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Images and sounds in the service of FDR

Le Monde
Renaud Machart
March 2011

The reforms initiated by President Franklin Roosevelt from 1933 to 1938 as a result of the Great American Depression were accompanied by strong information campaigns. How to develop the vast inhospitable plain that crosses the country, from the Canadian border to Texas? How create colossal hydraulic constructions on the Mississippi? How convince workers to leave the destitute industrial cities and towns to reach the semi-urban communities built in the late 1930s?

Three documentaries were commissioned from 1936 to 1939 to illustrate the role of the New Deal in the redevelopment of the US. They have just been published for the first time on DVD, by the Naxos label.

The Plow That Broke the Plains (27 minutes, 1936) and The River (31 minutes, 1937) were written by Pare Lorentz. A film critic in Hollywood, he had never shot film but had devoted a book to the first year of the Roosevelt presidency. This led to a generous budget. He announced that he was concerned that the literary and musical dimension parallel the images (very inventive) . . .

Scandalous creation

Lorentz undertook to write voiceovers, whose emphasis and patriotic lyricism were inspired by the great American bard Walt Whitman.

The music for the two films was from commissioned Virgil Thomson (1896-1989). This Francophile composer and avant-gardist was the author, with Gertrude Stein, of Four Saints in Three Acts (1927-1933), the memory of which was still bright. The music of this opera was inspired by Erik Satie and French music from the 1920s, but also by the musical roots of the Missouri native Thomson. So the economy of his film scores opposes the flamboyant style of Hollywood composers Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. . . .

In 1939 there followed the film The City, a 43-minute documentary on urban planning, directed by Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke under the supervision of Pare Lorentz. Aaron Copland was engaged to write the score. Like Thomson, he studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger; his music is influenced by the rhythms of jazz, the frenzy of cities and machines. . . .

Copland follows the Thomson method he admired, and composed music for The City whose credo is defined by the composer André Previn “. Fewer notes” This approach would have limited influence in Hollywood, but David Raksin, the composer of the music of Laura (1944) and the great Bernard Herrmann, who composed for Alfred Hitchcock, would follow a related aesthetic.

The reissue of these documentaries is embellished with superb restorations of the films and newly recorded music tracks. Exciting interviews complete these DVDs, which remember the times of hope and social progress that were the Roosevelt years.

Aaron Copland’s legacy intact

The Washington Post
Patrick Rucker
July 10, 2015

A composer’s posthumous reputation is nothing if not uncertain. Take Stephen Foster, who died destitute in a Bowery hotel in 1864 but whose songs, now familiar to everyone, encapsulate an era. Or Foster’s contemporary, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, whose success both in Europe and throughout the Americas was like no one else’s before him but whose music, when heard today, sounds maudlin to our ears.

Thursday night the PostClassical Ensemble collaborated with The Phillips Collection to offer a glimpse of the posthumous reputation of the “Dean of American Composers,” Aaron Copland, who died 25 years ago. Titled “Copland and the City,” the program amounted almost to a career retrospective, albeit a succinct one focused on the first 40 years of Copland’s life.

With New York his lifelong center of operations, Copland is as entitled as anyone to be considered an urban composer. Paintings on urban themes from the collection, by Hopper, Hirsch, Marin, Davis and others, were specially hung on the walls of the Phillips music room.

Lura Johnson opened the program with a powerful performance of “Piano Variations” from 1930, Copland’s seminal work for the instrument. Her performance emphasized the audacity of Copland’s ultra-modernist style before he evolved a more populist voice.

Next, PostClassical’s artistic director, Angel Gil-Ordóñez, conducted an 11-piece chamber ensemble in “Quiet City,” a 1940 score that originated as music to a now forgotten play by Irwin Shaw. Atmospheric solos for English horn and trumpet, beautifully played by Fatma Daglar and Tim White, rose to the level of expressive dialogue.

Then Lewis Mumford’s documentary “The City,” created for the 1939 World’s Fair, with a score by Copland, was shown. In 1990 the film was re-released by Naxos, with a newly recorded soundtrack by Gil-Ordóñez and the PostClassical Ensemble.

The film depicts a bucolic America lost to urban blight and industrialization while advocating smaller, planned communities as more suitable for healthy families. Copland’s score sounded as fresh as the day it was written.

