On the Town: Three Dance Episodes
flute, oboe, 3 clarinets, 2 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion, strings
notes by Chris Myers
I. The Great Lover Displays Himself
II. Lonely Town: Pas de deux
III. Times Square: 1944
First performance: February 13, 1946, San Francisco. Leonard Bernstein, conductor.
The tragedies and triumphs of war have inspired composers to some of their greatest work. Some pieces are an immediate response to their experiences, such as Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, Haydn’s Mass in Time of War, Berg’s Wozzeck, or Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. Other pieces are tributes to heroes or victims of the past, such as Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture or Britten’s War Requiem. In World War II, the birth of modern media caused governments to realize that artists could be more useful to the war effort in their trained discipline than as conscripted soldiers, and composers were encouraged to produce work that supported national morale and education of the public.
As the first major war in the age of cinema, World War II offered a wholly new medium by which art could contribute to the war effort. The full resources of the American and British film industries were thrown into the creation of war movies ranging from newsreels and documentaries to dramas, romances, and comedies set in the conflict. Music from these films often managed to gain a life of its own, both on the radio and in the concert hall.
In 1941, British audiences were treated to “Dangerous Moonlight”, the story of a Polish pianist caught up in the destruction of his homeland. Throughout the film, which is told largely in flashbacks, he is haunted by the strains of the Warsaw Concerto – his great masterpiece whose composition was interrupted by the German invasion. The concerto’s evolution in the film parallels the hero’s recovery from injuries sustained during an air battle, with tragedies and triumphs reflected in the unfolding themes of the piece.
Brian Desmond Hurst, the director, originally intended to use Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto in the film. However, when the rights were too expensive, he asked Richard Addinsell to write a piece in a similar vein. Though a program seen in the film’s concert sequence lists a three movement concerto, Addinsell actually composed a single nine-minute movement from which themes could be drawn throughout the movie. The piece is never heard in its entirety in the film, revealing itself in bits and pieces as the story progresses.
Released as “Suicide Squadron” in the United States, “Dangerous Moonlight” was a box office success, and the concerto itself sold millions of copies when released on record. The popularity of the work resulted in a trend of so-called “tabloid concertos” that appeared in movies such as “Love Story” and “Hangover Square” across the next several years, and the Polish government-in-exile awarded Addinsell the Silver Cross of Merit “for outstanding service to Poland in the field of music.”
A year after “Dangerous Moonlight”, Leslie Howard’s “The First of the Few” told the story of aeronautical engineer R.J. Mitchell’s creation of the Supermarine Spitfire fighter plane in the years leading up to the war. Like “Dangerous Moonlight”, the film is structured in a series of flashbacks, with Mitchell’s friend telling the story as he and his fellow pilots prepare to fly into combat during the Battle of Britain.
“The First of the Few” was scored by William Walton. Dubbed “the head prefect of English music” by Benjamin Britten, Walton was widely regarded as the successor to Edward Elgar, having come to public attention with the success of his Crown Imperial march for the coronation of George VI. Upon the outbreak of war, the government exempted him from military service on the condition that he compose music for propaganda films. He eventually scored six films during the war—four in 1942 alone.
Shortly after the film’s premiere, Walton excerpted parts of the score to create the Spitfire Prelude and Fugue for concert performance. The prelude plays over the opening credits and is in the grand tradition of English marches with which Walton showed such skill. The fugue is derived from a sequence showing the assembly of the first Spitfire, with interwoven lines and counterpoint musically describing the intricate interaction of the mechanical parts as they come together. After a lyrical violin solo portraying the exhaustion of the plane’s creator, the march and fugue unite to accompany the completed plane’s triumphant launch.
Cinema didn’t hold a monopoly on wartime entertainment, of course. During the war, the Broadway stage was transformed by a new generation of composers and lyricists led by artists such as Rodgers and Hammerstein (whose Oklahoma! opened in 1943) and the New York Philharmonic’s young assistant conductor, Leonard Bernstein.
