In the early 1940s Aaron Copland cultivated an identity as an authority on film composition through public lectures, interviews, and his own film scores. Championing film music’s potential as a serious art form, Copland sought to show Hollywood that film composers could branch out from the romantic and post-romantic aesthetics that infused contemporary soundtracks and write in a more modern, even American, style. During the 1940s the film industry was already embracing an abundance of new production styles, techniques, and genres that fostered innovation in the development of cinematic musical codes. When Copland returned to Hollywood in 1948 to score William Wyler’s psychological melodrama The Heiress (1949), he chose to take on a set of new challenges. Copland attempted to discover a new idiom for love music, on the one hand, and began to use leitmotifs as a structural device, on the other.
Copland’s experience with The Heiress opens a space in which to reassess his opinions about appropriate film-scoring techniques as well as his public endorsement of film composition. His perspectives on film composition—as demonstrated in his writings, correspondence, and film scores as well as in interviews and reviews of his film music—reveal a tension between the composer’s artistic sensibilities and his attitude toward the commercialism of film music. Indeed he maintained a more ambivalent attitude toward cinematic composition than he publically professed. Understood in this context, Copland’s scoring decisions in The Heiress reflect a turn away from the Americana of Rodeo (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1944) and the Russian-themed score of The North Star (1943), as he sought to refashion his identity as a composer in the post-war years.