The composer John Corigliano has pretty much won every award in the book. The walls and shelves of his New York Upper West Side studio testify to that: a cluster of Grammys, next to that a Pulitzer, a wall full of honorary degrees from colleges great and good. But no doubt the most prominent award of all is his Oscar, which the composer could easily reach up and grab even as he reclines in his red easy chair.
Corigliano won the Academy Award in 2000 for his stunning film score The
Red Violin. Now the seventy-one-year-old has just finished work on another major movie project, Edge of Darkness, directed by Martin Campbell and starring Mel Gibson, due for release in 2010. That’s about as commercial as it gets for a composer who has written more than one hundred fifty concert works and only four film scores, the other two being Altered States (1980) and Revolution (1985).
The luster and prestige of the Corigliano name brings a certain classical gravitas to his movie scores. But for concert composers past and present, writing for the movies has long been fraught with cultural danger. “The problem is a critic thinks that a film composer can only do that,” says Corigliano. “They misjudge the act.”
Of course, Corigliano points out, writing for the movies and writing for the concert stage are very different tasks, the former being a much more collaborative art. “It’s the director’s vision,” he says. “A composer has to be malleable and skilled enough to realize what that is.”
Concert composing, he explains, is based on the idea of building big architectural forms. Before he writes a single note, Corigliano takes months developing a kind of graph on paper that illustrates the shape of the music he intends to write. In the case of his Percussion Concerto, he divided a page into four vertical axes (for the four movements) and intersected them with a gently ascending pencil line surrounded by small notations that indicated instrumentation, texture and dynamics. This is Corigliano’s way of creating a superstructure for concert work. The process is quite different from scoring a movie. “Film composers write to short cues and dramatic pegs,” he says. “They don’t face the empty page.”
These days, Corigliano hardly has to worry about his reputation being tarnished by associations with Hollywood, even as he plies his trade on the popular end of the cultural spectrum. Indeed, he turned his own Oscar-winning score for The Red Violin into a much-loved violin concerto, which was recorded to great acclaim by Joshua Bell.
It was a strategic way of making his musical ideas into something more substantive for the concert stage, he says.
Six decades ago, the composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold did something similar, taking themes from movie soundtracks he had composed in the 1930s and 1940s and integrating them in his Violin Concerto, a process that might be termed reverse inspiration. The concerto premiered in February of 1947, performed by the great virtuoso Jascha Heifetz and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. Despite its initial popularity — and a subsequent soulful, majestic recording by Heifetz — Korngold’s concert music was trashed by the music press, arguably because of its Hollywood associations: the first movement adopts a theme from Another Dawn (1936), while the demanding last movement uses a motif from The Prince and the Pauper (1937), which starred that romantic swashbuckler Errol Flynn.
Korngold’s sumptuous, romantic concerto also emerged at a time when atonality and cerebral serialism were all the rage in classical circles, which meant his lush, melodic music was very much out of fashion after World War II. “He became an aesthetic misfit,” says Joseph Horowitz, the author of Artists in Exile. “Hollywood became an
appropriate sanctuary for him.”
Korngold’s association with Hollywood was actually an accident of history. Born in Central Europe in 1897, Korngold grew up in Vienna and was clearly from an early age a precociously musical child, a prodigy who wrote his first ballet at the age of eleven. He was declared a “genius” by none other than Mahler and hailed by the likes of Giacomo Puccini and Richard Strauss, who said of his symphonic orchestrations, “Such mastery fills me with awe and fear.” International success followed with the opera Die tote Stadt in 1920, when Korngold was just twenty-two, and soon his reputation as a great living composer spread around Europe.
But in 1938, Korngold and his family, being Jewish, fled Vienna on the eve of the Anchluss in Austria and settled in southern California. To make a living, he chose to write film scores, vowing not to write concert music until Hitler fell from power.
Korngold’s late-Romantic sensibility helped create the Hollywood sound, the sweeping strings and grand orchestral gestures that define movie music to this day. More than a little touch of fin-de-siècle Vienna came to Tinseltown.
And as for Korngold’s reputation as a concert composer, well, that’s still on the mend. In the last few years, a number of conductors and performers have been making a persuasive case for Korngold’s music, especially the violin concerto that is now an audience favorite.