant publicity for the city planner, Lewis Mumford, who wrote the flattering text for a development in Greenbelt, Maryland, that was his own urban experiment. The original film lasts just over forty minutes and now proves that problems of city life have a habit of going full circle. There are two additional tracks, the first commissioned by Greenbelt in 2000, called ‘Greenbelt or Gutter’, and an interview between Joseph Horowitz, Artistic Director of the Pro-Classical Ensemble, and the documentary film maker George Story. The film itself is very grainy and sometimes shows signs of deterioration, with the text at times almost lost within the orchestra.

Tim Smith
The Baltimore Sun, January 2009

Two years ago, as if presciently planned, the Washington-based Post-Classical Ensemble took a fresh look at a 1939 documentary called The City that boasts a vivid score by Aaron Copland. The film, made by Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke and scripted by urban planner Lewis Mumford, examines the most unattractive aspects of modern metropolitan life and promotes an environmentally friendly, government-spearheaded alternative.

This Great Depression-era product has now re-emerged on DVD by Naxos, with Post-Classical’s freshly recorded soundtrack, just as the country is in the grip of the Great Recession and the air is full of talk about government projects, large-scale and green. Seems like great timing to me.

Movie and history buffs will want to check out The City, which looks and sounds great on the DVD…and music buffs will not want to miss the chance to hear what Post-Classical’s artistic director, Joseph Horowitz, asserts is “arguably Copland’s highest achievement as a film score.”

That score, here conducted by the ensemble’s music director, Angel Gil-Ordonez, with his usual care and expressiveness, comes through as vibrantly as the camerawork. This is particularly true in the brilliant urban scenes. It sounds as if Copland had more fun composing music for those city shots; that’s where the music really jumps out at you.

Those kinetic, frenetic scenes are actually more fun than the idyllic views of Greenbelt, the first New Deal towns created with federal money in the ’30s along the lines espoused by Mumford to provide a more humanizing and community-conscious experience for the citizenry. (One jarring note, perhaps more so this week than any other time, is that the utopian Greenbelt depicted in the film appears to be an all-white enclave.)

The newly recorded narration is delivered with flair by Francis Guinan, a veteran of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble.

DVD extras include the complete 43-minute film with its original soundtrack and narrator, and a short film from 2000 about the development of Greenbelt. Among those interviewed in the latter is an original 1930s resident seen as a boy in The City.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group