Film Music on the Web (UK)

Music Webmaster Len Mullenger


by Ian Lace

© Ian Lace 1998

Part II

"Those surging Romantic scores are out!"

(NB In this article, Academy Award winning scores are abbreviated as AA and Academy Award nominations as AAN).

The 1950s was a decade of intense upheaval in Hollywood. Cinema attendances were declining from the peak years of the 1940s and the public was turning increasingly to television for entertainment. People were becoming more sophisticated and demanding. They were no longer content to accept "cardboard" sets representational of a Welsh mining valley or an African jungle; they wanted the real thing. Consequently film crews travelled to the four corners of the earth and producers invested in technical innovation such as 3D, CinemaScope and stereophonic sound to tempt back dwindling audiences.

Music for the cinema began to change too. Throughout the 1940s the standard screen score had been a hybrid of late romantic classical, operetta and Broadway musical forms. Franz Waxman's Academy Award winning score for A Place in the Sun (1951) was one of the first to erode this convention. It uses jazz inflections, in an otherwise straightforward formal orchestral score to characterise the fatal allure Elizabeth Taylor has for Montgomery Clift.

But it was Alex North's Oscar nominated music for A Streetcar Named Desire (again in 1951), that really broke new ground. This was a totally jazz score appropriate to its New Orleans setting. From the "real live" jazz that you know is being played in the "Four Deuces", the score deftly turns to commentative jazz (chiefly with the addition of emotive strings) emphasising the squalor of the area of New Orleans where the film is set, and contrasting the brutish ignorance and pathetic madness of the Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh characters.

Later, in 1955, Elmer Bernstein would use a predominantly jazz score in The Man with the Golden Arm (AAN) to suggest the craving and despair of the drug addicted jazz musician played by Frank Sinatra.

Bernstein, himself, was to cause another major change to the established order. The typical Hollywood score, until then, usually used a large orchestra of sixty or more players. Bernstein believed that this was not always dramatically appropriate and often chose a more telling, imaginative use of a chamber orchestra or even a small group of instruments such as in Sudden Fear and/or a more economical use of music as a whole (e.g. To Kill A Mockingbird - AAN) so that its impact was maximised when it was utilised.

Elmer Bernstein is probably best known for scores such as The Magnificent Seven (AAN) and Walk on the Wild Side (AAN - with Mack David for the title song). His score for the contemporary film noir The Grifters, for instance, contains some remarkable electronic music to give the score a hard, steely yet sardonically humorous edge to comment on the sleazy trio of confidence tricksters who are the main characters.

Alex North, too, was busy right up until his death in 1991 composing for such films as Death of A Salesman (AAN), The Rainmaker (AAN), Spartacus (AAN), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (AAN) and Under the Volcano (AAN)

The two celebrated James Dean movies East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause brought more change - very appropriately for both films were about teenage rebellion. Leonard Rosenman's highly complex and often dissonant music ran counter to the romantic modes still prevalent then.

Meanwhile the first generation of composers: Steiner, Waxman, Rozsa, Herrmann, Newman and Tiomkin continued to work successfully into the 1960s and beyond. Some of Bernard Herrmann's best work comes from his ten year association with Alfred Hitchcock on films such as Marnie, North by Northwest, Vertigo and Psycho.

For Psycho, Herrmann uses just a string orchestra for a suitably monochrome effect (the film was shot in black and white). The shock of the screeching, stabbing sound of violins playing glissando upwards in short staccato bursts is well known but our nerves are already at shredding point through the way Herrmann has manipulated our senses in the lead up scenes. For instance, from the palpable tension created as the music blends with the rain streaming down the windscreen and the frenzied rhythm of the wipers as Marion drives through the darkness to the motel, you are manipulated into a terrifying sense of foreboding.