Afterward, PostClassical’s executive director, Joseph Horowitz, who provided thoughtful commentary throughout the evening, was joined by Johnson, Gil-Ordóñez, architect Thomas Krähenbühl and Washington Post arts critic Philip Kennicott in a discussion.

The evening proved a rare instance of unqualifiedly successful cross-disciplinary programming, with music, film, painting and architecture playing mutually supportive roles. It almost seemed as if Copland’s benevolent spirit was present, presiding over everything.

With scores like “Appalachian Spring,” “Rodeo,” “Lincoln Portrait, and “Fanfare for the Common Man” now subsumed into the bedrock of the American consciousness, Copland’s iconic status as musical elder statesman is secure. As Thursday night amply demonstrated, each new exposure to Copland’s music is a reminder of how direct, apt and powerful it remains.

“American Music” (2014)

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.

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  Multimedia Review 537 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.

Emily Ansari

University of Western Ontario

The City. Lewis Mumford, script. Ralph Steiner and Willard von Dyke, cinematography. Aaron Copland, music. 1939. Soundtrack recreated by Post-Classical Ensemble, Angel Gil-Ordóñez, music director, Joseph Horowitz, artistic director. 2009. Distributed by Naxos. New soundtrack (music and narration) recorded in Dolby Digital / DTS Surround. 132 minutes including bonus features.

Ansari review of The City PDF

PCE’s Dvórak and America CD named one of 2014’s Top Ten Most-Coveted!

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“Dvorak and America,” featuring the Hiawatha Melodrama, is CD OF THE WEEK!


PCE’s recent CD release, Dvorak and America, has just been named Album of the Week by New York’s Classical Music Radio Station, WQXR and Minnesota Public Radio!

Dvorak and America cover


At the center of this ambitious recording is the premiere of a work for actor and orchestra called Hiawatha Melodrama. It was conceived and assembled by the author and music entrepreneur Joseph Horowitz, with contributions from NYU musicologist Michael Beckerman. The piece consists of the narration of a condensed version of Longfellow’s 1855 poem “The Song of Hiawatha” flavored with a score drawn largely from Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. The idea is to draw links between a poem that had been hugely popular when Dvorak arrived in America, and the composer’s Symphony, which captured some of the soulfulness of black spirituals. Baritone Kevin Deas is the fiery and affecting narrator here.

The recording also features examples of Dvorak’s American-influenced compositions such as the Violin Sonatina in G, his Humoresques, Op. 101 for piano, his American Suite, Op. 98, plus three works by American composer and Native American music scholar Arthur Farwell. The fine Benjamin Pasternack is the soloist on the piano works.

Dvorak and America back


“This compendium of music and words provides a genuinely interesting and difficult-to-describe musical experience that provides considerable insight into the ways in which America influenced Dvořák and the way the great Czech composer returned the favor.”  – Mark Estren,

CLICK HERE to read more

An excerpt from the Hiawatha Melodrama:

To read about the Hiawatha Melodrama and the “Dvorak and America” CD:
Dvorak’s “Hiawatha” Symphony
Part 1

Part 2

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PostClassical Ensemble launches CD on Naxos label: Dvorák and America

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The centrepiece of this programme is the first ever recording of the Hiawatha Melodrama, a concert work for narrator and orchestra designed to show the kinship between Dvořák’s New World Symphony and Longfellow’s poem The Song of Hiawatha, which Dvořák said had inspired him in the symphony. It takes music from the symphony, as well as passages from the American Suite and Violin Sonatina, and fuses them with the poem, which is recited by a bass-baritone. Also included is music by Arthur Farwell, who was influenced by Dvořák, and was a proponent of Native American music. This recording thus celebrates the crosscurrent of influences between the Czech composer and American music and culture.

Read more here…

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Anton Seidl’s “Good Night:” A World Premiere Recording

In the 1890s, when Wagnerism was at its height, Wagner’s American disciple Anton Seidl (1850-1898) would lead concerts fourteen times a week at Coney Island. He mainly conducted Wagner. The concerts, at the seaside Brighton Beach Music Pavilion (capacity 3,000), included children’s programs and the Seidl Society children’s chorus. Seidl himself composed a work for the children, “Good Night,” the manuscript of which resides at the Seidl Archives at Columbia University.

