Observations from “Heavenly Music” (1943)

Someone recently told me about this interesting short film and I was inspired to find it and make some observations about it. It’s called “Heavenly Music” and won the Academy Award for Best Short in 1943. Produced by Sam Coslow for MGM, this short brings up an number of fascinating topics. It’s about a musician who wants to get in to heaven, but he has to pass an audition in front of history’s great composers to see if his popular music will stand the test of time. That in itself is an interesting question, because “popular” or even “folk” music is often not thought of as “art” music in America nowadays. But in times past, the line between “popular” and “art” music was a lot more blurred. As one of my favorite music professors always says, “Music is music is music”. This little short actually makes a good point at the end, spoken by Joy, the angel.

Another fascinating observation you can make from watching the short is that there are no women in musicians’ heaven! Brahms, Wagner Beethoven, etc. but no Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, or Nadia Boulanger! Actually, when we read most music history books or browse the library shelf, the percentage of male versus female composers is vastly disproportionate. I really don’t know why this is. Only look at the impact of Nadia Boulanger on American composition and we see that it has nothing to do with ability of men versus women (see below). But I remember even thinking as a young girl, “Is it even okay for me to write music?” (And for all you aspiring women musicians out there, of course the answer is “Yes!”. If you need more inspiration, check out the “Unstoppable” add by Always below.) Now I was brought up to believe I could pursue any type of art of music I wanted, so my question didn’t come from my upbringing, but from the almost complete lack of women composers mentioned in music history. I really believe this is a very interesting topic and relevant and no doubt one that is changing as we speak. For further reading, I would recommend “Women in Music” edited by Karin Anna Pendle: http://www.amazon.com/Women-Music-Karin-Anna-Pendle/dp/025321422X.

And as someone who loves studying Medieval music culture, I was struck by the part in the short about how the composers started fighting over who stole whose melody. Now I seriously doubt they would have done this since there are often so many similar melodies that com up in compositions. The reason I bring up Medieval music is because in those days, composers took others music on purpose and fashioned it into their own music. It was the idea of taking pre-existing material and working with it, the same way a carpenter takes wood from a forest. There were no copyright restrictions. And from this composers were able to build on each other to have a unified but varied musical culture that was able to grow from the discoveries of others. We composers still do this today, listening to each other’s ideas, making observations, and crafting our own works. We just have to be aware and not to downright copy.

The last observation I will mention is the way the young composer in the film had to come up with a piece of music in 10 minutes. He did so by relying on his muse, the angel “Joy”. She inspired him and he “composed” a song on the spot. This is the mythical idea of “genius”, that music just comes to the composer out of the air, with little or no effort. But the reality is that music is the result of crafting, of gathering material, making observations, thinking, experimenting, learning from others, learning from nature. Natural ability is involved, but it requires cultivation. It doesn’t just happen. Early composers, even people like the great J. S. Bach, thought of themselves as craftsman. Beethoven had to write and re-write his compositions. The idea of “genius” came later. It’s a topic I would someday like to learn more about, but one that is very important to keep in mind, especially for young composers.

I’m sure there are many things we could talk about after watching this short film. These kinds of discussions are good food for thought.

“Heavenly Music (1943)

“Mademoiselle” – Nadia Boulanger

Always #LikeAGirl – Unstoppable

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