Music for the Silver Screen

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?

‘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!

The very first film music
Before the silent era ended in 1926 producers didn’t have to worry about the intricacies of music and action. But that year Darryl Zanuck at Warner, using the Vitaphone system, hired the New York Philharmonic to record the music for Don Juan. This was followed in 1927 by The Jazz Singer in which Al Jolson sang seven songs and spoke 281 words, including ‘You ain’t heard nothin’ yet’. Then in 1929 MGM claimed the high ground by making Broadway Melody. This was the first genuine musical, and the first to win an Oscar.

Hollywood became a magnet, attracting European talent which had been classically trained. Erich Korngold came from Brno, Dimitri Tiomkin from St Petersburg, and Miklós Rózsa from Budapest. But the development for symphonic scoring for films owes much to Max Steiner (1888-1971) from Vienna. He had already found fame as a musician in Europe and New York before arriving in the film capital. He made his mark with the score for Cimarron, the Oscar-winning best picture of 1931. Then in 1932, encouraged by David O Selznick, he made a giant leap, writing music for almost half the running time of Symphony of Six Million. Later the same year his music for The Bird of Paradise played during the whole film. His pioneering work in this young industry involved using opera-style leitmotifs. Recurring themes depicted character or place. His music also helped to illustrate the internal world of the actors, especially in King Kong (1933), suggesting the emotions of the giant ape. The concept of conveying meaning to the audience through music – meaning which was beyond the limits of dialogue – was soon accepted as being one of the functions of a film’s score. Steiner won Academy Awards for The Informer (1935), Now, Voyager (1942) and Since You Went Away (1944).

But Max Steiner’s enduring fame was ensured by his score for Gone with the Wind (1939). It is accepted practice, owing to pressure of time, for film composers to employ orchestrators. Steiner had three months to write the GWTW score, during which time he was also composing for three other films! He wrote detailed short scores on four staves which he then passed to his five orchestrators. Two hours and 36 minutes of his composition was used in the final film.

Because of their classical background, several of this pre-War generation of film composers found the energy and the will to write also for the concert hall. Erich Korngold had been a child prodigy. His first task in Hollywood was arranging Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). He quickly found success with his scores for Anthony Adverse (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940). His music was exciting and romantic, and like Steiner, he used his themes to strengthen character and emotion. He also wrote a fine Violin Concerto, Sinfonietta for large orchestra and several sonatas, string quartets and songs.

Franz Waxman (1906-67), famed for his Sunset Boulevard and A Place in the Sun scores (1950 and 1951), also wrote a Sinfonietta for String Orchestra and timpani. And more recently, American Jerome Moross (1913-83), whose superb score for Wyler’s The Big Country (1958) has been much imitated, was also known for his symphonies.

The crossover kings
Miklós Rózsa (1907-95) was probably the most successful at combining cinema and concert hall. His list of film successes was long and included Double Indemnity, Quo Vadis, King of Kings, Ivanhoe, Spellbound, El Cid, and Lust for Life. In Ben-Hur Rózsa holds the record for the longest score. Though his music helped define the time and place depicted in the films, its character often displayed a Hungarian quality. His concert works have been widely played by artists such as Jascha Heifetz, Pinchas Zukerman, Leonard Bernstein and André Previn. An interesting example is his Violin Concerto which was later adapted for Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). But very few movie composers have been anywhere near as successful crossing over from film to ‘serious’ music.

Historically, the giant is the American Bernard Herrmann (1911-75). As a young man, before he became involved in the film industry, he was already conducting the New York Philharmonic, and despite his enormously successful contribution to movies, he harboured a lifelong desire to be a world-famous conductor. But this ambition was diverted by Orson Welles who asked him to compose for his Mercury Theatre radio dramas. This quickly led to Herrmann writing the scores for Welles’ two acclaimed films, Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). He then adapted the Kane score into the orchestral suite Welles Raises Kane. In the mid-1950s he became indelibly linked with the films of Alfred Hitchcock (eight scores); in fact it is impossible to overestimate how much the music contributed to their success. His finest work was done for Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960).

Perhaps what distinguishes Herrmann from others is that he wrote his own full orchestrations. Special features of his unique sound were woodwind and brass playing in low registers, and unusual and unexpected combinations of instruments. His genius endured to the end of his life. In the 1970s he was sought out by the movie brats to write for Brian de Palma’s Sisters (1973) and Obsession (1976) and Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver (1976). This, his final score, with its atmospheric swelling chords and glorious saxophone, was outstanding. When Scorsese made his version of Cape Fear (1991), he re-recorded the original Herrmann score from the 1961 film. Herrmann also wrote an opera, Wuthering Heights, and the cantata Moby Dick – both have been recorded.

Like Herrmann and Hitchcock, other composers have allied themselves with one director, contributing to each other’s success. John Williams (not to be confused with the guitarist) has so far written 14 scores for Steven Spielberg’s films. In an age of increasing pop and synthesiser film muisic, Williams has done more than anyone to maintain the heavily symphonic tradition of Bernard Herrmann, Erich Korngold and Max Steiner. Williams has now received four Academy Awards for original scoring, for Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), ET (1982) and Schindler’s List (1993). He went back to Herrmann’s Psycho to find the inspiration for Jaws, which is full of European influence, reflecting Williams’s love of Russian composers. The revival in popularity of the symphonic score after Star Wars was clearly manifested when the subsequent score for The Empire Strikes Back was issued as a recording before the film was released. Williams has written many concert works, including concertos for violin and flute, and two symphonies. The intensity of his writing for violin is also heard in Itzhak Perlman’s playing for Schindler’s List.

The rise of jazz and pop
Since the 1960s the demand for symphonic scoring has been more limited and jazz scores became popular. Alex North (1919-91) began this trend with A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), followed by Elmer Bernstein in The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). In Love with the Proper Stranger (1964) Bernstein linked the music with the film’s story about a jazz musician. Cassavetes’s Too Late Blues (1962) also had a jazz group backdrop and David Raskin’s music reflected this, while Johnny Mandel’s jazz idiom set the right mood for I Want to Live (1958). As jazz faded, rock and pop became commercially unstoppable, and eventually produced its own film composers like Giorgio Moroder (American Gigolo, 1980) and Vangelis (Chariots of Fire, 1981). By the 1990s synthesiser and pop tracks were legion.

Today producers are demanding soundtracks which are commercially viable in their own right as CDs. Tarantino’s hugely successful Pulp Fiction, with its complete history of pop, is testament to this. Michael Nyman has found the cinema his most lucrative medium, setting a soundtrack sales record for Jane Campion’s The Piano. With the cinema’s recent centenary there has been a wealth of releases of film scores by Hollywood greats – most recently from Nonesuch in their ‘Film Series’ – as well as such lesser-known scores as Hindemith’s In Sturm und Eis. The German company ECM has even released the entire soundtrack of Jean-Luc Godard’s abstract film Nouvelle Vague as a self-sufficient CD album, dialogue and incidental sounds included!

Classic CD magazine, 1997


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