Film Music on the Web (UK)

Music Webmaster Len Mullenger


by Ian Lace

© Ian Lace 1998

Part I


In my youth, if ever I watched a film round twice it was usually for the music. My earliest musical memories were of the heroic, full blooded, romantic scores for films such as The Adventures of Robin Hood, Duel in the Sun and The Guns of Navarone. How many of us, I wonder, have come to appreciate music through the cinema?

As mainstream classical composition moved further away from popular taste, it was left largely to composers of film music to maintain the traditions of the late romantics, held in esteem by so many music lovers,

Of the function of film music, the celebrated film composer, Bernard Herrmann once said:

"Music on screen can seek out and intensify the inner thoughts of the character. It can invest a scene with terror, grandeur, gaiety or misery. It often lifts mere dialogue into the realms of poetry. It is the communicating link between screen and audience, reaching out and enveloping all into one single experience."

This article focuses on the development of film music in Europe and America from the beginnings of the cinema to the end of that period which has come to be known as the Golden Age of Hollywood in the 1950s. It will be concerned with music specially composed for the screen as opposed to existing works used to support screenplays. The Hollywood musicals per se are outside the scope of this present article. (NB - the initials AA denote Academy Award winning scores; AAN Academy Award nominations)

In the 1970s thanks to RCA and Charles Gerhardt many of these Hollywood classic scores were re-recorded in faithful reproductions of the original soundtrack recordings but in modern stereo sound. All fourteen albums in the series, containing many of the scores referred to in this article, were re-issued in CD format. All are recommended to admirers of film music.

In the infancy of the cinema, during the days of the silent screen, accompanying music was provided by theatre pianists or small bands often improvising to on-screen action or drawing on, as appropriate, music from libraries of works compiled from ballads of the day and the popular classical repertoire. Sometimes epic productions like Birth of A Nation, would have larger groups of musicians touring with them complete with special material (mostly quotations). By and large, music specially written for films was the exception rather than the rule. It was not until after the arrival of the talkies, in 1929, that the concept of the original score gradually became the norm.

One of the earliest recorded screen scores was that composed in 1908 by Saint-Saens for a film called Le Morte du Duc de Guise Later the cinema attracted a number of eminent French composers including Milhaud, Honegger, Auric and Ibert. Milhaud's Le Boeuf sur le Toit, for instance, was originally envisaged as music to accompany a Charlie Chaplin film.

Honegger had amazingly advanced ideas on the function of film music. He regarded the ideal score as a distinct component in a unified medium and looked forward to films of our times, from directors like Peter Greenaway, that would not just be supplied with music but be inspired by it.

Thanks to the enterprising Marco Polo record company, we can now hear fine early French film scores such as those of Honegger for Abel Gance's 1927 silent production of Napoleon and Les Miserables (1934); and Jacques Ibert's music for G.W. Pabst's Don Quixote, created from the Cervantes novel as a vehicle for Feodor Chaliapin, and Orson Welles's 1948 production of MacBeth.

The German composer Edmund Meisel provided a telling score that underlined the tragedy of Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (Russia 1925) and, later, Prokovief and Shostakovich would also embrace the new medium enthusiastically.

Prokofiev's scores for Lieutenant Kije, Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (1942 and 46) have all passed into the standard classical repertory. Nevsky includes some extraordinarily imaginative orchestration to convey the brutality of the Teutonic Knights and the chill savagery of the Battle on the Ice.

Shostakovich's witty score for The Gadfly (1955) is hugely enjoyable and accessible. One of its themes was used as incidental music for a popular TV series - Reilly, Ace of Spies. Interestingly, much of the music for Shostakovich's delightful First Piano Concerto, composed in 1933, started life as thematic material for a cartoon film. His later score for the Russian version of Hamlet is supremely powerful and evocative. Listening to Bernard Herrmann's Decca recording, you can imagine the ghost's heavy tread, the rattling of chains and the swirling of leaves. It is altogether a much more impressive score than Walton's for Olivier's Hamlet (AAN).

Walton was much more successful in his scoring for the other Olivier Shakespearean triumphs: Henry V (AAN) and Richard III. His strong, strident Battle of Agincourt music brilliantly evoking the noise and clamour of the knights charge, must be one of the most frequently quoted pieces of film music ever written. The work of Sir William Walton for the screen is fully committed. All his numerous scores for a wide diversity of films - e.g. As You Like It, Escape Me Never, Major Barbara and First of the Few - are expertly crafted and colourfully orchestrated. The Chandos four volume CD set of Walton film scores is heartily recommended.

