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, occasionally...it is
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.
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.