This is a fascinating glimpse not only into the last years of one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated composers but also an instructive look into how film music works and doesn’t work.
Igor Stravinsky was 57 when he went to Hollywood in 1939. Walt Disney had wanted to use Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring
music for the dinosaur sequence of his classical music and animation film Fantasia
(1940). Copyright protection of the use of Russian music did not apply in America so Disney was automatically free to use it as he willed although he did pay Stravinsky ($6,000) for the privilege. Stravinsky was not amused when he saw the film; he did not like anybody tampering with his music – not a single note – and he considered Disney had truncated and rearranged his creation. Marco Capalbo’s film includes a short excerpt from this Fantasia
sequence and I believe most people would judge Disney’s Stravinsky selection to have been judicious.
Following this episode, Stravinsky was invited to submit musical cues for a number of other Hollywood films including 20th
Century Fox’s The Song of Bernadette
which starred Jennifer Jones as the young girl, Bernadette Soubirous who sees a vision of the Virgin Mary(?) at Lourdes. The invitation was also extended in relation to another Fox film, the Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine version of Jane Eyre
(1944). Capalbo lets us see and hear scenes from both films overlaying the music of Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann
respectively. Stravinsky’s music for the scene of Bernadette’s vision is reverential but cool, intellectual rather than emotional; Newman’s music is more involving, possibly a little too much, maybe too sweet for today’s ears. An eight-minute suite from Newman’s Bernadette music can be heard on the RCA classic film scores
of Alfred Newman recording, ‘Captain from Castile’ (also OST on Varese-Sarabande
). Stravinsky’s Jane Eyre
music underscores the scene where Jane has just met Mr Rochester who has been riding out on the moors. The cantering measures of the music seem appropriate enough but the point is that Stravinsky did not appreciate how the Hollywood system worked and the special demands of film music. He soon became alienated from the system and indeed recycled and wove what music he did write for the screen into later more formal works. During those early years in Hollywood he was to compose his Ebony Concerto
(1945) for Woody Herman, his ballet Orpheus
(1947) and his opera The Rake’s Progress
Another émigré to Hollywood was Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), leader of the Second Viennese School and developer of the twelve-tone technique. He taught at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles. A rivalry and mutual dislike built up between Stravinsky and Schoenberg and they ignored each other. It was only after Schoenberg’s death that Stravinsky began to appreciate his rival’s genius and later that of Anton Webern. Much of the film is dedicated to Stravinsky’s later period when he relaxed his pre-occupation with neo-classicism and embraced more modern styles in such pieces as Threni
(1958) and Movements
(1959). His last serial work was his Requiem Canticles.
It was played at his funeral in Venice. Stravinsky had moved from Hollywood to New York in 1969 to be near better medical aid.
The film includes tributes from the musicologist Robert Craft, who became Stravinsky's ‘adopted son’, living and working with the composer as part of his family and acting as his friend, chronicler, assistant conductor and secretary for countless musical and social tasks. There are numerous glimpses of Stravinsky filmed in black and white but only short and well-spaced out clips with him speaking. Colour film shows ‘Stravinsky’ out in his car enjoying the desert scenery. I add quotes around Stravinsky because I am not sure whether it is him or an actor playing the part – I guess there was a need for more pictures to cover Capalbo’s comprehensive and very articulate commentary.
An invaluable resource covering the last thirty years or so of Stravinsky’s remarkable career and life.