23 June 1996

An A to Z of film music

For most of its history, the art of film music was neglected — even sneered at — by the academic musical establishment, even though cinema posed problems that composers had never previously faced. They needed to work in harmony with visual novelties, such as jump-cuts and special-effects panoramas, that had literally never been seen before. This week, however, sees a possible belated rapprochement between the two musical camps. John Williams, the Juillard-trained former jazz pianist and technically supreme composer of Spielberg’s biggest tunes (not to be confused with the Australian guitarist), will be conducting a short season of his film work with the London Symphony Orchestra. Williams, winner of four Oscars for Jaws, Star Wars, E.T. and Schindler’s List, is arguably the best film composer of the last three decades — but he’s only the most visible example of a long and stellar tradition. Here, then, is an extremely biased and selective guide to movie music through the years.

Alfred Newman: Apart from Walt Disney, he’s won the most Oscars — a whopping nine, for either scoring or musical direction. Born in Connecticut in 1901, Newman was a concert pianist at seven, and hit Hollywood in 1930 to work on some 200 films before his death in 1970. Successes include the wonderfully zippy musical Tin Pan Alley (1940), and breezy fun in The Seven Year Itch (1955). What’s more, he’s Randy Newman’s uncle.

Bernard Herrmann: The stressed-out, hot-tempered autocrat worked with Welles, Hitchcock, Truffaut and Scorsese in an exemplary career. Born in 1911 in New York, “Benny” won a composition prize at 13, and carried on writing “serious” music throughout his life. Herrmann delivered a belter for his first film score, the nervy patchwork for Citizen Kane (1941); his only Oscar arrived that same year for All That Money Can Buy. The Hitchcock association began in 1955 with The Trouble With Harry; Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959) developed Herrmann’s skill with minimal sonic resources. For Psycho (1960), Herrmann used nothing but a string orchestra and disproved the Hollywood cliché that strings were invariably lush and romantic. His screeching violin glissandi for the shower scene were almost an afterthought: Hitch originally told him not to write music for the stabbings; only later, when disappointed with the final version, did the director give Herrmann the go-ahead for this pin-point savagery. Herrmann’s last classic score was completed in the year of his death, 1975, when he had the vision to provide the brutal Taxi Driver with a bluesy theme of impossible love — he lost out in the Oscars the following year to Jerry Goldsmith’s thumping minor-triad tune for The Omen. See also: Quarrels.

Cheese: A critical term denoting the over-larding — with cloying strings, usually — of a basically naive tune. Michael Nyman’s (q.v.) messy music for The Piano, for example, might be a single melted Laughing Cow. On the other hand, Lennie Niehaus, usually a reliable post-bop jazz composer, nearly ruined Unforgiven with a classical-guitar-based score which is definitely an entire three-month-old Gorgonzola lurking in the back of your fridge. Also file under cheese: everything by Henry Mancini, except the cool Pink Panther theme.

Dead Composers: The producer’s easy choice. The use of Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto in Brief Encounter (1945) only increased the popularity of the recently-deceased superstar. Gustav Mahler, meanwhile, condemned to obscurity throughout most of the 20th century, was resurrected when Visconti chose the 5th symphony’s Adagietto for harp and strings as the theme for Death in Venice (1971). The gloomy Viennese went on to be the huge classical-market hit we know now.

Ennio Morricone: The maverick Italian, born in 1928, who scored parts for whips and spurs in his exhilarating, testosterone-fuelled signature piece for A Fistful of Dollars (1964). By the third of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), his rhythmic brew of whistled leitmotif and male-voice chorus had staked out the high ground in witty cinema operatics. Since those early smashes, Morricone has scored nearly 400 movies, but never won an Oscar. Highlights include a driving backing for The Untouchables (1987), overwhelming sentiment for Cinema Paradiso (1989), and a magpie mix of indigenous percussion and hymnal stabs for The Mission (1986).

Film Studio: The composer’s enemy. Maurice Jarre was once asked by an orchestra to conduct his music for Dr Zhivago (1965), only to be told by MGM that they had burnt the score because they needed more storage space. The music was rubbish, of course, but it’s the principle of the thing.

