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The Evolution of Film Music

 “Michael Kamen said, ‘We composers are at least as significant as the stars who make fourteen or fifteen million dollars.  We are actors on the screen. You just don’t see us’” (Deutsch et al. 363).  Although many ignore the music in films, it is an essential portion of any moviegoing experience.  An often neglected art, film music has progressed from huge, classically inspired orchestral scores with composers like Korngold and Steiner, to popular scores filled with a barrage of rock songs, and finally to the smorgasbord of styles that the public knows today with experimental modernism, jazz, or traditional orchestral film scores.
 Max Steiner, the first true film composer, was born in Vienna on May 10, 1888.  His father, a theater owner, recognized his son’s musical potential and intense talent.  Steiner was enrolled in the Vienna Academy of Music -- from which he graduated at age thirteen.  By his seventeenth birthday, Steiner had written a staged a complete operetta.  By 1904, his career as a professional conductor had been fully established.  However, with the advent of World War I, he was forced to end his conducting career in Europe.  Rather than return to his recently bankrupt family, the auspicious conductor emigrated to America.  In New York, Steiner worked on several popular Broadway musicals.  Eventually, one of his friends persuaded him to work for Hollywood, and secured a job for Steiner at RKO Pictures’ music department.  This twist of fate led to the composition of the first true film score.  In a positively daring move, since most movies before 1932 used existing classical works, the director of Symphony of Six Million hired Max Steiner to conceive a series of cues to underscore a single twenty-minute reel of film.  Soon, every movie studio had assembled an original music department, each with a legion of dedicated composers.
 Somehow it is fitting that the man who redefined film music would ultimately be remembered as the most prolific of his kind.  Although the question of the most active movie composer is probably unanswerable, Max Steiner’s filmography suggests that he wrote more cues for films than any of his contemporaries or predecessors.  This is evident in his stunning output of forty-seven film scores in his first three years of composing.  Steiner, who believed that Wagner was the greatest influence on film scoring, is chiefly remembered for two of his premier scores: King Kong and Gone With the Wind.  “The music for King Kong, is, in the words of Oscar Levant, ‘a Max Steiner concert illustrated by pictures’” (Deutsch et al. 232).  The score, using primitive ceremonial drums and large doses of brass to underscore the monstrous ape, perfectly recalls the story and plot of this primitive blockbuster.  Gone With the Wind features nearly continuous underscore with eight key themes, one of which became a success with the public.
 Sergei Prokofiev, another European film composer, perfectly demonstrated the bond between classical music and film scores in his masterful score for Alexander Nevsky.  The Russian film, largely seen as a propaganda piece, recounted the epic story of the Russian defense of Novgorad in 1242 against the Knights of the Teutonic Order.  Prince Alexander Nevsky intercepted the invaders at the frozen waters of Lake Chad and dealt them a disastrous defeat.  On the score, one critic voiced the following: “Prokofiev’s ability to write music for a comparatively popular medium and yet to maintain the highest artistic integrity and standards was proved by Alexander Nevsky.  Though originating as motion picture music, it is nevertheless one of the composer’s finest creations, a work of great dignity and power” (Ewen 593).  After completing the historic score, Prokofiev realized that it would form a fabulous classical work.  He took the finest moments of the score and formulated a mammoth cantata for mezzo-soprano, chorus, and orchestra.  This is the version that the world recognizes today.  The cantata contains many memorable set pieces, such as a gargantuan sixteen minute battle movement.
 Two men that perfected the symphonic sound of Golden Age film scores were Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Miklos Rozsa.  Korngold, said to be a child prodigy by classical composer Gustav Mahler, was a serious composer by age eleven, and had completed three operas by the time he was twenty-three.  Although his foray into film scoring only lasted ten years, he composed many memorable classics, most notably for Errol Flynn adventures.  Hungarian composer Miklos Rozsa is chiefly remembered in three genres of movies: historical epics such as Ben-Hur, film noir classics like Double Indemnity, and fantasy scores like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.  As William Darby and Jack Du Bois recount, “Miklos Rozsa has consistently produced some of the most listenable music ever written for the screen.  His scores, like those of Korngold, lend themselves particularly well to performances apart from the films they were originally designed to enhance” (307).