Bernard Herrmann's own Decca recording of the Psycho score has been reissued on CD; so too has the Mercury recording of Herrmann's splendid score for Vertigo. Joel McNeely's 1997 recording of the complete score from the film won a Gramophone Award. Herrmann's exotic music employing the Tempo di habanera to evoke Madeleine's obsession with the memory of Carlotta and the swirling figures for Scottie's vertigo creates a score full of tension and unresolved "resolutions" appropriate to this celebrated, bizarre, psychological thriller.

Jerry Goldsmith, another major figure of the second generation of Hollywood composers working since the 1950s, has also contributed an impressive corpus of works, successfully adapting his style to the fashions of the day. His many scores include The Blue Max, Papillon, The Omen(AA), Gremlins, Sleeping with the Enemy, Patton and Basic Instinct. (Jerry Goldsmith's elegant, cool yet sensuous score, reminiscent of the work of Waxman and Bernard Herman, incorporates synthesizers very subtly to fit the mood of the erotic thriller that is Basic Instinct and to suggest the icily controlled psychotic nature of the Sharon Stone character. Interestingly, the National Philharmonic Orchestra is used - the same orchestra that was employed by Charles Gerhardt to record the RCA Classic Film Scores in the 1970s.)

Another innovator, Jerome Moross, was employed between 1941 and 1952 as a Hollywood orchestrator. Like Friedhofer, he seized his chance for composition and gave the western probably its most celebrated score - for The Big Country. Again new ground was broken for here was a western score written by an American with an American view of the Old West rather than an outsider's or European's concept like those of Steiner or Tiomkin.

The Big Country's imposing opening with its strident brass fanfares and furiously whirling strings is truly electrifying. Throughout the score the rhythms are sturdy and rugged; they seem to be truly representational of the vast plains and skies and the way people lived there.

However, the European influence on the Western genre was to be reinstated in a surprisingly different manner with the arrival of some bizarre Italian horse operas.

Ennio Morricone came into his own with the spaghetti westerns bringing a radically different kind of score to the genre. Wailing woodwinds and "squeeze boxes" etc. were used to illustrate the enigmatic Clint Eastwood characters and the off-beat stories. In Once Upon A Time in the West, for instance, a harmonica, in the hands of an avenging Charles Bronson, is used as a mournful clarion call.

Nino Rota wrote memorable scores for a string of films that enjoyed international acclaim including the films of Federico Fellini (La Strada, La Dolce Vita etc.) plus War and Peace and Il Gattopardo etc. The score of Il Gattopardo, is distinguished by noble and yearning melodies that are ideal for this sumptuous production about the decline of Sicily's ruling elite caused by Garibaldi's revolution.

Both Morricone and Rota went on to provide music for Hollywood. Rota is especially remembered for The Godfather - his music, appropriately reminiscent of the Godfather's Sicilian origins, speaks of family loyalty set against a background of the most hideous crimes. Morricone has also composed notable heroic/tragic scores for more recent Hollywood gangster movies such as The Untouchables and Bugsy (AAN). In complete contrast, he provided a moving score for the sentimentally, nostalgic Cinema Paradiso.

David Lean's blockbusters of the 1960s, Lawrence of Arabia (AA), Dr Zhivago (AA) and Ryan's Daughter helped to draw back audiences against a general trend of falling attendances. A major ingredient of their success was the memorable music of French composer Maurice Jarre. The score for Lawrence is particularly impressive not just for the well known main theme but because its clever form and instrumentation seems to capture the spirit of the Arab world and the overwhelming heat and desolation of the desert.

Since then Jarre has worked on innumerable films, in America and Europe, in many different styles including the notorious Fatal Attraction for which he produced a very spare acerbic score which suited its chilling atmosphere ideally.

Contemporaneously with the Lean/Jarre partnership was that of Francois Truffaut and Georges Delerue. They worked together on eleven films many of them classics of the French cinema including Shoot the Pianist, The Last Metro and Jules et Jim for which Delerue wrote a winsome bittersweet accompaniment to underscore the evolution of the relationship of the three central characters.

