About this work
Having won Academy Award nominations for each of his first three Hollywood film scores -- Of Mice and Men (1939), Our Town (1940), and The North Star (1943) -- Copland was much in demand for further film music. When he finally decided to return to films after completing his Symphony No. 3 in 1947, it was once again in collaboration with producer-director Lewis Milestone, with whom Copland had worked on the first and third of the films mentioned above. Milestone, whom Copland called "a classy and intelligent director," had decided to make his first color film an adaptation of John Steinbeck's novella The Red Pony. Once he had read, and liked, the Steinbeck book, Copland decided to join the project, agreeing to write and record approximately an hour of music -- one of his largest musical efforts -- in ten weeks for a significant (for the time, at least) fee of $15,000. The film and score were completed in 1948, with the film released the following year.
Steinbeck's novella tells the story of Jody Tiflin (renamed Tom in the film), a young boy who lives on a ranch near Salinas, CA, with his parents and the cowhand Billy Buck. The novella and film deal with the death of Tom's beloved pony Gabilan and the subsequent birth of Gabilan's foal, along with the relationships between the various characters and scenes of everyday life on the ranch. Steinbeck himself wrote the film's screenplay, slightly condensing and rearranging the action of his book.
Even before the film was released, Copland had decided to extract a concert suite from the score (premiered in Houston, TX, on October 30, 1948, by the Houston Symphony conducted by Efrem Kurtz). The six-movement suite contains:
(1) "Morning on the Ranch," which uses music from the beginning (early stirrings on the ranch) and ending (the birth of the foal) of the film;
(2) "The Gift," depicting the moment when Gabilan is given to Tom and his excited presentation of Gabilan to his friends;
(3) "Dream March and Circus Music," which accompanies two of Tom's daydreams -- one in which he and Billy Buck lead an army of knights in armor into battle, another in which Tom is a circus ringmaster;
(4) "Walk to the Bunkhouse," with melodies representing Billy Buck as well as Tom's admiration for Billy and his mare;
(5) "Grandfather's Story," in which Tom's visiting grandfather tells about how he led a wagon train across the country; and
(6) "Happy Ending," which, like "Morning on the Ranch," uses material from the beginning and ending of the film.
Curated by Raquel Garzás García-Pliego, Pianist