Sir Arthur Bliss produced another classic score for Alexander Korda's film of the H.G. Wells story, Things to Come. The wonderful March and the closing music, hymning the spirit of adventure and man's unquenchable thirst for knowledge, are deeply moving in the grand Elgarian tradition. A suite from the score is popular and has been recorded several times, notably by Sir Charles Groves, for EMI, coupled with Bliss' Colour Symphony. A further Marco Polo recording inludes Bliss's music for the films: Christopher Columbus (1949) Seven Waves Away (1956) and Men of two Worlds (1945) which included Baraza, a concert piece for Piano and Orchestra with Men's Voices.

A number of other British composers were also attracted to the medium with varying degrees of enthusiasm including Arnold (The Bridge on the River Kwai), Bax (Oliver Twist), Ireland (The Overlanders), Walter Leigh (Song of Ceylon) Eric Coates (The Dam Busters), William Alwyn (The Fallen Idol) Britten (Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra) and Vaughan Williams (Scott of the Antarctic).

Vaughan Williams' brilliantly orchestrated score, using a whole battery of percussion instruments, a wind machine, solo soprano and choir to suggest the desolation of the vast sub polar expanses for Scott of the Antarctic (1948) became the basis for his seventh symphony, Sinfonia Antartica. Previously he had written some intensely moving music for a Laurence Olivier film shot in Canada in 1940 - 49th Parallel.

RVW was enthusiastic about working in the medium and even had aspirations about scoring a western! Unlike most of his American peers, Vaughan Williams did not like to write to on-screen action preferring to capture the spirit rather than the letter by using the script as inspiration.

However, it was the emergent first generation of American film composers working in Hollywood from the early 1930s, when the dream factory was churning out literally thousands of productions of varying quality, who made the biggest impact on the development of music for the cinema.

One of the first composers to produce an original score was George Gershwin who wrote music which was eventually to be incorporated into his Second Rhapsody, for a forgettable 1931film entitled Delicious.

Yet, oddly enough, the American musical establishment made hardly any impact on Hollywood. Exceptions included the Aaron Copland scores for The Red Pony (1949) which contained some telling vignettes suggesting the wild imagination of the young boy hero, and music for Our Town (AAN 1940) that seemed to epitomise the essence of small town America. Virgil Thomson is remembered for his evocative swamp music for Louisiana Story and for the broad sweeping score of The Plow that broke the Plains.

But it was Max Steiner, an immigrant Viennese Jew coming to America in 1914, who was the first truly professional Hollywood film composer. (The fact that most of the studio bosses were Jews may have eased his way.) Steiner arrived in Hollywood, in 1929, from a background of Broadway musical comedy. At that time there was very little underscoring - chiefly just for opening and closing sequences. As Steiner later recalled:

"...Recorded music was thought to be necessary only for musical productions like Rio Rita... Producers and directors did not know how to handle music, sound men and musicians were inexperienced and the microphone was in its infancy. Music for dramatic pictures was only used when it was required by the script. A constant fear was that they would be asked - 'Where does the music come from?'"

But by 1931 producers and directors were beginning to add a little music here and there to support love scenes or silent sequences. Steiner was first employed as an orchestrator, then as a composer, at RKO before going on to Warner Bros. He scored over 300 films spread over more than thirty years.

In 1933, came his seminal score for King Kong and with it the real beginnings of Hollywood film music. Steiner's score, which uses the Wagnerian principal of leitmotives with themes for leading characters and concepts, sweeps you along with the action, building climax on climax to accompany the bizarre plot about a giant gorilla and a horde of pre-historic monsters on a remote uncharted island. Steiner screws up the tension from the very start, you can sense the apprehension as the ship approaches the island through the fog and the persistent, thumping percussive effects emphasise the sheer size and power of Kong as he approaches. In contrast, Steiner deftly entwines the themes for the monster and Fay Wray at the end as Kong falls from atop of the Empire State Building to emphasise the dramatic theme of Beauty 'besting' the Beast.