Giorgio Moroder: The natty Italian wizard, born in 1940, who was at the vanguard of the modern wave of synth-based scores with his Oscar-winning, moody pulsations for Midnight Express (1978). He glamourized Scarface (1983), and you can’t ignore the sublime four-note motif of “Together in Electric Dreams”, the Phil Oakey-warbled titled song for the ineffably sad The Neverending Story (1984).

Heroic Fifth: The king of emotive melodic intervals, this leap from the first to the fifth in a scale — preferably by massed brass or strings — is a failsafe shorthand for epic yearning. Its heroic, martial effect probably stems from its heritage in army fanfares, played on valve-free bugles. More or less copyrighted by John Williams in his wonderfully bombastic scores for Star Wars (1977), ET (1982) and Superman (1978). Also employed by Vangelis (q.v.), who mucks around on perfect fifths before launching into the tune in Chariots of Fire (1981). For dark brooding, simply precede the fifth with a minor sixth. The brilliant Danny Elfman (a man who, like John Williams, has obviously listened to lots of Holst) does this to marvellous effect in Batman (1989).

Invisibility: Film music is normally an unrealistic device: characters don’t react to it and there’s no orchestra to be seen. Alfred Hitchcock worried about this when shooting Lifeboat (1944) — he had asked: “But where is the music supposed to come from out in the middle of the ocean?”. Hitch’s composer, David Raksin (See also: Laura), retorted: “Ask Mr Hitchcock where the cameras come from.”

John Carpenter: The cultish horror/sci-fi director offered hope to one-fingered Bontempi enthusiasts everywhere by writing his own deceptively simple, synthy music for lo-fi classics like Dark Star (1974) and Escape from New York (1981). To top that, jazzer-turned-director, Mike Internal Affairs Figgis, has personally scored every film he’s made.

Kosher Composers: Camille Saint-Saëns started the whole film-composing business off, scoring a 1908 silent film version of L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise. Then came the talkies, and in 1934 Hollywood hired the Viennese opera composer, Erich Korngold, an immensely influential (and recently hip again) figure who won Oscars for Anthony Adverse (1936) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Dmitri Shostakovich, funnily enough, began his professional musical career as a piano accompanist for silent films — but he was later forced by his government to score numerous dour Soviet flicks, in penance for his seditious experiments with tonality. Sergei Prokoviev, on the other hand, had a happy association with Eisenstein on Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (1944). Hollywood got excited in the mid-1930s over the prospect of getting Stravinksy and Schoenberg on its books, but Igor fell through and Arnold was a control freak. “I would want $100,000,” the optimistic 12-tone maestro opined. When asked to score Thalberg’s The Good Earth (1937), Schoenberg’s fascinating demands included “complete control” over the actors, to make them “speak in the same pitch and key” as his score. Tragically, he wasn’t hired. Other classicists were either less precious, or hungrier: Aaron Copland conjured up bleak prairies for Of Mice and Men (1939); William Walton lent symphonic portent to Olivier’s 1940s Shakespeare films; Ralph Vaughan Williams liked his score for Scott of the Antarctic (1948) so much that he reused some of it in his 7th symphony; and Malcom Arnold won an Oscar for his stirring The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). See also: Youth.

Laura: Otto Preminger’s chic murder mystery, made in 1944, for which David Raksin created the deathless jazz standard, “Laura”. The tune is so harmonically ambiguous and cyclical that it became the basis for every piece of music in the film. This approach is called “monothematicism”.

Max Steiner: Hollywood’s preeminent composer of the epic tune certainly flirts with schmaltz, but his flexibility of technique, muscular way with a melody and sheer hugeness of gesture set him above his rivals. Born in Vienna in 1888, becoming a remarkable teen prodigy, Steiner went on to write, along with some 200 others, the scores to Casablanca (1943), The Big Sleep (1946), King Kong (1933) and — one of the longest and most irresistible scores in screen history — Gone With the Wind (1939).

