You can’t talk about twentieth-century music without acknowledging the cinema. As the music of Rebel without a Cause and Jules et Jim comes out on CD, Peter Davey tells the story of sound and vision, taking in composes lured to Hollywood, and how the best film-score writers stand up to the greatest classics.
Can you imagine Jaws without John Williams’s menacing, accelerating theme as the shark’s fin makes its first appearance on screen? Or how much less shocking 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’s new film Paradise Road is set in a Japanese prisoner of war camp where inmates sing arrangements of classical music. Its soundtrack of appropriated classics will no doubt thrive as Mozart did after Amadeus, Mahler after Death in Venice and Rachmaninov after Brief Encounter, and, most recently, Shine. 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?