The Column: Great Scores by Classical Film Composers

By James Inverne on Jul 16, 2013 03:13 AM EDT

Someone once asked me at a classical music awards ceremony--one which specialized in “crossover," that strange category that was, I believe, invented just to give record shops somewhere to put all of those albums that once would have come under the then-defunct heading of “easy listening” (and what the heck does that mean?)--a really difficult question. “What’s the difference,” they enquired with the expression of a pilgrim who had come to ask a question of the prophet, “between film music and classical music?”

Now, I’m aware that comparing myself to a prophet might seem a touch grandiose. But I was editor of Gramophone magazine at the time and supposed to know these things. But the truth is, there isn’t an easy answer. Or rather there is, but it’s not what people usually want to hear.

The truth is, there’s no difference much of the time.

As long as we’re talking about symphonically structured scores that use traditional orchestral instruments--so obviously not the pop compilations so beloved of Quentin Tarantino et. al (great though some of those are, have you heard the Django Unchained soundtrack?)--then, yes, it counts.

And it’s no good saying, well, these scores are in thrall to or merely underline a drama, because exactly the same can be said of Grieg’s incidental music for Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt, and a quick check on ArkivMusic reveals no fewer than 72 recordings of that currently in the catalog, graced by such core classical artists as Beecham, Karajan and Slatkin.

Spin it round--it’s no accident that some of the great earlier film scores were by avowedly “classical” composers. Walton, Hermann, Shostakovich, Korngold (who was very unhappy about being finally pigeon-holed as a film guy), Walton, Rózsa, Vaughan Williams, even Stravinsky.

And the first film composer? That title is usually credited to Camille Saint-Saëns, best known as the composer of Carnival of the Animals and Danse Macabre.

So then the question might become, if there is a through-line of great music, where do today’s film composers fit in? Have they advanced the work of composers who inspired them, or just aped it? Where have they taken our classical music?

On the one hand, how much time have you got? Because this is a big enough discussion for a book, either of the e- or hard copy variety. But on the other, there are some general, and generally interesting, points to be made.

One is that the most prolific film composers of today weren’t always necessarily the most interesting or innovative, but many of them have developed way beyond the kind of stuff they were bringing out when we all first became aware of them. John Williams and Hans Zimmer are cases in point. Williams’ early successes, joined at the hip with those of his long-time collaborator Steven Spielberg, were efficient, some of them were melodically inspired (E.T.--love that score), plenty had fascinating ideas (the ironic beachside jingle set against the churning, threatening main theme of Jaws, or flashes of real brilliance in Close Encounters of the Third Kind).

But nothing had the symphonic power of Schindler’s List, nor the subtle humor (encoded into the score’s complexities like a secret joke--made all the funnier if you know Bernard Hermann’s scores for Hitchcock) of Catch Me If You Can.

Similarly, Hans Zimmer first grabbed our attention with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, where some nicely soulful folk melodies alternated with exciting, but not hugely varied battle sequences and a big chunk of Wagner homage. Fast-forward to Christopher Nolan’s Inception or The Dark Knight Rises, and today’s Zimmer is a very different artist--one who wields and welds textures with not just a firm instinct, but a ranging imagination that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

One might say the same of David Arnold, John Barry’s successor in the Bond movies whose art continues to grow--Skyfall was a terrific piece of work.

And the thing is, millions of people hear this music, making the film industry the largest arena for contemporary music that the world has ever known. Whether or not audiences come out humming the leitmotifs, I believe that film music is having a definite effect on music back in the concert hall. Just as John Williams has been enormously influenced by the music of Prokofiev, Mahler and Shostakovich, I have often heard newbies at concerts say with relief, “It sounds just like film music!”

And there’s an even more profound change occurring.

The Second World War led indirectly to the rise of composers who didn’t believe in writing tunes, who didn’t think one should write with an audience’s experience in mind (supported by the victorious Allied forces, who noted well the way the Nazis had used anthemic music for propaganda, resolved never again to let that music bolster a fascist regime). That damaged new classical music’s standing in popular culture--it might have been culture, but sometimes, let’s face it, it wasn’t so popular.

Yet the power of film was not to be denied, and now that many of us are over our snobbishness about great film music, and Barry (much missed), Williams, Ennio Morricone, etc. have been in our lives for, well, all our lives in many cases, we expect certain things of mainstream classical music. We expect a certain tunefulness, as well as a dramatic cohesion and progression. And guess what? Composers go to the movies, too, and today’s risen generation--Thomas Adès, Magnus Lindberg, Mark Anthony Turnage and the rest--have internalized what movies have taught us all. That classical music can have great tunes, that there’s an audience for it, and that--if you extend the hand--that audience will go with you where you take them.

Here, then, are some great scores by classical film composers:

Henry V (1944)

William Walton’s ornate score to the Laurence Olivier mid-war Shakespeare film remains a masterpiece, pageant, adventure-tale and romance in one.

El Cid (1961)

Miklós Rózsa practically created a ballet score from this legendary tale of the great Spanish knight’s daring-do, such is his control over building the drama.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Maurice Jarre found a harshness amidst the orchestral splendor when scoring David Lean’s classic film, one that reflected both the deadliness of Lawrence’s beloved Arabian deserts, and the central character’s tragic inability to fully understand his own character.

 Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

It’s hard to know where composer Ennio Morricone stops and director Sergio Leone begins in their collaborations, as a deliberately psychedelic mash-up of visual and sonic effects disorientates viewers. But this gangster epic contains some of Morricone’s most touching music--and if you know Morricone, you know that’s really saying something.

Catch Me If You Can (2002)

This John Williams rather than the youthfully inspired E.T. or the powerful Schindler’s List? I just love the sly Bernard Hermann tributes, the incorporating of jazz motifs into a classically structured score and the humor of the thing--not an easy thing to pull off in music.

These are five of the best, not the best five. Feel free to suggest your own playlist. And in the meantime, I’ll return to the topic before too long--how does a dissection of the output of Ennio Morricone sound? Ah, bliss…!

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TagsJames Inverne, The Column, William Walton, Henry V, Miklós Rózsa, El Cid, Maurice Jarre, Lawrence of Arabia, Ennio Morricone, Once Upon a Time in America, John Williams, Catch Me If You Can

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