William Perry was born in Elmira, New York and began composing
and conducting at the age of fifteen. He studied at Harvard University
with Paul Hindemith, Walter Piston and Randall Thompson. Although
he has written in most forms, and his works have been performed
by the Chicago, Saint Louis and Detroit Symphony Orchestras, amongst
others, it is as a composer for film that he is best known.
has written more than a hundred film scores, many of them for
the silent film collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New
York, including The General, Orphans of the Storm,
Blood and Sand, The Mark of Zorro and other classics.
He also received two Tony Award nominations for his score for
Broadway’s Wind in the Willows.
that wasn’t enough, he is also a television producer, his series
The Silent Years (1971 and 1975), with Orson Welles and
Lillian Gish, won an Emmy Award. Thereafter he produced a poetry
series for PBS (1976/1978) called Anyone for Tennyson?
with Clare Bloom, Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Vincent Price and
William Shatner, and the four part DVD series The Poetry
Hall of Fame, which he also hosted.
These six films based
on the works of Mark Twain were sponsored by PBS and, rather
refreshingly, the producer didn’t choose only the most obvious
works to dramatise.
First of all, let
me say that anybody expecting to find music of the calibre of
Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein or Lalo Schifrin – to name
but three of Perry’s close contemporaries – or even Roy Webb,
Bernard Herrmann or Alex North, from a generation earlier, will
be disappointed. This music has neither the sweep nor the overall
strength of those composers. What it does have is a pleasant
down-home Americana feel to it. It’s Film of the Week TV Movie
music, and it’s quite pleasant, but there isn’t much variety
Best of all, perhaps
because it comes first, is the score for The Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn. There’s ten pieces from the score which
feature the harmonica and it’s what people like to call “feel
good” music; little substance but nice sounds. Thereafter it
all sounds the same. I don’t feel either a strong musical personality
at work nor am I involved with the music. It’s all very four-square
with nothing to relieve the sameness. The booklet tells us that
Perry has “created music completely appropriate to the subject
matter … His use of wordless chorus and unusual orchestration
gives a special sense of color to the writing.” Certainly the
opening title music for The Mysterious Stranger uses
a tambourine and double reed instruments to create an eastern
flavour, but I wonder why when the film is set in a castle in
the Alps! The following track is pure Americana again, with
annoyingly obvious cadences and a boys’ choir la-la-ing its
way through the piece.
Not all film music
can live outside the film and it is more than likely that this
music works perfectly when heard within the film. I haven’t
seen the films so I don’t know but what I do know is that, for
me, this is not a successful venture. The music is too unvaried
and ordinary to hold the attention.
This is small beer
indeed. I wonder at its inclusion in Naxos’s Film Music Classics
series for this issue sits poorly by the side of previous releases
of music by composers of the stature of Herrmann, Steiner, Shostakovich,
Salter and Alfred Newman.