Music of the Movies

With the bestselling success of the Titanic soundtrack, film music has never been more popular. Michael Scott Rohan hails an end to snobbery about film scores.

Two bands played on while Titanic sank – one on the ship, the other on the soundtrack. It’s this second band which really drives home the drama. Alfred Hitchcock once described an innocuous scene of people chatting in a sunny room – and its total transformation when the audience discovered there was a corpse behind the door. Music can subtly subvert that innocent atmosphere even before the audience knows anything – ‘reaching out’, as Bernard Herrmann once said, ‘and enveloping all into one single experience’.

This is no mean art to command; and yet over the last half-century the musical establishment has constantly undervalued film scoring. As recently as the late 1960s an otherwise go-ahead young music lecturer informed me that the Sinfonia Antarctica couldn’t be a real symphony because it was just ‘cobbled-together film music’. Where did this kind of blindness come from? In considering the answer we can restore credit to some, at least, of cinema’s underrated musical giants.

Music and drama are natural partners, with a common origin in ancient hunting chants and dances. Music, filling a barren stage with atmosphere and raising the emotional temperature, has been an essential element of theatre since the choric chants of Greek drama and the gory pageantry of Rome, accompanied by the deafening hydraulis or water-organ, a sort of ancestral Mighty Wurlitzer. The gallery band of Shakespeare’s Globe grew into the full-scale orchestras of the nineteenth century. Many of the greatest composers turned their powers to stage music – Purcell, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Grieg, Sibelius, to name only a few, and nobody thought the worse of them.

When silent film appeared, lacking dialogue or any means of conveying ambiance, it naturally picked up the theatrical tradition. Often music was played on the set, to create atmosphere and help the actors’ pacing, and in the cinema it was all-important – rarely the tinkling piano of legend, but often full orchestras playing scores specially commissioned and cued. Saint-Saëns, no less, was probably the first major composer to create one, for The Assassination of the Duc of Guise. Such sophistication even allowed the filming of ‘silent’ operas, with the more photogenic prima donnas such as Mary Garden in Thaïs, or Geraldine Farrar in Cecil B De Mille’s Carmen.

Music became as natural to film as it had been to the stage. Why, then, did it suddenly become so much less acceptable? Film created a new dramatic vocabulary, fast-moving, intense, forever fluid, forcing music to evolve with it. This created new styles and techniques, but could also reduce composers to stereotypical effects, such as ‘spine-chilling’ string scrubs, or punctuating every action and cut on screen – known as ‘Mickey-Mousing’. Most detrimental, curiously enough, was the coming of sound.

Early soundtracks were so dismal and scratchy that music became more a distraction than an enhancement, and many early talkies did without it almost completely. By the time recording improved, the rise of Nazism was bringing an influx of European refugee composers to Hollywood, including Vienna’s prize conservative and revolutionary, respectively Korngold and Schoenberg – the latter’s one attempt at a film score was a predictable disaster. Good musicians were ten a penny, and inevitably their standing declined. Increasingly the studio system reduced music, like writing, to a staff product for which the head of department would take credit even if he had not composed a note. This tended to force films to conform to the lowest common denominator of taste. It became a refuge for banal tradition, judged reactionary by the advanced, vulgar by the traditionalists. The reputation of Hollywood composers suffered accordingly. Less biased musicians might applaud the fierce originality of Max Steiner’s King Kong, or the young Bernard Herrmann’s score for Citizen Kane, but it won them no place in the concert hall. Korngold was never again taken seriously, let alone figures like Franz Waxman and Alfred Newman.

In other countries film could still command the attention of ‘real’ composers. Richard Strauss himself provided the score for a silent Rosenkavalier – and very bad it was, too; Ibert wrote songs for Chaliapin in Pabst’s Don Quixote. Conversely, Berg wrote a film interlude in Lulu. In Russia, cinema’s official status made it a legitimate arena for serious composers. Prokofiev’s scores for Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible were among the first to penetrate the concert hall.

In England, although the industry favoured lightweight music, it occasionally attracted more imaginative work such as Arthur Bliss’s score for Korda’s Things to Come. An enthusiast among established composers was Vaughan Williams, who wanted to score cowboy films; after the pastoral Loves of Joanna Godden he made his mark with wartime epics 49th Parallel and Coastal Command, and the post-war masterpiece Scott of the Antarctic, source of the Sinfonia Antarctica. He provided Walton with encouragement and material for his immensely popular music to Olivier’s Henry V. The rise of the documentary led Benjamin Britten to create Night Mail and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Bax, Alwyn and Malcolm Arnold all wrote film scores, while horror films provided a useful outlet for serialists such as Benjamin Frankel and Humphrey Searle. Elsewhere, too, avant-garde composers turned to the cinema, such as Japan’s Toru Takemitsu in the films of Akira Kurosawa.

Hollywood, however, tended to absorb them rather than develop them. Bernard Herrmann, whose career stretched from the 1930s to the 1970s, was a case in point. Graduate of New York’s prestigious Juilliard school, friend of leading mainstream composers, he produced substantial non-cinematic works such as the cantata Moby Dick and the opera Wuthering Heights, but at best they won him patronising pats on the head. In Hollywood itself he was often regarded as just one more good jobbing professional like Hans Salter, provider of stock spookiness for House of Frankenstein and its ilk. All too often Herrmann’s music dignified really inferior material like disaster-master Irwin Allen’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Only with such masters as Hitchcock, Truffaut and Scorsese, and perhaps also Ray Harryhausen’s fantasies, do the films achieve anything like the same level of sophistication and originality. His scores for Psycho, Taxi Driver, and Fahrenheit 451 are as worthy of serious attention as Sibelius’s or Nielsen’s theatre music; but only in recent years have they received it.

The change began, ironically, around the time of Herrmann’s death, in 1975 – the day he finished Taxi Driver. As Scorcese, Coppola and other creative new directors began to jolt Hollywood out of its old ruts, their work demanded a more sophisticated musical approach. John Williams, who scored the Spielberg and Lucas blockbusters, was crucial for raising audience awareness. His high-profile orchestral powerhouses, sinister and discordant for Jaws, wildly grandiose for Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, caught audience imagination as firmly as the rest of the film, and soon mainstream conductors such as Zubin Mehta were performing and recording them. The new Hollywood inspired a whole new generation of composers such as Briton James Horner, and seemed to revivify even established figures like Jerry Goldsmith. Young composers appeared from wildly divergent backgrounds – Danny Elfman from rock and Michael Kamen from Juilliard, both sound and original musicians. Elsewhere, too, cinema became less of a ghetto. Michael Nyman’s music infused Peter Greenaway’s enigmatic The Draughtsman’s Contract and Prospero’s Books; Patrick Doyle’s caught the vigour of Kenneth Branagh’s popular classics. Minimalist Philip Glass’s new score for Cocteau’s dreamlike Beauty and the Beast is as central to his work as any of his operas.

Today an increasingly sophisticated public willingly accepts both the traditional and the less conventional with their films – more open-minded than most concert audiences. And they are more willing to appreciate the genius of such figures as Steiner and Waxman, Herrmann, Miklós Rozsa and even that succulently ripe ham Korngold. Ironically, the outbreak of musical energy and awareness in the cinema may well be instrumental in creating the new audiences the embattled mainstream so badly needs.

Classic CD magazine, 1998


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