“Good Night” received its first performance since 1898 in February, 2014, as part of “Scenes from Childhood,” a concert presented by PostClassical Ensemble  at DC’s Dumbarton Church. The chorus was Washington National Cathedral Choir of Boys and Girls (Michael McCarthy, conductor), conducted on this occasion by PCE Music Director Angel Gil-Ordonez.

The story of the Seidl Society is one of the strangest and most stirring in the history of classical music in America. It was a singular Brooklyn women’s club, founded by Laura Langford. In summer, the Society presented Seidl and his orchestra at Brighton Beach. In winter, the Society’s Seidl concerts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music were more numerous than those of the New York Philharmonic, also conducted by Seidl, across the river. Propagating Wagner as a spiritual therapy, the Society hosted working women and African-American orphans, presented lectures on social and spiritual betterment, reserved special railroad cars so unescorted women could attend the Brighton Beach concerts; its goal — aborted by Seidl’s death — was a Brooklyn Bayreuth.

Seidl had aspirations to compose, and was working on a Hiawatha opera when he died. Though he produced numerous transcriptions for orchestra, he left only a single composition of note: “Good Night,” composed and premiered in 1895. I discovered the score when researching my book Wagner Nights: An American History at Columbia University’s Seidl Archive. (I’ve also written about Seidl and Langford in Moral Fire: Musical Portraits from America’s Fin-de-Siecle). The text, a poem by Edna Dean Proctor, reads:

Good-night! Good-night! The morn will light
The east before the dawn,
And stars arise to gem the skies
When these have westward gone.
Good-night! And sweet be thy repose
Through all their shining way,
Till darkness goes, and bird and rose,
With rapture greet the day, –

“Good Night” was last performed on May 2, 1898 — the Seidl Society’s memorial concert for Anton Seidl. Emil Fischer, a much-loved bass in his final American performance, sang Wotan’s Farwell. The program also included the Dream Music from Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel, Liszt’s Les preludes and Concerto pathetique (arranged for piano and orchestra), and, to close, Siegfried’s Funeral Music, for which the audience was asked to stand. Langford rose to explain that, as Fischer was sailing for Europe that very day, Wotan’s Farewell would be repositioned near the beginning of the evening. This short speech effectively ended Laura Langford’s public career. A Seidl monument at Brighton Beach was advocated by the Eagle; none was erected. The Seidl Society ceased to exist.

For the PostClassical Ensemble performance, the piano accompaniment for “Good Night” was transcribed (and performed) for solo harp by Jacqueline Pollauf.

PCE’s Angel spends Cinco de Mayo with President Obama

President Barack Obama joins members of the Georgetown University Orchestra for a group photo in the Red Room before a Cinco de Mayo reception in the East Room of the White House, May 5, 2014.  (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy) This photograph is provided by THE WHITE HOUSE as a courtesy and may be printed by the subject(s) in the photograph for personal use only. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not otherwise be reproduced, disseminated or broadcast, without the written permission of the White House Photo Office. This photograph may not be used in any commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

President Barack Obama joins members of the Georgetown University Orchestra for a group photo in the Red Room before a Cinco de Mayo reception in the East Room of the White House, May 5, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
This photograph is provided by THE WHITE HOUSE as a courtesy and may be printed by the subject(s) in the photograph for personal use only. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not otherwise be reproduced, disseminated or broadcast, without the written permission of the White House Photo Office. This photograph may not be used in any commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.


PostClassical’s music director, Angel Gil-Ordóñez, was invited to participate in the Cinco de Mayo celebration at the White House and brought members of the Georgetown University Orchestra with him to perform.


Joe Horowitz’s blog in Arts Journal online about neglected Mexican composer Revueltas

PCE Executive Director, Joe Horowitz, has just published a blog entry in Arts Journal online, in which he discusses PostClassical Ensemble’s recent Mexican Revolution festival, whose attention focused on Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas.  
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PCE, in this week’s New Yorker magazine!

Writer Joan Acocella, dance and book critic for The New Yorker, has written an article which is running in the current issue of The New Yorker magazine.  The article is entitled “Country Strong: Manuel de Falla and the struggle to define Spanish dance;” click here to read the entire article.

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Andrew Mellon
Artmentor Foundation
Graham Holdings
Phillips Collection
Washington Performing Arts
Georgetown DPA
Indonesian Embassy
national gallery
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