Steiner's music was a sort of compendium of late nineteenth century mid European romantic influences, like Wagner and Liszt, and all the Strausses plus the music of Broadway. It was this style of music which would become the Hollywood standard until well into the 1950s.

Steiner preferred to wait until a picture was completed before commencing scoring. He would have sequences broken down into exact footage, minutes and seconds. As he composed he continually referred to a stopwatch. He felt strongly that his music should exactly synchronise with on-screen action and he was uncannily successful in capturing moods and events.

He worked well under pressure - a trait appreciated by David O'Selznick who contracted him for Gone With The Wind (AAN). At the time Steiner was also committed to three other films and was working 20 hours a day propped up by daily thyroid extract injections and vitamin B12 shots. The resultant score is justly famed for its "Tara" theme but it has to be said little else approaches this peak.

Steiner was as much at home with the adventure film as with the "woman's weepie", redolent of sighing strings. His huge output includes scores for such memorable films as Now Voyager (AA), The Informer (AA), Since You Went Away (AA), The Big Sleep, Casablanca (AAN), The Fountainhead, The Letter (AAN), Dodge City, The Glass Menagerie, Johnny Belinda (AAN) and Spencer's Mountain.

Bette Davis was amongst a select number of stars who were keenly aware of the flattering effect a good score could have on their performances and would often confer with composers such as Steiner and Korngold.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold was one of the few Hollywood greats who came from a conservatoire background (others were Rózsa and Bernard Herman). Korngold had enjoyed considerable acclaim for his opera Die Tote Stadt and his stature brought considerable prestige to Warner Bros.

Like Steiner, Korngold was Viennese but he arrived in Hollywood in 1934 escaping the fascist regime to adapt Mendelsohnn for Max Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream. He stayed on to write some of the most celebrated original scores for the cinema including those for The Adventures of Robin Hood (AA) The Sea Hawk (AAN), Anthony Adverse (AA), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (AAN), Between Two Worlds, Deception (for which he wrote a Cello Concerto) and King's Row.

He was often accused of writting more corn than gold, but his rich extrovert style was ideal for the colourful larger than life world of the Errol Flynn swashbucklers. In Robin Hood, for instance, Korngold writes a virile, stirring march pointing up the pomp and pageantry surrounding the Archery Tournemant and tender romantic melodies for love scenes between Robin and Lady Marion.

Perhaps Korngold's most inspired, most popular score is that for King's Row. The thrilling theme which is introduced with the main titles has be one of the most memorable in all film music. Invention of a remarkably high order is sustained throughout, perfectly delineating the small town's extraordinary characters and the often macabre events of this strong psychological drama.

Miklós Rózsa also created strong musical evocations of disturbed personalities, particularly in his pioneering use of the theremin, to express, for example, Gregory Peck's amnesia and paranoia in Hitchcock's Spellbound (AA) and the craving and despair of the alcoholic played by Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend (AAN).

Rózsa had come to Hollywood to work on The Thief of Baghdad (AAN), after working, in England, on several films for Alexander Korda including The Jungle Book (AAN) and The Four Feathers. His distinctly recognisable style, strongly influenced by his native Hungarian folksong, informed a wide variety of distinguished productions from the hard, gritty scores for the film noir genre (e.g. Double Indemnity (AAN) and The Killers (AAN)) through historical romances such as Ivanhoe (AAN) and El Cid (AAN) for which he took immense pains to research the musical styles of the periods in which they were set, to the spectacular religious epics such as Quo Vadis (AAN), Ben Hur (AA) and King of Kings.

Franz Waxman, a German Jew, escaped to Hollywood after being attacked by Nazi thugs. One of his first Hollywood scores, for The Bride of Frankenstein broke new ground using the symphony orchestra in an impressionistic manner to create the eerie, chilling noises of Frankenstein's laboratory. His highly popular Prince Valiant score was an enjoyable pastiche of influences of Richard Strauss and Korngold.

Waxman had a real gift for melody and he was much influenced by Shostakovich. His scores are of a consistently high quality. They include: Rebecca (AAN), Sunset Boulevard (AA), A Place in the Sun (AA), Objective Burma (AAN), The Nun's Story (AAN), Sayonara and The Spirit of St Louis. There is, for example, a sublime moment in the last-named film when the fragile little plane approaches Ireland. A gigue starts slowly, gently, gathering in momentum and excitement, then it is joined in counterpoint by the inspired Spirit theme asserting itself triumphantly to celebrate Lindbergh's crossing of the Atlantic.

