The Hearer of The Heiress

         Aaron Copland was a Brooklyn native who composed music that invoked images of American westerns. His music was seen as a great reflection of the American landscape. It was vast using high and low tones and nothing in between (the great plains region). This invoking of the west was a way for the New Yorker to fantasize about who he thought America was, a romantic cowboy. So why did the director William Wyler choose a western composer for his 1949 movie The Heiress, based on Henry James's 1880 Washington Square? Simply put, Copland's music is the interpretation of the story. Through Copland's fantasizing style and hollow-like sound, The Heiress' story is invoked and easily interpreted.

        The Heiress is a film about Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland), who is, according to her father, a woman that only has wealth to offer. She is charmed by the "gold-digger" Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift). She falls in love, but her father (Ralph Richardson) refuses to let her inherit the family fortune if she marries Morris. Morris refuses to marry her if she does not inherit the fortune. Catherine finally decides neither her father nor Morris will get what they want, and she decides to live without her father's inheritance (although she receives it anyway)] and without Morris' so-called love.

         Copland's music reflects Catherine's view of love because it shows the fantasizing aspect of what life/love in their eyes is. Copland views America as a romantic cowboy, which at the time was only true in American Folklore. Catherine views love in the same idyllic way. Love to her is a romantic prince, which at the time was only true in Victorian Fiction. The music reflects the over-romanticized views, and it gives false hope to the audience that it is all true, but they know in the back of their minds that they are watching a dream of what reality truly is.

         The sound of the music also reflects the storyline. Copland's style is a use of high and low notes, with no medium to connect them; this creates a hollow, vast and empty sound. When listening to Copland, one feels that he or she is getting a whole picture; but its hollowness makes it so that it could be crushed easily. In The Heiress one gets the same sense that, although Catherine and Morris are "in love," it is a hollow, empty love that has no root except that it is founded on money and charm. Copland's style helps the audience realize that, although the love looks and sounds as if it is great, there is a sense that it is unfounded and unreal because of the hollow style in the music.

         With Copland's music, the story of The Heiress comes to life. It reflects the fantasy of the love through its romanticizing tone and images it invokes, as well as reflects the hollowness and sham that Morris' love is. Without Copland's music, the audience could have fallen for Morris' trap, and left thinking a romantic cowboy prince was locked out by a bitter woman, rather than a greedy snake locked out by a heroine.

Susan Shircliff

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