Music for Families: Superheros and Villains
Alan Silvestri (b. 1950) has scored well over 100 films, garnering two Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, two Emmy awards, as well as three Grammy awards. His decades-long collaboration with director Robert Zemeckis has resulted in films such as the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Forrest Gump, and Polar Express. In recent years Silvestri has furnished scores for a number of acclaimed action films, including Captain America, The Avengers, The Avengers: Infinity War, and Ready Player One. In a Film Music Magazine interview, Silvestri noted that the theme from The Avengers “. . . had to have a heroic aspect to it, as well as a kind of grandness. And it all had to be generated from that scene when they’re all gathering for the last great battle. . . . It’s like watching chemicals kind of swirling together, to become something greater than the individual elements.”
The nine symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) outlined new horizons of drama and serious content that inspired (and intimidated) composers who followed him throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Beethoven’s Third Symphony—nicknamed the Eroica, or “heroic”—was completed in 1804. Beethoven originally inscribed this music to Napoleon Bonaparte, but when Bonaparte had himself crowned emperor, the composer retracted his dedication, enraged that someone he had idolized as a champion of human rights would prove himself little better than a tyrant.
Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) lived in a time when composers and musicians were dependent on the Catholic Church or the courts of kings and princes to make a living. Depending on whom you ask, Monteverdi was either a maverick eagerly embracing the latest musical innovations, or he was the last flowering of the older Italian Renaissance style of composition. It is only fitting that Monteverdi’s first opera (and one of the first operas, period) L’Orfeo (1607) explores a myth that is itself concerned with looking forward and backwards, that of the poet-composer Orpheus. Some have said that the thrilling Toccata that opens the opera was a sort of calling card for the Gonzaga family (Monteverdi’s patrons); it can also be found in Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610.
Wolfgang Amadè Mozart (1756-91) was a prodigy from the get-go but he went on to create some of the most enduring artistic creations of Western civilization. His last work for the stage, The Magic Flute (1791) is about a young prince who must learn to choose between good and evil, and who, undergoing trial by fire and water, becomes worthy of his station. The forces of evil are represented by the Queen of the Night and her court, those of good by the priest Sarastro and his followers. At the center of this is Pamina, the Queen of the Night’s daughter, who is protected (or imprisoned, if you ask the Queen) by Sarastro. The bird-catcher Papageno speaks for those who couldn’t care less about issues like good and evil. The Queen’s vengeance aria "Der Hölle Rache” (My heart is seething with vengeance), is one of Mozart’s greatest showstoppers.
Der Hölle Rache
My heart is seething with vengeance,
despair blazes around me!
If you do not make Sarastro suffer,
you are no longer my daughter.
Forever disowned, forever abandoned,
forever destroyed may all ties of nature be,
if you do not make Sarastro suffer!
Hear! Gods of vengeance! Hear a mother's vow!
Richard Wagner (1813-83) revolutionized the world of musical theater with operas that fuse music, drama, and stage design in a continuous, complete work of art, and in which characters don’t stop to explain while the action is put on pause. The Ride of the Valkyries is from his opera Die Walküre (completed in 1856 and first seen in 1870, the second of the four operas known collectively as The Ring of the Nibelungen). Here, Wagner depicts the warrior-daughters of the god Wotan galloping across the sky on their fabulous horses. Recently, the British Foundation for Motoring identified this music as some of the most dangerous to listen to while driving. It’s too exciting for safety on the road.
Imperial March, from The Empire Strikes Back
Olympic Fanfare and Theme
One of the most in-demand composers in Hollywood today, John Williams (b. 1932) worked first as a pianist in the 20th Century Fox studio orchestra, then began writing film music. The rest is history. Williams’s numerous credits include music for more than 100 films, including such blockbusters as the Indiana Jones, Harry Potter and Star Wars series, Lincoln, Schindler’s List, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Jaws, Superman, and Jurassic Park. Williams’s scores for the original Star Wars trilogy revived the big, romantic style that had been popular in Hollywood’s Golden Age, in the 1930s and 1940s, but that had gradually gone out of style as movies took on subjects of more modest scale. With five Academy Awards and fifty-one Oscar nominations (making him the second-most nominated person in the history of the Oscars) to his credit, it’s safe to say Williams is the most influential film composer of the last half century.
Michael Giacchino (b. 1967) began his filmmaking career at the age of ten in his backyard in Edgewater Park, NJ. After college, he landed a marketing job at Disney and began studies in music composition, first at Juilliard and then at UCLA. His early work in video games at Disney sparked the interest of J.J. Abrams, beginning a long-standing relationship that would lead to scores for the television series Alias and LOST, and feature films such as Mission Impossible III, Star Trek, Super 8, and Star Trek: Into Darkness. Giacchino’s music can also be heard in a number of Disney and Pixar animated films, including Up, Zootopia, Inside Out, Ratatouille, and both films in The Incredibles series. Giacchino’s score for The Incredibles is a delightful descendant of music for 1960s spy films by John Barry and Henry Mancini, among others.
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) moved with comfort between various languages and was at ease in different cultures. His music can reflect continental elegance and American exuberance (he lived in both New York and Los Angeles), yet he never lost touch with his Russian roots. Stravinsky wrote The Firebird for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, launched in Paris in 1909 and on the cutting edge of the European arts scene. The company made a specialty of dancing works inspired by Russian folklore, and The Firebird was perfectly suited to Ballets Russes designs. The colorful tale involves a dashing prince, an evil sorcerer, enchanted princesses, a magic egg, and, of course, the mythical and mystical titular creature. The Firebird not only changed Stravinsky’s life, it dominated it.
Richard Rodgers was born in Hammels Station, NY on June 28, 1902 and died in New York City on December 30, 1979. One of the greatest names in American musical theater, he wrote nearly thirty stage musicals in collaboration with Lorenz Hart before beginning his remarkable partnership with Oscar Hammerstein II, a partnership that led to such works as Oklahoma!, South Pacific, and Carousel. The Sound of Music was the duo’s last show.
Ludwig Görranson (b. 1984) is a Swedish composer for television and film. A formative experience came when he met director Ryan Coogler while studying at USC. A partnership was born and Görranson has gone on to write scores for Coogler’s films Fruitvale Station, Creed, and Black Panther. To write the Black Panther score, Gorranson immersed himself in African music. As he noted in an interview with Pitchfork, “One of the instruments that really caught my attention was the talking drum, which is the first type of telephone—the first type of communication device…It’s like a voice—you’re literally talking with a drum. And that sound became the sound of the king [in Black Panther]. That was the first seed of how the instrumentation affected the process.”—Steven Ziegler