Film composers, long treated as second-class figures by the musical establishment, have lately come into their own. Schwann Opus, the quarterly catalogue of recorded classical music, recently featured two of them on its cover: Miklós Rózsa, who wrote the scores for such big-budget Hollywood epics as Ben-Hur and El Cid, and Bernard Herrmann, best known for his collaborations with Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) and Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho). Gramophone, the classical-music magazine, has launched a section devoted to film music and has also brought out a collection of reviews, Gramophone Film Music Good CD Guide.1 And there has just appeared the first English-language biography of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the Austrian composer who, in addition to scoring such popular films of the 3 O’s and 40’s as The Adventures of Robin Hood, also wrote concert-hall works premiered by Jascha Heifetz, Artur Schnabel, and Bruno Walter.2 Even more significantly, the major classical labels have begun recording movie music in earnest, issuing not only soundtracks of current films but scores of the past in new recordings by first-rank orchestras.

All this constitutes a reversal of a long-prevalent attitude. In the age of high modernism, movie music was considered kitsch, and those who composed it—and, worse yet, profited by doing so—thereby soiled themselves. Before going to Hollywood, Korngold and Rózsa had been viewed as distinguished composers; afterward, it was all but impossible for them to find an audience for their concert music. Even performers who worked in Hollywood were regarded with suspicion: the Hollywood String Quartet, consisting of the first-chair string players of the 20th Century-Fox studio orchestra, was never fully accepted by American critics, though its many recordings for Capitol (all of which have been reissued on CD by Testament) leave no doubt that it was one of the finest ensembles in the history of chamber music.3

Why, then, has film music suddenly become respectable? In the case of the record industry, the answer has less to do with aesthetics than with economics. In the last year, all the major labels have cut back on their recording schedules, and in particular on their financial commitments to symphony orchestras. EMI has dropped the Philadelphia Orchestra (which responded by going on strike, an interesting example of the spread of the entitlement mentality to the middle class); Philips is about to let the Boston Symphony go; DGG is making its last recordings with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the Dresden Staatskapelle; Sony and Dec-ca/London have sharply reduced their support for the Berlin Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra. Summing up these developments last May in the Washington Post, the critic Tim Page went so far as to suggest that “the [record] industry, as we have known it, might just be coming to an end.”

The reasons for the slump in classical recording are complex, but one aspect of the new reality is starkly simple: full-price recordings of the standard orchestral repertoire have been losing their market. By contrast, not only do full-price recordings of symphonic film scores seem to be selling, but critics now take them more seriously than ever before. This raises an interesting question. Are we in the midst of a long-overdue revaluation of an unappreciated musical idiom, or at the end of a precipitous decline in standards? Is film music middlebrow schlock, or is it art?



Motion pictures are by definition a non-naturalistic medium: actors and actresses appear not in the flesh but as flickering shadows on a screen. Accordingly, from the earliest days of the medium, filmmakers have used background music to strengthen the theatrical illusion of reality by enveloping the audience in sound. When the Lumière family’s silent films were first shown in public in 1895, it was to the accompaniment of a piano. By 1908, no lesser a composer than Camille Saint-Saëns was commissioned to write music for L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise. Original scores of this kind remained comparatively rare until the introduction in 1927 of “talking pictures”; but they then became customary. By the mid-30’s, most of the major film studios had their own resident orchestras.4

In Europe, it has been common since the time of Saint-Saëns’s 1908 commission for noted classical composers—including Benjamin Britten, Darius Milhaud, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, William Walton, and Ralph Vaughan Williams—to write film music. But in Hollywood, where about 400 movies were released annually throughout the 3 0’s and 40’s, things were done on a more industrial scale through the hiring of full-time staff composers. Since most early sound films were musicals, producers naturally looked to Broadway for their musical talent. Max Steiner (Warner Bros.), Alfred Newman (20th Century-Fox), and Herbert Stothart (MGM) had all conducted musical comedy and operetta before coming to Hollywood as composers. When they began scoring dramatic films, they no less naturally looked to the 19th-century Romantics as their musical models. That is how the characteristic sound of Hollywood scores in the 30’s—the song-form melodies of Broadway, draped in the high-calorie orchestral rhetoric of Wagner, Liszt, Tchaikowsky, and Richard Strauss—took shape.

