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By Paul Tonks
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2003 Paul Tonks
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You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet
Whether you're someone who has just discovered film music, someone obliged to learn more for educational purposes, or a long-standing geek fan, this book is respectfully yours. Compiled here is an introduction to the film composer's craft in chronological order. Each chapter takes a period in history and namechecks the writers who made a difference, and observes what was happening in the industry to make differences warranted and possible. The names go by fast, but hopefully with cross-referencing and album recommendations at the end, the most important ones stay in the memory.
Whenever music is written to support something else it is called 'applied' as opposed to 'pure'. So its categorization as 'applied music' helps give a literal answer. For our purposes, a more specific definition is that it's music applied to support the action of a theatrically released film. New songs are written, old ones are re-used, classical pieces are quoted from, and sometimes the sound effects themselves are deemed music. All of these will be mentioned in context, but it's the work of the film composer that's concentrated on.
Begin by asking yourself the following questions: what makes the title scroll of a Star Wars movie exciting? Why is the tiny dot of a camel in vast desert sands so beautiful in Lawrence Of Arabia? What's so frightening about a delivery van appearing on the horizon at the end of Se7en? Why is Scarlett O'Hara's sunset silhouette so heartbreaking in Gone With The Wind? Why do we jump at Sydney opening an empty closet door in Scream? In Vertigo, how do we know that Madeline is going to throw herself out the tower window and that Scotty won't be able to save her?
The answer to each is the music. The composers manipulate our emotions. By whatever method it is realised, film music is the unseen narrative voice communicating everything we need to feel. It can duplicate, contradict, or even act regardless of the action and dialogue. Take it away, and it is missed. That said, it's a curious fact that most audiences are never aware of a film's music. Light may travel faster than sound, but does that excuse people's general reaction of not recalling any music? This is the main reason for an ongoing disregard for the film composer's art. To this can be added disdain from the classical realm for it not being 'pure'. Also a refusal to acknowledge its unchanging orchestral form by the ever-changing pop music world. With so much combined ignorance, it's a wonder it stayed popular in the industry. Yet there are more orchestral scores being written and being released today than ever.
Another curious fact about contemporary audiences is that 90% leave the cinema (or stop the video/DVD) as soon as the end credits begin to roll. Unless there's a rare continuation of footage or some bloopers, no one's interested in a list of names with musical backing. It used to be that composers were given this time for a score suite. This time is now generally given to song placement. For Titanic (1997), the biggest ever cinematic and film music success story, that time went to 'My Heart Will Go On'. Its album sold over 25 million copies worldwide, and the song stayed at Number 1 in US charts for sixteen weeks. The discrepancies here are, how could a score be so popular if it wasn't generally noticed, and how could a song do so well if few stayed in their seats to hear Celine Dion? Since a large proportion of sales accrued prior to the film's release, the answer comes down to how the marketing-oriented industry works today. To understand that properly, we have to journey back before the real-life ocean liner set sail.
The Rest Is Silents
Uncertainty about applying sound to film dates back to the beginnings of cinema, before the technology was available to make use of it. Musical accompaniment preceded the first 'talkie' by a number of years though. After the Lumière brothers set the wheels of this new industry in motion with footage of a steam engine (1895), fickle audiences wanted more and more spectacle. Longer pieces of film begat an entire storyline, first in The Great Train Robbery (1903). Around that time it became common to have a piano improvising to what was on screen (and neatly hiding the clanking projector noise). Though classicist Camille Saint-Saëns was commissioned to provide a score for L'Assassinat du Duc de Guise (1908), it was the 20s before a music-publishing clerk named Max Winkler devised a short-lived system of providing pianists with cue sheets of existing pieces. Simultaneous to that taking effect, the major Hollywood studios began spending vast sums of money experimenting with sound technologies.
Warner Brothers used the Vitaphone system to synchronise a sound disc of rudimentary effects to their premiere of Don Juan (1926). History records an audience reaction that was casually indifferent to the experience. The following year the studios signed the Big Five Agreement to delay the introduction of synchronised sound until they agreed on one system and were confident of its usefulness. Fortunately they were almost immediately reassured on all counts. Mere months later, Warner again made history with the words 'You ain't heard nothing yet' bursting from Al Johnson in The Jazz Singer (1927). It was a straightforward demonstration of simple microphone placement, but it laid the gauntlet for the industry. While directors like Alfred Hitchcock languished in attempts to hide recording equipment in flowerpots for Blackmail (1929), the idea of a fully synchronised 'talkie' was suddenly possible and desirable. It seems inconceivable today that Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet might have been left mouthing sweet nothings while a screencard interrupted to announce: 'Iceberg, roight ahead!'
