Exploring Music: Compelling Scores
The MHS Review 387 Vol. 11 No.9, 1987
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Robert Maxwell Stern
In the days before the movies learned to speak it was left to a pianist facing the screen seated at an upright piano to underscore the scenes of a film with appropriate musical backgrounds, in order to channel the emotions of the viewers. For a tender scene, the pianist would use an extract from the "Poet and Peasant" Overture. For a chase scene, an excerpt from the "Poet and Peasant" Overture would fit perfectly. In a scene of villainy or a suspenseful moment, some of the ''Poet and Peasant" Overture would be a very good choice. Come to think of it, that old Suppe saw yielded mood for hundreds of films.
Technology matured, and by 1927 the movies talked and the musical underscoring was recorded (using full orchestras) onto the film's sound track along with the dialogue. Before long, the film score composer became a commodity highly sought by Hollywood producers. The moguls then could get sound tracks tailor-made for their celluloid extravaganzas. They employed orchestras of Brobdingnagian (and I mean BIG) proportions just so that they could outdo the next studio; and, as Hollywood is wont, the population of the orchestra overshadowed the importance of good composition.
Hollywood producers, as is well known, were highly elevated carnival barkers and had tastes to match. They felt they knew what the public wanted and laid down the rules of aesthetics. The composers, in order to continue collecting their exceptionally handsome salaries, had to comply with certain rules. The music had to be slightly reminiscent of the classics (Sam Goldwyn said: "Give 'em culture, but not too much") with Tchaikovskyesque themes, a bit of Wagner (for battle and other burly scenes), a smattering of early Richard Strauss. a dollop of mood a la Debussy and/or Ravel, and the harmonic structures of Gershwin (for contemporary stories only). Bustling cities had to be characterized by sharp, busy xylophone taps, the allknowing pet dog had to totter away to a merry oboe, and a cat had to be a flute and anything larger a bassoon.
Meanwhile, in Europe, composers known chiefly for "serious" composition were viewing cinematic writing as just another form of composition but were certainly interested. Prokofiev and Shostakovich, among others, wrote outstanding scores for the screen, and the American producers took keen note-not that these top execs learned anything about music or musical aesthetics. Stravinsky, Weill, Copland, Thomson, Walton, and so many more gave new respectability to original-score writing.
By employing these "real" composers the moguls had to completely relax their rules of composing: no more Vaseline-soaked violins to show sentiment; no more harp glissandi for love-at-first-sight. These composers had to be given carte blanche to create; the producers had no qualms about that, partly because of the newly generated source of revenue brought about by sales of recordings of these scores. The public found this music to be not simply something over which actors spoke, but valid compositions in their own right. Film score composers were honored and muchprotected studio properties and doors were fully opened to them.
Prominent among this group of composers was Bernard Herrmann, Juilliard-trained and student of Goldmark, Grainger, James, Wagenaar, and Stoessel. Herrmann distinguished himself among film composers with a highly professional and creative approach. His scores are most subtly contrived, finely integrated, and emotionally compelling.
The current release is a very special offering. Rather than comprising excerpts from Herrmann's scores, the composer drew from his various film scores suites, or, as he called them, divertissements, to be used for concert presentation. Therefore, these are complete compositions which stand alone magnificently even though divorced from the movies from which they came. Citizen Kane is especially interesting; the suite, properly named by
Herrmann "Welles Raises Kane," is a much-performed work in itself, having themes derived from the grand scores written for Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.
Review of Music from Great Film Classics: Bernard Herrmann conductor