Some Hollywood composers of the 3 0’s were musical illiterates who had to rely on “orchestrators” to ghostwrite their scores; others were musicians of high accomplishment (Newman, for instance, was an extraordinarily talented conductor). But none was a classical composer by training, and their music inevitably reflected the limitations of their backgrounds. A case in point is Max Steiner, the most representative figure of his Hollywood generation. Though Steiner wrote effectively for such films as The Informer (1935), Gone With the Wind (1939), and Casablanca (1941), to hear any of his music divorced from its cinematic context is to realize just how provincial and derivative he was.5

The only composer of independent reputation to work for the movies during this period was Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and his success, deserved though it was, says more about the narrowness of Hollywood’s musical culture than about his own phenomenal gifts. Born in 1897, Korngold began composing at the age of six; his Op. 1, a piano trio, was premiered and published just seven years later, and by the time he was eighteen his opera Violanta had entered the repertory of the Vienna Hofoper. A quintessential Jugendstil figure, Korngold wrote in an elaborately chromatic, late-Romantic style which delighted Viennese audiences, and his music was promptly taken up by many of the leading European performers of the day.

In 1934, Warner Bros, made a film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Max Reinhardt, the Austrian stage impresario, and starring James Cagney, Mickey Rooney, and Olivia de Havilland. Reinhardt persuaded his friend Korngold to adapt and conduct Mendelssohn’s incidental music for the sound track; Korngold found the experience congenial, and subsequently came back for more. By the late 3 O’s, unable to return to Austria after the Anschluss, he settled permanently in the United States and spent the next seven years composing solely for films. It was a good match: Korngold’s post-Straussian idiom was a more virtuosic extension of the existing Hollywood “sound,” and his quasi-operatic scores for such swashbuckling films as Captain Blood (193 5), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and The Sea Hawk (1940) were highly influential, reinforcing the Russo-Germanic tendencies already well-established among Hollywood’s lesser lights.6



It was not until 1939, when Aaron Copland composed his first feature-film score, that a different, modernist style at last found a foothold in Hollywood.

Copland, who scored five commercial movies between 1939 and 1948, was the first major American composer (and still the only one) to work regularly and successfully in Hollywood, as well as the first composer (and, again, still the only one) to write for American films without besmirching his reputation in the larger world of concert music. This was all the more notable in that Copland never “wrote down” to Hollywood: his film scores are indistinguishable in style from such masterpieces of his middle period as the Piano Sonata (1941) and Appalachian Spring (1944). Furthermore, Copland was both selective and shrewd in his choice of assignments, working on the adaptations of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1939) and The Red Pony (1948), Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1940), and Henry James’s Washington Square (filmed as The Heiress, 1948).

In these films, Copland showed an impressive grasp of the way in which good movie music can, in his own words, “provide the underpinning for the theatrical build-up of a scene and then round it off with a sense of finality.” His lean harmonies, spare scoring, angular rhythms, and folk-flavored melodies came as a breath of fresh air in a musical environment previously dominated by the thick orchestral impasto of Steiner and Korngold.7

Also in 1939, the Hungarian composer Miklós Rózsa joined the staff of MGM, subsequently composing scores for Double Indemnity (1944), Spellbound (1945), Julius Caesar (1953), Ben-Hur (1959), and El Cid (1962). Rózsa became the most famous film composer of the postwar studio era, and one of the very few who also wrote extensively for the concert hall. Unlike Copland, he deliberately simplified his bittersweet, Bartók-influenced style in writing for movies, and his critical reputation suffered as a result. Only lately has his nonfilm music, which is far more individualistic than his work for Hollywood, begun to be recorded and played widely.8



Hollywood’s third great modernist was Bernard Herrmann. Born in 1911, Herrmann came to Hollywood in 1941, having spent the preceding decade working in radio. An admirer of Charles Ives, Frederick Delius, and Gustav Holst—none of whom, including the quintessentially American Ives, was then well-known in America—Herrmann rejected the lush Hollywood sound of the 3 0’s in favor of a simple yet unmistakably contemporary style based on slowly shifting, ambiguously tonal harmonies and an orchestral palette remarkable for its range of instrumental color. (The first scene of Citizen Kane, the movie that brought him to Hollywood, is scored for twelve flutes, contrabass clarinets, trombones, tubas, vibraphone, and percussion.) No composer has written music for a greater number of important films—Herrmann scored Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) for Orson Welles; Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960) for Alfred Hitchcock; Fahrenheit 4SI (1966) and The Bride Wore Black (1968) for François Truffaut; and Taxi Driver (1975), completed just before his death, for Martin Scorsese—and none has written better music for the screen.9

Copland, Rózsa, and Herrmann inspired a generation of musicians who, starting in the mid-40’s, brought American film music into the 20th century. Elmer Bernstein, Hugo Friedhofer, Jerry Goldsmith, Jerome Moross, Alex North, David Raksin, and Leonard Rosenman were all strongly influenced by the crosscurrents of modernism, including jazz, and all wrote accessible, dramatically persuasive music that remains fresh to this day. Unfortunately, however, after World War II the stigma of a Hollywood connection grew even more damning among serious—and, increasingly, serialist—musicians, and none of these men has been recognized as a composer of distinction; now that many of their best scores are available on CD, one hopes their reputations will grow in coming years.