Nyman: Ex-critic Michael Nyman wrote the music for Peter Greenaway’s films without laying eyes on a second of videotape. Greenaway gave him the script; Nyman came back with a few endlessly repeatable slabs of evocative minimalism, and presto — the film would be directed around the music. The hero of film composers who are sick of battling with tone-deaf executives.

Obvious: Lazy film-scorers resort to cliché. As early as 1947, composer Hanns Eisler and philosopher Theodor Adorno could write a grumpy manual, Composing for the Films, in which they complained: “Mountain peaks invariably invoke string tremelos punctuated by a signal-like horn motif… A slow waltz goes along with a moonlit scene in which a boat drifts down a river lined with weeping willows.”

Picture: What the music has to work in time with. Either a score is conducted “live” — the composer watches a big screen showing a special print of the film which has white “streaks” leading up to synchronization points — or there’s a lot of computerized jiggery-pokery with what’s known as SMPTE time-code.

Quarrels: Very common. Bernard Herrmann (q.v.) broke with Hitchcock over the ill-fated Torn Curtain (1966), for which Benny insisted on a ludicrously expensive orchestra including 16 horns and nine trombones: he didn’t get his way, and fled to England. Michael Nyman (q.v.) bade adieu to Greenaway after being insulted by the use of his music in the terrible Prospero’s Books (1991).

Recycling: “Straight” composers do it all the time, but in a mass art form that worships novelty, it’s a crime. Nino Rota, the exquisite composer for Fellini’s greatest hits, was up for the Academy gong in 1972 for The Godfather. However, it was discovered that for the big love theme, Rota had used a tune that he’d previously written for Fellini’s Cabiria (1957) — bye-bye Oscar. Still, he did win two years later with the sequel.

Semitones: The shuttling between this smallest of intervals in Western diatonic music is 24-carat film cliché for unease and suspense. John Williams famously riffs on alternating semitones, growling away in the double bass, for the shark-infested waters of Jaws (1975); Bernard Herrman’s last outing for it was Cliff Robertson’s climactic walk through an airport in Obsession (1976).

Time: What music’s all about: it’s often used to furnish a swirling counterpoint to linear narrative. Alternatively it can be used to underpin a sense of “real time”, as in that seminal jeu de chronologie, High Noon (1952). For the climactic sequence where Dmitri Tiomkin’s “Clementine” theme tune beats together with the clock’s second hand, the film editors actually sped the picture up so that the music synchronization would be exact.

Underscore: A term implying that film music is simply an aural “illustration”, subservient to the picture rather than working creatively with it. Compare the derisive phrase “mickey-mousing”, which refers to the practice of musically emphasizing every on-screen action (as happens in cartoons).

Vangelis: John Williams at 17rpm with synthesizers and a digital-delay effects box. A mysterious, reclusive Athenian whose least tedious work is the quasi-symphonic retro-futurism of Blade Runner (1982). See also:
Heroic Fifth.

Wrecking: The depressing process whereby producers decide that a classic theme tune needs “updating”: the rearrangement, done by some benighted hack, is always atrocious. Two modern examples: Monty Norman’s sexy James Bond theme, arranged for electric guitar and brassy orchestra by John Barry, appeared mostly as Californian-rock mulch for Goldeneye (1996); Ron Grainer’s fantastically sinuous Radiophonic Workshop tune for Doctor Who was killed stone dead in a witless transposition to horns and rock band in the recent Paul McGann film.

Xylophone: Simply replace the wooden bars with metal ones, add a few “tube resonators”, and you’ve got a vibraphone, jazzy mainstay of 1960s horror movies. Great. See also: Cheese.

Youth: No barrier to success. The crazily versatile British classical composer, Richard Rodney Bennett, started scoring features when he was an unprecedented 20 years old. He went on to create seriously good scores for Billy Liar (1963), Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) and Equus (1977).

Zbigniew Preisner: The stylish craftsman from Poland — surfing happily on the wave of Górecki’s chart-topping classical success — who wrote gorgeous, spare, crunchy scores for the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski, including The Double Life of Véronique (1991), in which his music is played by Irène Jacob’s neurotic violinist.