In April 1944, Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free premiered at New York’s Ballet Theatre with music by Bernstein. The ballet, which tells the story of three U.S. Navy sailors on leave for a single day in New York City, was an enormous success, and the creative team became convinced that it could be expanded into a hit musical. Betty Comden and Adolph Green joined as lyricists, and On the Town opened a mere eight months later.
Leonard Bernstein extracted three scenes from the musical for concert performance, explaining:
“In the Dance of the Great Lover, Gaby, the romantic sailor in search of the glamorous Miss Turnstiles, falls asleep in the subway and dreams of his prowess in sweeping Miss Turnstiles off her feet.
“In the Pas de Deux, Gaby watches a scene, both tender and sinister, in which a sensitive high-school girl in Central Park is lured and then cast off by a worldly sailor.
“The Times Square Ballet is a more panoramic sequence in which all the sailors in New York congregate in Times Square for their night of fun. There is communal dancing, a scene in a souvenir arcade, and a scene in the Roseland Dance Palace.”
Musicians in the concert hall also strove to do their part. In 1941, Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony, contacted composers and asked them to write fanfares for concerts in the 1942-43 season. Eighteen new works resulted, written by composers including Walter Piston, Darius Milhaud, Henry Cowell, Morton Gould, William Grant Still, and Howard Hanson. The works’ titles were indicative of the national mood: “A Fanfare for the Fighting French”, “A Fanfare for Paratroopers”, “A Fanfare for American Heroes”, “Fanfare for Freedom”. But one work stands out as unique, both because of its title and as the only work on the list to have remained in the standard repertoire.
Aaron Copland considered several titles for his contribution, but his imagination was captured by a May 1942 speech in which Vice-President Henry Wallace declared, “Some have spoken of the ‘American Century.’ I say that the century on which we are entering — The century which will come out of this war — can be and must be the century of the common man.”
On receiving Copland’s piece, Goosens informed Copland that it would be premiered on March 12, 1943. Copland later remarked, “I was all for honoring the common man at income tax time.” Fanfare for the Common Man was an instant success, and Copland later expanded it into one of the principal themes of his Symphony No. 3.
After the war, historians had their hands full assessing the conflict. In 1947, U.S. Navy Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison began work on his 15-volume History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. His research assistant, Henry Salomon, was overwhelmed by the huge amount of film footage that had been collected during the course of the war, and he felt that books could not do the material justice. Salomon proposed to NBC a television series using this footage to tell the Navy’s story. The network approved the project, and Salomon assembled a team to edit over eleven thousand hours of film down to fit twenty-six half-hour episodes. Victory at Sea was an enormous critical and popular success, winning both Emmy and Peabody awards.
Richard Rodgers, fresh from the success of The King and I, composed the music for the series. Rather than create the entire score, Rodgers wrote a dozen short themes which were expanded and developed extensively by Robert Russell Bennett, the orchestrator of Rodgers’ Broadway musicals. Bennett also composed a number of his own themes when none of Rodgers’ material seemed appropriate. The resulting score was very popular, and Perry Como took the “Beneath the Southern Cross” theme to the top of the charts in 1953 as “No Other Love,” with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.
A generation later, a young film director became fascinated with the story of a German industrialist’s attempt to save thousands of Jews from the Nazi concentration camps. As “Schindler’s List” went into development, Steven Spielberg asked his longtime collaborator John Williams to write the music. Williams approached Itzhak Perlman, a native of Israel and the son of two Polish Jews, to perform the violin solos in the film.
Spielberg and Williams returned to the war in a tribute to the D-Day landings. In “Saving Private Ryan”, John Williams took a less intimate approach than the folk song textures of “Schindler’s List”. The Hymn to the Fallen is an elegiac theme of noble elegance evoking a somber atmosphere of tribute to those who, in the words of Vice President Wallace, “spoke for the common man in terms of blood on the battlefield” to ensure that he continues “on the march toward even fuller freedom than the most fortunate peoples of the earth have hitherto enjoyed.”
Copyright © 2013 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.