With the break-up of the studio system in the early 60’s, the music departments and their staff orchestras were disbanded. But what really rendered symphonic scores unfashionable was the rise of rock-and-roll. In 1966, rejecting Bernard Herrmann’s music for Torn Curtain, Alfred Hitchcock explained that he wanted a rock-flavored score instead. This not only brought to a close Hitchcock’s eleven-year-long collaboration with Herrmann but signaled the end of the golden age of film music.

To be sure, John Williams’s Korngoldesque score for Star Wars (1977) did lead to a revival of the symphonic form. But none of today’s younger Hollywood composers (some of whom, including Randy Edelman and Danny Elf-man, started out as rock musicians) has the technical finish or stylistic authority of a Korngold or a Herrmann. To the extent that there can still be said to be a film-music culture, it is—just as in the 3 0’s—more popular than serious. Comparatively few scores written in the last quarter-century have anything to offer a thoughtful listener outside the context of the films for which they were written.

Can we not say the same, though, of the vast majority of scores composed since the introduction of sound in 1927? Indeed we can. Like most postmodern “revaluations” of the art of the past, the recent revival of interest in film music has been noteworthy chiefly for its lack of discrimination. Deservedly long-forgotten scores of the utmost banality, now lovingly reconstructed and recorded by film-music historians, have been hailed with no less enthusiasm than greets the release of a new Bernard Herrmann CD.

Still, the revival has also brought to the attention of a wider audience the music of a small number of outstanding composers, and its success marks yet another step in the collapse of the cultural hegemony of the postwar avant-garde. As the major classical-record companies now recognize, film music speaks directly and compellingly to younger listeners to whom the “new music” of the 60’s and 70’s has nothing to say. In this sense, its current popularity is comparable to the (now-fading) vogue of the minimalist composers of the 80’s, whose music, simple-minded though it was, still had more to offer than the sterile experimentalism of the avant-garde. To paraphrase the old song, it isn’t great, but it’ll have to do until the real thing comes along.

1 Gramophone Publications Ltd., 256 pp., $15.95 (paper).

2 Erich Wolfgang Korngold, by Jessica Duchen Phaidon, 239 pp., $19.95 (paper).

3 For a discussion of these recordings, see “The Hollywood and Other String Quartets” by Samuel Lipman, COMMENTARY, February 1983.

4 By far the best book about American film music is Christopher Palmer's The Composer m Hollywood (1990), on which I have drawn in writing this piece.

5 Excerpts from several of Steiner's scores have been recorded by Charles Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic on Now, Voyager: The Classic Film Scores of Max Steiner (RCA 0136-2-RG).

6 Excerpts from the sound tracks of sixteen of Korngold's films, conducted with incomparable verve by the composer, can be heard on Erich Wolfgang Korngold: The Warner Bros. Years (Turner Classic Movies/Rhino Movie Music R2 72243, two CDs). The most important of his nonfilm scores are the Violin Concerto, Op. 35 (1945), premiered and recorded by Jascha Heifetz (RCA 7963-2-RG), and the Symphony in F Sharp, Op. 40 (1952), recorded most recently by Edward Downes and the BBC Philharmonic (Chan-dos CHAN 9171).

7 None of Copland's film scores has been recorded complete—an astonishing oversight—but suites from Our Town, The Red Pony, and The Heiress, plus a five-movement suite called Music for Movies (containing excerpts from Our Town, Of Mice and Men, and The City, a 1939 documentary), are available in excellent performances by Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony (RCA 09026-61699-2).

8 Two of Rózsa's most striking concert works are Theme, Variations, and Finale, Op. 13a (1943), recorded by James Sedares and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra as part of the first volume of a series (Koch International 3-7191-2H1), and the Violin Concerto, Op. 24 (1956), composed for and recorded by Jascha Heifetz (RCA 7963-2-RG, coupled with the Korngold Concerto).

9 A suite from Citizen Kane has been recorded by Charles Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic on Citizen Kane: The Classic Film Scores of Bernard Herrmann (RCA 0707-2-RG). Bernard Herrmann: The Film Scores, the best collection of Herrmann's music currently available, contains excerpts from most of his other important scores, well-played by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Sony ASK 62700).

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link