Although snobs may try to denigrate it, film music has a long and illustrious history, and even its own category: “incidental music” — in other words, music written to accompany “incidents,” or happenings on stage. Before the advent of films, people went to the theater, and most theaters had full-time orchestras that accompanied the action and the singing (if any) and provided overtures and interludes. Some of the most popular pieces of classical music consist of suites drawn from theatrical music. Think of Grieg’s Peer Gynt, Bizet’s L’Arlesiènne, or Sibelius’ Valse triste. Several of Haydn’s symphonies consist of arrangements of his incidental music, most famously his Symphony No. 60, “Il distratto,” a six-movement suite full of variety, atmosphere and suggestions of humorous goings-on.
The rise of film created an entire ancillary music industry, first to accompany silent films, and later to add color and brilliance to talkies. Classical composers have always been involved in scoring for films: Copland, Bernstein, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Saint-Saëns, Walton, Hindemith and even Stravinsky. However, the Hollywood production machine required music in unprecedented quantities, and cultivated its own stable of house composers, drawing from a seemingly unlimited pool of local and foreign talent. Together, working in the immediately pre- and post-war periods, they created that signature “Hollywood sound”: voluptuous, sexy, and Romantic, often scored for large symphony orchestra. [See the related article “The Fickle Genre” (page 26).]
For many years the music written to back the classic films of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s languished in obscurity, dimly perceived as murkily recorded accompaniment. Copyright issues (the studios owned the music and couldn’t have cared less about it) and the fragmentary condition of much of the surviving material (the need to synchronize music and action often prevented what André Previn calls “the elongated thought”) kept the public from considering the music on its own merits. All this began to change in the early 1970s when producer George Korngold, son of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, got together with conductor Charles Gerhardt to produce an epoch-making series of recordings for RCA. In and out of the active catalog since then, the entire collection is now available “on demand” through Arkivmusic.com, sounding as magical as ever. Here are ten selections that no self-respecting collector of film scores or fan of Hollywood’s golden age should be without.
1. Alfred Newman (1901-1970) ran the music division at 20th Century Fox from 1940 to 1960, and his administrative duties prevented him from working directly on as many projects as some of his colleagues did. Nevertheless, in his illustrious career the New Haven-born composer received some fifty Oscar nominations, taking home the Academy Award nine times. He also composed the famous “20th Century Fox Fanfare,” perhaps the most famous few seconds of orchestral music since the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth. In Captain from Castile: The Classic Film Scores of Alfred Newman, Gerhardt and his team treat us to ten selections from films such as Wuthering Heights, The Song of Bernadette, Anastasia, The Robe and Newman’s last score Airport. As a composer Newman was particularly known for his rich string writing, amply in evidence here.
2. Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) was already a famous composer when he arrived in Hollywood in 1934. His reputation was such that he was given the freedom to accept or refuse any project offered to him, though he clearly preferred to work on fantastic subjects, historical romances and swashbucklers (often starring Errol Flynn), including such classics as Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, The Sea Wolf, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and The Prince and the Pauper.
Music from all of these films can be found on two collections, titled The Sea Hawk and Elizabeth and Essex. Korngold’s use of thematic development and the Wagnerian “Leitmotif” technique, assigning themes and motives to individual characters, means that his music holds up very well away from the screen, and he designed his scores very much with their large-scale continuity in mind. Most importantly, though, Korngold was responsible for creating that lush, super-Romantic, panoramic sound that has forever been associated with Hollywood.
3. Max Steiner (1888-1971) was one of the titans of film music, a Viennese composer who found himself working in Hollywood starting in the late 1920s, before the prewar flood of German-speaking refugees (Steiner was not Jewish, though he liked to joke that everyone naturally assumed he was). He is credited for writing what is arguably the first classic Hollywood film score, for King Kong (1933). Although that film is now considered a landmark in the history of the cinema, Steiner’s brilliant score reveals another reason why so much film music had to wait so long to get the attention it deserved: some of the best music backs some of the most outlandish films, specifically those belonging to the fantasy, horror or science fiction genres. On Now, Voyager, you can hear an extended suite from King Kong, as well as music from The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Big Sleep, The Informer and The Fountainhead, among others, all attesting to Steiner’s astonishing range.