Delerue worked on many Hollywood films and specialised in sweeping romantic scores, in the old tradition, for what were once termed "women's pictures" e.g. Beaches and Steel Magnolias. One of his last scores, that for Black Robe (an altogether superior production to the much hyped Dances With Wolves) is well worth seeking out. Francis Lai (Love Story - AA) and Michel Legrand (The Thomas Crown Affair - AAN and Summer of '42 - AA) also enjoyed Hollywood acclaim.

In England, in 1957, David Lean had employed Malcolm Arnold to score The Bridge on the River Kwai (AA). A Chandos album of Arnold's work for the cinema showed there was much more to that score than just Colonel Bogie and it proved his great versatility and ability to create pictures in sound.

Mention should also be made of Muir Mathieson. He was responsible for the musical direction of countless films; he won an Oscar nomination for Genevieve.

John Barry is probably best known for his tongue in cheek, sardonic scores for the James Bond films: From Russia With Love, Goldfinger and Thunderball etc. He has had a long and remarkably successful career enjoying accolades for The Lion in Winter (AA), Out of Africa (AA) and Chaplin (AAN)

Barry is certainly versatile, turning his finger to all types of genres. For his popular score Somewhere in Time he created a Rachmaninov-type melody for this romantic bit of whimsy about a man who is drawn into a picture, he admires, of a girl, from an earlier age. In fact Rachmaninov's Variations on a Theme of Paganini is actually quoted in the film. However, Barry's frequent use of strings in their high register, very often recorded in an over-reverberant pop music like acoustic may not be to everybody's taste.

John Addison won an Oscar for his music for Tom Jones. He was hired to replace Bernard Herrmann who had been released from Hitchcock's Torn Curtain because a theme that could be commercially exploited was required. Henry Mancini was another composer who was released from a Hitchcock film, this time it was Frenzy. In this instance, Hitchcock thought Mancini's music was too menacing - he wanted something different so Mancini was replaced by Ron Goodwin. Goodwin who scored popular successes with his music for 633 Squadron and Where Eagles Dare, also partially replaced Sir William Walton who had been contracted to write the music for The Battle of Britain (the 1969, United Artists British production). Goodwin's music under-scored most of that film but part of the music that Walton had composed was retained for the film's air battle sequences.

Interestingly, Henry Mancini, best known for his light music scores for such films as Breakfast at Tiffany's (AA) and The Pink Panther, began his film career as an arranger, orchestrator and patchwork composer for a string of Universal monster movies such as The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Since the 1960s, Hollywood producers have been keen on commercial exploitation of their movies. Since then there has been a flood rather than a dearth of soundtrack recordings.

At this point it is as well to pause and argue that many scores are perfectly satisfactory doing the job for which they were originally intended but the acid test, as music, is their ability to stand independently of the screenplay. Many scores - and I include some mentioned in this article - rely on a strong, sometimes an outstanding main theme, but have little else to offer other than limited variations on that theme. It pays to beware in selecting costly soundtrack CDs; you might be entranced by two or three minutes of music and disappointed with the remaining fifty-seven.

Home video allows one the opportunity of listening more carefully to the music, on a repeated viewing, to ascertain whether a score has sustained interest. If you are unsure, it is probably best to buy a collection of scores like the three Varese Sarabande "Big Movie Hits" albums containing some of the more memorable scores of recent years.

John Williams' music however rarely disappoints (see separate article devoted to the film music of John Williams). Most of his scores show a remarkably high level of sustained invention. It was Williams who revived interest in the big romantic orchestral score in the mid 1970s after a decade when the norm was pop and rock. (Audience figures had been still shrinking and producers were more budget conscious preferring to eschew costly larger orchestras.)

John Williams' association with Steven Spielberg produced some of his finest work for a string of successes including Jaws (AA), Star Wars (AA), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (AAN), Superman (AAN), E.T.(AA) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (AAN). His large scale, richly romantic scores were shown off to the best possible effect in the new digital stereo and sounded stunning in a well equipped theatre.