 Other innovators in the age of classic film scores include Alex North and Maurice Jarre.  North principally composed in two styles.  For large, epic scores, he used bombastic and modernistic orchestration.  For more dramatic films, he used ensembles to convey the emotions present on screen.  French composer Jarre wrote scores for international blockbusters like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.  In the former, he introduced all three themes for the movie in the overture and then marvelously combined them just before the opening credits.
 Film scoring continued prosperously until 1967, when, with the success of The Graduate, movie studios recognized the enormous profitability of rock songs in films.  For the next few years, every new movie had a signature song along with a score filled with popular music.  Unfortunately, in the studios’ attempt to cater to the masses, many legitimate film composers found themselves out of work.  For most composers, the answer was to migrate temporarily to Europe, where their talents were appreciated.  However, several remained in the United States and provided small, unintrusive scores to light comedies and independent films.  Fortunately, the era of purely rock movie scores ended shortly after its beginning.
 A key player in the resurrection of orchestral film scores was John Williams.  Born in 1932 in New York, he spent three years in the Air Force and then became a noted jazz musician.  Then, in 1956, Williams became the pianist for the Twentieth-Century Fox Studio Orchestra.  This job led to the composition of music for several television shows such as Land of the Giants, Lost in Space, and the Steven Spielberg-produced show Amazing Stories.  After scoring several notable movies, his friend Spielberg brought him in to compose Jaws.  This was the genesis of a collaboration between Spielberg and Williams that bridges to the present.  Jaws’s menacing two-note motif permanently etched itself into the public consciousness.  Apparently it also struck fear into the movie studios, since most films after 1975 featured an orchestral score.  The music for Jaws, along with most of Williams’ other works, is written in a traditional vein -- although lately he has been scoring intense dramas like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.  Williams’ usual style is influenced by Golden Age composers like Korngold and Steiner.  “He offhandedly discusses the score to Superman: The ‘style is tonal, kind of ceremonious and heraldic -- C majorish to D majorish, if you know what I mean’” (Darby and Du Bois 522).
 After Jaws established John Williams as a household name, he stunned the world again with the epic music for Star Wars.  The original soundtrack sold over four million copies, making it the best-selling orchestral soundtrack of all time.  Its compositional style heralds back to legendary composers of the 1930’s and 1940’s.  Max Steiner’s theory of film music’s influence from Wagner is proven again in that  Williams applies a technique called leitmotif, the linking of melodic themes with individual story elements, which can be replayed or reorchestrated repeatedly according to the film’s needs.  Three years after Star Wars, Williams was -- not unexpectedly -- called back for the sequel.  Continuing to use leitmotif, he blended the four major themes from the original with several new ones and managed to form an organic whole.  However, this film utilized new techniques such as dissonant orchestration and synthesizers.  The melding of themes created what is recognized by many to be one of the best film scores of all time.  For the final film in the Star Wars trilogy, Williams was once again recruited to compose the music.  One of his largest works, this score houses an amazing sixteen themes and motives.  Additionally, at 148 minutes, it lasts longer than the film itself, the score having several alternates, unused cues, and concert suites.  In 1981, George Lucas approached Williams again with another adventure trilogy -- the Indiana Jones saga.  For the first film, the versatile composer molded one of his most memorable themes yet -- the “Raiders March.”  This forms the basis of the trilogy, although it was used sparingly in the last two films.  John Williams’ legacy has included other scores like Jurassic Park, Hook, The Lost World, Nixon, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and most recently, Saving Private Ryan.
 One of the most prolific film composers of this century is Jerry Goldsmith.  With over 115 scores to his name, and no sign of cessation, he has contributed to every major genre.  Born in 1929, he began piano lessons at a young age.  By age twenty-one he was composing for the visual medium as music director for CBS.  For the next ten years, he composed music for numerous television shows.  Although his first film score was composed in 1957, Goldsmith became recognized as a prominent composer in 1962 with his scores for Lonely Are the Brave, a western, and Freud, a biography of the founder of psychoanalysis.  In Goldsmith’s initial twenty years of composing, he became recognized as the first major composer to routinely bring avant-garde twentieth century composing styles into films.  This technique is illustrated in his scores for Planet of the Apes, Outland, Alien, Freud, and several others.  Goldsmith is also recognized for his innovative percussion and electronic effects.  For example, Star Trek: The Motion Picture features everything from ceremonial drums, glass rub rods, and a fifteen-foot long percussive monstrosity called the Blaster Beam to liquid rushes of air, whale calls, various electronic pitches, and slit bass drums hit with hard rubber “Super Balls.”  Alien uses the obscure Arabian serpent, and Star Trek: Insurrection utilizes electronic “Doppler blips.”
