For too many years the perceived impression of “film
composers” - always used as a pejorative term, and usually spoken
with a sneer - was of talentless hacks who couldn’t make it
in the world of real concert music. This was akin to Mozart’s
expression: “those who can, do, those who can’t, teach”. Over
the past thirty years, starting with RCA’s Classic Film Scores
series, interest in music for film – a much more sensible term
– has grown and the composers are now seen as Composers (with
a capital C). The concept of “hacks” has, I hope, been dispelled
once and for all.
Looking at Max Steiner’s background, one thing he could
never be accused of was being was a talentless hack. Maximilian
Raoul Walter Steiner was born in 1888 in Vienna and his godfather
was Richard Strauss. His
paternal grandfather (also named Maximilian
was the influential manager of Vienna's Theater an der Wien.
His father was Gabor Steiner (1858-1944), Viennese impresario and carnival and exposition
manager, who built
the Ferris wheel – the Riesenrad
– in the Prater, which would become the setting for a key scene
in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). His
mother owned three of Vienna's favorite restaurants, and amongst
the family friends were Jacques Offenbach and Johann Strauss
Steiner, a prodigy in composition, received piano lessons from Johannes
Brahms, and, when fifteen years of age, enrolled at the Imperial
Academy of Music - now the University of Music and Performing
Arts, Vienna. He was taught by Gustav Mahler, amongst others.
His incredible musical ability allowed him to complete the Academy's
eight-year curriculum in only one year, and he was awarded their
One year later, Steiner wrote the book, lyrics and music, and conducted
the year long run, of a mucial comedy The Beautiful Greek
Girl. In 1914 he found himself working in London and on
the declaration of war was classified an enemy alien, but through
the friendship of the Duke of Westminster he was granted exit
papers and headed for New York.He arrived there in December
1914 with $32 in his pocket. Thereafter he worked on Broadway
for fifteen years as arranger, orchestrator and conductor for
such composers as Victor Herbert, Jerome Kern, Vincent Youmans
and George Gershwin.
Steiner went to Hollywood in 1929 to score the film version of Florenz
Ziegfield’s Rio Rita, and produced his own first score
in 1931 for Wesley Ruggles’s Cimarron. Two years later
his score for King Kong made his reputation and he continued
to work in Hollywood until his death in 1971. Steiner usually
worked with orchestrator Murray Cutter (1902–1980).
Steiner wrote music for all types of film – western: Santa Fe Trail
(1940) and They Died with Their Boots On (1941); biography:
The Life of Emile Zola (1937) and Sergeant York
(1941); romance: Casablanca (1942) and film noir: The
Big Sleep (1946) - receiving 26 Oscar nominations and winning
three. His favourite kind of film was a Bette Davis drama, and
here we have two of them, and one of his epic adventure scores.
All This, and Heaven Too is a large undertaking – over 100 minutes of music,
of which we are given 45, more than enough to satisfy listeners.
Although set in 1841 Steiner didn’t make any concessions to the
music of the period (except for the use of Gluck’s Armide Overture), there’s
a healthy bit of Americana and some good, full bloodied, romantic
love music. Most impressive is track 11, an elegy for the dying,
and subsequently dead, Duke. Steiner is at his most eloquent here.
The story of A Stolen Life concerns twins – one
good, one bad, both played by Bette Davis – and the triumph
of the good one over her sibling. It’s not a new story by any
means, films with this plot are still being made, but what made
this film special was Bette Davis. The music is more varied
than that for All This, and Heaven Too but it still contains
Steiner’s rich lyricism and romantic love music, and there’s
also an amount of Americana – the film is set in New England.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of the best depictions of greed and
the effects it has on three men. Set in Mexico in modern times
- B. Traven’s book was published in German in 1927 and in English
in America in 1935 - it offers great performances from Humphrey
Bogart, Walter Huston (the director’s father) and Tim Holt.
Starting in a light-hearted manner the music follows the downfall
of the three men as they find gold, lose friendship and end
in death and disillusion. If you’ve never seen the film I’ve
just ruined the ending for you.
A leitmotif portraying the prospectors’ journey binds
the score together, appearing in many different guises. This
music is much grittier than the other scores here discussed
and it’s all the better for it: it shows Steiner could write
“hard bitten” music as well as a romantic tune.
Incidentally, the novelist B Traven relished his privacy
and went out of his way to hide from any kind of publicity. In
1978 Will Wyatt made a documentary for the BBC entitled B Traven:
A Mystery Solved. It’s worth watching to get some background
to this strange writer, and it includes an interview with John
Huston, director of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Find
Like Korngold, Steiner considered his film scores as
operas without singing and wrote not just descriptive cues but
long, continuous, stretches of music which covered several scenes,
or even reels of film – track 9 is a good example of how Steiner
could compose on a large scale and cover many different moods
In general, the performances are excellent – in the Bette
Davis CD the upper strings seemed stretched at times, but there’s
no such problems in the other CD – the sound is bright and clear
and the notes, by Rudy Behlmer, are good; both booklets contain
information by John Morgan about the restorations he has undertaken
on the scores - the same notes which are oddly lacking in the
Alfred Newman disk reviewed elsewhere.
It is a real pleasure to welcome these re-issues of fine
music for film.