His music shows strong influences of Korngold, Wagner, Richard Strauss and Elgar. The triumphal march at the end of Star Wars, for instance, could have been penned by Elgar. Perhaps the best of his sci-fi genre is Close Encounters... especially the long climactic scene of the meeting with the benevolent aliens which prompts music that is inspired and deeply moving.

Williams is truly versatile being equally at home with small domestic dramas and comedies. His score for The Accidental Tourist (AAN) underlining the isolation and quirky vulnerability of the William Hurt character is particularly appealing so too is the subtle and delicate music for Stanley and Iris exquisitely scored for flute, piano and strings. His latest score (1997) for Seven Years in Tibet is a favourite on Classic FM.

Although one may regret the passing of the opulent romantic scores of the heyday of Hollywood, there is vigour and invention apparent in the best of today's scores. I would go so far as to claim that some of the best and most imaginative music since the 1930s has been composed for the screen - and the tradition continues.

Music of all styles and from all eras: "classical" orchestral, instrumental and chamber etc. are used - often in juxtaposition with jazz or popular idioms or synthesizers - according to the requirements of the screenplay. British composer, George Fenton's impressive and imaginative main title music for White Palace, for instance, commences with music that is very close to a Mozart piano concerto. This is played over scenes showing a very conventional, straight-laced James Spader in his immaculate flat, dressing, formally, for a bachelor party. As he does so, the string accompaniment recedes, yielding for a while, to saxophone and jazz instrumentation as the theme becomes syncopated so that you anticipate Spader's imminent encounter with the more earthy Susan Sarandon character. Another successful British composer is Patrick Doyle who often scores films for Kenneth Branagh such as Much Ado About Nothing.

There are many interesting talents amongst the new generation of film composers including: Jean-Claude Petit (Cyrano de Bergerac), Hans Zimmer (Driving Miss Daisy), Michael Kamen (The Last Boy Scout), Alan Silvestri (The Abyss), Danny Elfman (Batman), Thomas Newman (The Player), Mark Isham (A River Runs Through It) and Richard Robbins (Howards End). James Horner is providing rousing, exciting scores for such adventure films and thrillers as The Rocketeer and Titanic. James Newton Howard is writing attractive romantic scores for films like Prince of Tides and Dying Young reminiscent of Steiner but less saccharine and including pop and "easy listening" styles. (The films in brackets are my choice from their output).

Turning to art house cinema for a moment, Michael Nyman's controversially distinctive, highly personal style has been used by Peter Greenaway in his films, e,g. The Draughtsman's Contract, The Cook, the Thief, his Wife & her Lover, and Prospero's Books. Contrary to normal practice, Greenaway prefers to use Nyman's music as an inspiration to weave his images around. Therefore one should probably regard Nyman's music for films more as concert music.

Philip Glass has produced a number of film scores, including a most interesting and often serenely "angelic" score in complete contrast to the diabolical action and sleazy settings of Candyman. So far he has not been persuaded to commit this score to disc.

Women are beginning to work in a wider variety of behind the camera roles than the traditional editing and continuity jobs. They are directing and contributing music. Rachel Portman's score for E.M. Forster's Where Angels Fear to Tread captures very well the London and Italian settings and the ironic nature of this comic-tragedy of manners.

Today's cinema is enjoying something of a second renaissance and attendances have largely been rising. Forgetting those films with the inevitable emphasis on sex and violence, many of today's screenplays are more varied and imaginative and the best of them tackle themes that would not have even been considered a decade or so ago and the cream of today's original film music upholds the traditions and excellence established by the first pioneers working in the genre.

Much of the material in the early part of this article is based on information in Christopher Palmer's authoritative book, The Composer in Hollywood now available in paperback at £12:50 (Marion Boyars Publishers). It is strongly recommended to enthusiasts.

© Ian Lace 1998

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