 Although he frequently employs disturbing, dissonant orchestrations, Jerry Goldsmith is widely heralded as a master of melody.  Some of his most endearing themes include the charming lullaby from Poltergeist, the football music from Rudy, impressionistic themes from Legend, the echoing trumpets and patriotic theme from Patton, and, finally, the signature theme from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  As John Burlingame asserts: “A key to Goldsmith’s success is his ability to get inside the fabric of a film, discern what its essential sound should be, and translate that creative impulse into music that will meet its dramatic needs.  Sometimes his approach is sophisticated, sometimes it is simple, is both” (12-13).
 Although many legendary composers still write scores today, several new faces have appeared recently.  Some, like Joel McNeely, follow the influence of legends like John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, and John Barry.  Others invent new styles completely unlike those of their predecessors.  For example, Howard Shore creates disturbing, modernistic scores with small ensembles, his most unusual being Crash, which features six electric guitars, three harps, three woodwinds, and percussion.  Another chief innovator of modern film scoring is Danny Elfman.  His first score, Batman, is widely heralded as his best, featuring a blend of gothic orchestral music and demented waltzes.
 Arguably the most popular modern film composer, James Horner first made a name for himself with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  Throughout the 1980’s, Horner created several large, brassy scores for various science fiction and fantasy films such as Aliens, Krull, The Rocketeer, and Cocoon.  In about 1990, he abandoned most action films and began writing heavy dramatic scores, although he has recently become reacquainted with action through The Mask of Zorro and Mighty Joe Young.  Unfortunately, Horner has always been known for recycling themes from both himself and others.  For example, the entire theme from Willow is derived from one of Robert Schumann’s symphonies.  Additionally, Horner has a habit of using his own themes in multiple films.  An example of this is Aliens, which, in the rush to finish the score by the deadline, Horner reused one of the major themes from Star Trek III extensively.  The latest of his “homages” is Titanic, which incorporates sections from Star Trek II, The Rocketeer, Jerry Goldsmith’s Capricorn One, Enya, and even a quote of the theme from John Williams’ Schindler’s List.
 Another innovator in film scoring is former classical composer Elliot Goldenthal.  Although he sometimes uses the typical thematic approach, much of Goldenthal’s film music seems like dissonant twentieth century classical composing.  Perhaps his most popular -- and controversial -- score is Alien3, which uses techniques commonly reserved for the concert hall, like a haunting boy soprano, tone clusters, and glissandi.  In several sections, members of the orchestra play completely different melodies.  Even though there are several sections of beautiful music, many critics see this complex work as mindless noise.  However, many have recognized the genius of the intricate orchestrations.  Regardless of the opinions of others, Elliot Goldenthal continues to enrich films like Sphere, Demolition Man, and Batman Forever with his creativity.
 Film music’s three stages include the classical orchestrations of the Golden Age, the assault of rock songs in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, and finally the combination of styles that pervade modern films.  Scores enhance and expand nearly every aspect of a movie.  Although largely ignored by the public, film music is an undeniably crucial part of our culture.

Works Cited

Burlingame, John. Liner notes. Poltergeist: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. By Jerry  Goldsmith. Rhino Movie Music, 1997.
Darby, William, and Jack Du Bois. American Film Music: Major Composers, Techniques,  Trends, 1915-1990. Jefferson: McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, 1990.
Deutsch, Didier C., et al. Videohound’s Soundtracks: Music From the Movies, Broadway,  and Television. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1998.
Ewen, David. The World of Twentieth-Century Music. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall,  Inc., 1968.

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This paper is Copyright (C) 1999 by Andrew Drannon.  All rights reserved.