Classical pieces were the easiest musical application with sound technology in place. At the start of Universal's reign of horror greats, Bela Lugosi's Dracula (1931) benefited from the soulful strains of Tchaikovsky's 'Swan Lake'. Some studios went a step further and asked contemporary classical composers to write pieces to be added later. Stravinsky and Holst both worked on scores that never saw the light of day, but Shostakovich graduated from years as an improvising pianist to being asked to write something to perform alongside New Babylon (1929). Then he scored Alone (1930), which was his native Russia's first sound film. The real turning point came courtesy of Austrian-born Max Steiner, affectionately dubbed the 'Father of Film Music'. He arrived in Hollywood at the end of a streak of Musicals, which were one way the industry had embraced the use of sound. At the start of the 30s there was still a commonly held concern that cinema audiences wouldn't understand where a full musical underscore would be coming from. It took the bravery of RKO producer David O. Selznick to get past that and instruct Steiner to compose one for Symphony Of Six Million (1932). The result shook those notions apart and almost immediately led to the creation of musical departments within the major studios. As resident musical director of RKO for several years (before moving onto Warners), he had his pick of projects. It was his King Kong (1933) that signified the dawn of a new era. Whenever thanked by admirers for inventing film music, Steiner would brush compliments away and point them in the direction of late German romantic composer Richard Wagner (whose work had appeared in film as early as 1915 with The Birth Of A Nation). In his opinion Wagner would have been the foremost film composer. All of which is in reference to the leitmotif — the idea of linking the appearances of a person, place, or thing together with a recurring musical phrase. It may seem commonplace and common sense today, but for film it began with Kong. The ape's three-note motif is as simple an idea as John Williams would later create for Jaws. We feel and fear his presence when not actually on screen because of this motif. We suspend disbelief for the stop-motion puppet because of its power and nobility. Its importance for this film, and the craft from then on cannot be stressed enough. It gave licence for the opening of a film to feature a musical overture introducing principal themes. It also meant a brief reprise could accompany the audience's exit, back in a Golden Age when there were no long lists of names to read.CHAPTER 2
The Golden Age
'The Golden Age' is one of several terms bandied about without anyone really bothered with defining what it means, when it started, when it ended, or why. Where film music is concerned, it romantically means a period when its craft matched the artistry of the films themselves, unsullied by commercialism or committee decision making. That period arguably starts at Steiner's King Kong with its intellectualised methods. It had an immediately obvious influence on how scores were written. Everything that previously falls into the Silent film category should be separated from the definition, but chronologically this ignores much that shouldn't be forgotten. Worthies include the previously mentioned Musicals, the works of Edmund Meisel on The Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1927), and even the encapsulation of American good humour despite its Depression Era in Charlie Chaplin's sketched and hummed tunes for the likes of City Lights (1931). These all contributed to the styles and approaches of later works. If Kong is to be taken as the starting point however, then it's the richly dramatic style that distinguishes itself from what came before.
Steiner went on to produce some of the most memorable film scores in history. He put thunder under the hooves of The Charge Of The Light Brigade (1936), and a golden glow of emotional beauty and fortitude behind Tara's life story in Gone With The Wind (1939). Later he became inextricably linked to the best of Humphrey Bogart's career during the popularity of film noir. Virginia City (1940), The Big Sleep (1946), The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948), and Key Largo (1948) are all scores that sustain the classic image of Bogart as everybody's favourite gangster/gumshoe. Steiner's contribution to Casablanca (1942) demonstrates just how powerful music can be. 'As Time Goes By' was actually written by Herman Hupfeld for a Broadway show a decade earlier, but Steiner's integration of the melody into his underscore makes it inseparable from the film. The result is a song that acts as a snapshot of a time, place, character, mood, and range of emotions that are instantly recognisable and endlessly spoofable.
He was not averse to being influenced himself of course. With The Adventures Of Don Juan(1949) we find the real core of what's considered Golden Age music. In Errol Flynn, Hollywood discovered and developed one of the first Superstars. One word sums up the music and the man: swashbuckle. You'll often hear about 'Golden Age film composers' and this refers to up to a dozen names. Where Steiner is seen to have been influenced, courtesy of Flynn's career, is in the style instigated by fellow Viennese composer, Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Captain Blood (1935) launched Korngold's and Flynn's careers and also initiated a new generation of adventure epics. His style is characterised by furiously fast action music dominated by brass, and achingly bittersweet love themes dominated by strings. It's a robust statement of regal grandeur combined with passionate romance (in both senses). The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938),The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex(1939) and The Sea Hawk (1940) all carry the style. When John Williams was asked for a particular sound in the 70s, it would be to these that director George Lucas would turn for inspiration. Place the main titles of Korngold's King's Row (1942) next to Star Wars (1977), and you have one of the most obvious examples of stylistic inheritance. When you consider how much the Star Wars trilogy has in turn influenced cinematic trends, Korngold's significance should be very apparent. The amazing thing is he only scored a total of 16 films, yet these core swashbucklers affected the careers of every composer who followed suit.
