EDITOR: Ian Lace
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Will Korngold and Herrmann Be Counted As Giants of 20th Century?

Ian Lace peers into his crystal ball to see what lies in store for film music in the next century.


"It happened in 1899? But that’s practically ancient history!" I remember hearing my elders making exclamations like this when I was a small child in the early1940s. It is amazing how the turning of a century can consign so many events so quickly to musty pages of history.

Film music, and I mean original film music, reaches the age of around 70 as we turn the corner into the new millennium.  [I am ignoring those few original scores that had been written for silent films including (as far as we know) the very first one, written by Saint Saëns for The Death of the Duke of Guise (1908).  For the purpose of this article, I am referring, as my starting point, to music for the emerging talkies and the work of the pioneers like Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold.]

Now, as we approach the year 2000, the artistic merit of original film music is at last showing signs of becoming accepted. Well, almost!  There is still some way to go.   Small steps forward are, too often, offset by one or two backward lurches.   First, let us cheer ourselves with some of the more positive evidence.  New recordings of film music are proliferating.  For the first time, this year a Promenade Concert, at London’s Royal Albert Hall was devoted entirely to Film Music. Gramophone began to include a film music category in their Awards programme (much to the delight of the audience, comprising its readers, invited to the Awards event itself.)  Now to the down side.  I understand that the new publishers of Gramophone have discontinued the Film Music Award category.  Academic institutions, especially in the UK are still very dubious about the whole genre of film music.  And there is misinformed carping here on the Internet; recently, an American woman journalist accused film music of being unoriginal.  Were Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven etc. completely original?  Of course not, they often based their work on the established compositions and styles of their days.  But it was their genius that added that extra ingredient that propelled music forward.

Mozart died a pauper, his genius largely ignored by his contemporaries. How many composers, and their compositions, lacked recognition until, in many cases, years--sometimes centuries-- after their deaths?  It often takes many years for compositions to be recognised, released from the fashions and prejudices of their times.   We only have to remember how Elgar’s music was out of joint with the times from the 1920's and 30's up until the 1960's, after it began to be "rediscovered" after Ken Russell’s film was shown on British television. Only a few years ago, Korngold was derided by the "cognoscente." More corn than gold was the received opinion.

Indirect and external prejudices often work negatively too. The cinema, in its early days, was considered inferior to the live theatre, which, in turn, was considered inferior to the opera house.  What nonsense, what snobbery!  How sensible the Americans are to call their cinemas theaters.

There has always been an air of denigration attached to film music by colleges and universities, especially so here in the UK.  Consequently, much of the early British film music (with some notable exceptions) gives the impression it is 'bread and butter' work enabling its writers to create more worthwhile, more serious music.  In other words, they appear to be serious composers who also write film music.  (No wonder Walton's music stands out; living, for the most part in Italy, he was beyond the reach of establishment negativity.)  On the other hand, composers like Waxman, Herrmann, and Rózsa gave the opposite impression--committed film music composers who incidentally wrote works for the concert hall or recital room.  As much as I champion British Music (and I do fervently), I deplore British xenophobia in this context and particularly when it comes round to Oscar time. Having said that, I must add that we are fortunate in the present generation of British film composers, eg. Rachel Portman and George Fenton, who work successfully on both sides of the Atlantic.  Nevertheless, I believe we should recognise American supremacy when it comes to film music.

After much digression, I now arrive at the main point of this rather rambling article.   Will film music ever really attain the full recognition it deserves?  I believe it will.  I think it will become increasingly recognised as the new century progresses for the reasons I will set out. First, however, let me plead that we should be wary that we do not allow our love of the genre to run away with us lest we are deemed to be indiscriminate.

As an exercise, I once used the Microsoft’s Cinemania software to see how many of its literally thousands of listed films had memorable scores.  I could calculate only 6%.  (This percentage might really be 10% if I include scores I have forgotten and other worthy film music I don’t know or that have still to be "rediscovered" for recording purposes.  But I am an avid film fan, so I reckon I captured most worthy scores in my trawl.)  This low percentage shows that the majority of films have totally forgettable music.  I also think that we can go overboard in treasuring our favourite scores.  Again, with a few notable exceptions such as Herrmann’s Vertigo score, do we really need to preserve practically every single note?!?  I believe that Charles Gerhardt had the right approach in recording the best of the classic scores.  Yes, we could include more material than he did, in many instances, but maybe quality rather than quantity should rule?  Alas, the majority of the new scores I review are destined never to enter my CD tray again.   Too often, just a few dependable talents like John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith impress.  There is no room for complacency if we want a significant number of today’s scores remembered tomorrow.  Too often, my fellow reviewers and I have the impression that we are hearing composition "by numbers"!

So, looking in my crystal ball, what do I ‘see’ in 2033?  Fundamentally, I foresee a positive change in attitudes as film music "comes of age," and gains the respect associated with the venerability of 100 years of history.  Korngold, Steiner, Herrmann, and the other leading pioneers of the Golden Age of film music will be venerated as the ‘Bachs,’ ‘Beethovens,’ and ‘Brahms’of the genre.  Later composers like John Williams, Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith, all probably at rest by then, will also be highly esteemed.  Their work will be the subject of many a learned treatise in a growing number of colleges and universities.   As today’s academics take their leave for the colleges in the sky, more enlightened, less prejudiced generations will take their place that will accept symphonic scores as just another genre of classical music like ballet or opera.  This attitude will accelerate as the demand for places in film music schools grows to keep apace with the equally accelerating growth and divergence of entertainment media, as leisure time expands.  All these new programmes will need incidental music.  It may well be that film music will be the strongest flourishing genre in the next century.  Those in other branches of classical music might do well to ponder on that possible scenario!

Hopefully, the work of the film score reconstructionists will be aided by new emerging technologies.  What if, for example, some new invention allowed the dialogue and sound effects to be filtered out from the actual film stock and just the music enhanced?   Such an invention would be a real spur to more reconstruction work.  Think of how many hours of painstaking work and research it would save.  [I realise, of course, it could not retrieve the music the composers had written which was not actually recorded on the film stock, nevertheless…]  New technologies might provide new instrumentation, or render synth music capable of more subtlety, so that it more closely approaches the flexibility of acoustic instruments. Who knows what advances there might be in computer-generated music?

Regarding 21st century film music, selective mechanisms will be triggered to ensure that worthy scores by the "Danny Elfmans" of the day are preserved for posterity.  No more will future film musicologists have to grope around in arcane places to piece together what future generations will come to regard as major film compositions.  Likewise libraries and museums devoted to the whole art of film, including film music, will be part of the accepted cultural heritage of the world’s major cities.  What about home enthusiasts?  They no doubt will be able to access any film score from these libraries and be able to play the music in breathtaking sound.  If they want their own collection, a considerable home library will be able to be accommodated in a relatively small area.  Furthermore, new acquisitions will be catalogued automatically as they join the collection and an evening’s entertainment of any length, could be programmed from any selections from any number of albums in any order.

To misquote a current advertisement slogan–things can only get better.   Here’s to the approaching second century of film music.

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