The western is a genre that has always attracted fine sweeping scores. Dimitri Tiomkin excelled here creating highly emotional music to intensify the drama and propel the action along for Duel in the Sun, Gunfight at the OK Corral, Red River and High Noon (AA) etc.

Tiomkin was just as adept at writing quieter, reflective music such as the gentle romantic score for Friendly Persuasion (AAN -for the song 'Thee I Love'), for the mystical setting of Shangri-La in Lost Horizon (AAN) and his imaginative use of Debussy's impressionistic music for the fragile, poetic Portrait of Jenny.

Also memorable are the Tiomkin scores for The Guns of Navarone (AAN), The Fall of the Roman Empire (AAN), The Land of the Pharaohs and for his work for Hitchcock including Shadow of a Doubt and Strangers on a Train. In the latter film, the sharp, relentless rhythms screw up the tension almost unbearably as Guy (Farley Granger) rushes to finish his tennis match to restrain the deranged Bruno (Robert Walker) from planting incriminating evidence.

Bernard Herrmann was another composer much used by Hitchcock. (These scores will be discussed in the next article). Earlier he had forged a working relationship with Orson Welles and provided music which became an integral part of the fabric of Citizen Kane (AAN). Witness: (a) the treatment for the Breakfast Montage, the music cleverly and wittily charts the deterioration of Kane's first marriage; and (b) the obsessive rhythmic hammering that threatens to pulverise his second wife - who has ambitions as a soprano - when, on stage, she fails to rise to the demands of Herrmann's specially composed operatic aria. (Kane had commisssioned a grand opera well outside the range of his wife's lyric soprano voice.)

Herrmann was a master of orchestration. His work shored up many inferior productions. His Debussy-like music, employing nine harps, realistically portrayed the movement of the sea in Beneath the Twelve Mile Reef and his use of obscure instruments such as the serpent and native log drums helped to emphasise the dangers of the Safari in White Witch Doctor.

If the majority of the leading composers were drawn towards Warner Bros., Twentieth Century Fox could boast of their own Alfred Newman who attracted more Academy Award nominations than anyone. His Conquest March for Captain from Castille (AAN) must be one of the most stirring composed for the screen. Other highlights over a long career include Wuthering Heights (AAN), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (AAN), Anastasia (AAN) and Airport (AAN). Stories with a religious background were one of his specialities - e.g. The Robe, The Greatest Story Ever Told (AAN) and The Song of Bernadette (AA). The latter is memorable for its sensitive, understated scene suggestive of bird song and rustling leaves when Jennifer Jones sees the Lady of her vision.

The intense pressure these composers worked under necessitated support from staff in the studios' music departments. At Warner Bros, Hugo Friedhofer was kept busy often far into the night orchestrating for Steiner and Korngold etc. A distinct musical style evolved at that studio - a Warner Bros sound typified by an often pronounced ostinato bass for dramatic emphasis.

Friedhofer was later to go on to win an Oscar for his accomplished score for The Best Years of Our Lives (AA). There is a memorable sequence where the music actually assumes the acting. The Dana Andrews character is sitting in the cockpit of a bomber consigned to the scrapheap. As he sits there the nightmare of combat clouds his features. Friedhofer's dissonances tell you just as effectively as any action could, the horrors Andrews has witnessed.

This score had the distinction of a lengthy critique with musical examples in America's foremost music journal Music Quarterly. Film music was becoming respectable.

Space does not permit discussion of the work of other worthy figures working in Hollywood such as Victor Young (For Whom the Bell Tolls (AAN) etc), Roy Webb (Cat People etc.), Frederick Hollander, Daniele Amfitheatrof, Adolphe Deutsch and David Raksin who produced excellent music for Laura and The Bad and the Beautiful.

In 1953 came A Streetcar Named Desire (AAN) and with it Alex North's jazz-orientated score. Film music was changing.

Part two of this article charts those changes from then until the present day.

Christopher Palmer's authoritative book The Composer in Hollywood now available in paperback at £12.50 (Marion Boyars Publishers) from which quotations have been made in this article, is required reading for enthusiasts.

© Ian Lace 1998

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