Alfred Newman worked on many costume epics in an enormous career spanning almost 250 scores. In the immediate wake of the adventure epic's popularity he produced The Mark Of Zorro (1940), Song Of Fury (1942), The Black Swan (1942), Captain From Castile (1947), and Prince Of Foxes (1949) to name only a few. Apart from sustaining the symphonic sound, Newman is also responsible for something else Star Wars owes a debt of thanks to. His 20th Century Fox fanfare has never seemed more at home than in preceding the space trilogy. It was composed during his period as Head of the studio's music department. Like Steiner at RKO, the position involved collating composers, instrumentalists, orchestrators and technicians together under one roof. All this was in addition to writing his own scores, where something in the string writing often suggested a religious spirituality (although he was in fact a non practicing Jew). In conducting, he would encourage a great deal of expression and vibrato (exaggerated wobble) in the string performances. His score to The Song Of Bernadette (1943) came after a long line of successful works where this particular sound can be heard, such as: The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), The Hurricane (1937), Wuthering Heights (1939),The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1939), and How Green Was My Valley(1941). With Bernadette however came a turning point that touched many things simultaneously.
Researching the important scene of a vision of the Virgin Mary, Newman hit upon what epitomises his impressionistic style. As opposed to Steiner's more specific leitmotifs, Newman instead drew from the mood and requirements of scenes. The result of the impressions coming together for this score was an Academy Award, and something almost completely unheard of even as late as the 40s: an album of the dramatic underscore. Up to this point, it wasn't possible for anyone to be a soundtrack collector. Some vague notion of using popular songs in unison with a movie had begun in the Silent era. The notion grew with the success of Disney's Snow White And The Seven Dwarves (1938), which demanded there be an album of its sing-along songs. Disney would also be the first to call an album an 'Original Soundtrack' with Pinocchio (1940). Yet nothing until this point actually deserved that title, because they were all new recordings and not taken from what was used in the film itself. The Song Of Bernadette was an important indication that there was a public demand for film music on record. Another of Newman's legacies is the family he left to carry on the good work. Brothers Emil and Lionel became Hollywood composers, with the latter taking over as Head of Fox Music when Alfred moved on. Working today are his two sons David (Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure and Galaxy Quest) and Thomas (The Shawshank Redemption and American Beauty), and his nephew Randy (The Natural and Toy Story).
Others Who Polished The Gold
Although stylistically it's often thought Victor Young only peripherally belonged among the Golden Age greats, that's at the cost of ignoring a great gift for melody and an understanding of commercial potential. He was another to pioneer the possibilities of soundtracks on vinyl by re-recording his dramatic underscore to For Whom The Bell Tolls (1943). His career lifted off after recording pieces for silent movies and being snapped up for a lifetime of association with Paramount Studios. Melodic highlights there included The Uninvited (1944) and Samson And Delilah(1949). Elsewhere, Rio Grande (1950) and especially Shane (1952) were at the forefront of the Western genre of the day.
In slightly higher regard is Hugo Friedhofer. His technical excellence was often sought out by Alfred Newman to score pictures at Fox, and also by Korngold and Steiner to assist orchestrating their work. He thankfully found time to apply his wonderful ability for harmonic invention and stark colouration to scores of his own. Starting in 1937 with The Adventures Of Marco Polo (another swashbuckler), notables include: The Lodger (1944), Broken Arrow (1950),Seven Cities Of Gold(1955), The Sun Also Rises (1957), and This Earth Is Mine (1959). The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946) is Friedhofer's greatest achievement. Apart from public favour and winning an Oscar, it's to be acknowledged for being the first time a film score was well received by general music critics. That's not to say it changed their elitist opinions forever, but it's another indication that the Golden Age style had the power to affect much around it. Like Korngold before him, German composer Franz Waxman found himself persuaded to find safer haven in Hollywood with the imminent outbreak of World War II. Almost immediately he had an enormous effect on the industry with his grandiose score to The Bride Of Frankenstein (1935). Using the ondes martenot instrument (similar to the theremin - see below), he gave an original and peculiar atmosphere to the doomed romance. The orchestra performed in an impressionistic way to double the sounds of the strange laboratory equipment. There had been sequel movies and scores before (Steiner was rushed into doing Son Of Kong in 1933), but none had the same degree of success and respect. Universal took its monster movie series into overdrive. Universal also rewarded Waxman with a two-year contract as music director. He then skipped to MGM for another seven-year contract (and later Warner Brothers) as one of several resident composers.
Excerpted from Film Music by Paul Tonks. Copyright © 2003 Paul Tonks. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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Table of Contents
Contents1. You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet,
2. The Golden Age,
3. Anything Goes,
4. Commercial Instincts,
5. Romance Ain't Dead,
6. Millennium Falcons,
7. Hitting The Right Note,