In this centenary year of the cinema, film music is a huge best-seller, thanks to soundtracks such as ‘The Piano’. Peter Davey looks at the unique combination of sound and vision, the composers who were lured into Hollywood, and how the most successful movie score writers stand up to the greatest classical music.
Can you imagine Jaws without John Williams’s menacing, accelerating theme as the shark’s fin makes its first appearance on screen? Or how odd Janet Leigh’s shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho would be if it wasn’t accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s piercing, jagged-edge orchestral score? ‘Film music’, said Herrmann, ‘can intensify the inner thoughts of the characters, can invest a scene with terror or gaiety, can propel narrative forward or slow it down, and is the communicating link between screen and audience’. In the endless variety of music scores you will find everything from the heavily symphonic, swooning love music of Steiner’s Gone with the Wind to the circus polkas and Sicilian rhythms of Nino Rota’s La Strada and Godfather series. This month there are film biographies of Beethoven and an eighteenth-century castrato singer – Immortal Beloved and Farinelli. Their soundtracks of appropriate classical music will no doubt thrive as Mozart did after Amadeus, Mahler after Death in Venice and Rachmaninov after Brief Encounter. But what about those composers who write especially for the cinema? What is their greatest work and which films should we watch to appreciate their best music?
‘Music is there to enhance the mood, illuminate the narrative and characters, to point out any subplots in a scene and to make the film really play’, says George Fenton – one of today’s most successful film score writers who has won two Oscars for Cry Freedom and has been nominated for four more including Gandhi, Dangerous Liaisons and The Fisher King. ‘It is the film composer’s job to read the film for its intentions and make what the film’s about enjoyable, thrilling, accessible and touching. He’s the last person in the process who can react to the picture and put an interpretation on it.’
Film composers have to be pragmatic. They are given impossible deadlines and ludicrous demands. Victor Young, composer of Shane (1953), who arrived in Hollywood from Warsaw in the mid-1930s was once told by a producer to write music in the major for when the leading actress was on screen, in the minor for the leading actor, and when they were both on screen together the music should be both major and minor!