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Movies and Music and the Wonders

October 8, 2013

For better or worse, movies have shaped the way we think about the world, and so has Hollywood's music. Both are larger than life, which is exactly what most of us want the stories of our lives to be: full of purpose and shorn of irrelevance, tales worth telling.

Just how film music helps tell the tale is something that aestheticians have been puzzling over since Franz Liszt and Richard Strauss conceived of the “tone poem,” where the music is meant to illustrate a program whose events unfold in the listener’s mind. In Hollywood’s Golden Age, a number of fine composers, many of them classically trained, wrote music for films and set high standards. With their scores, artists such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, and Alfred Newman helped transform mundane dramas into riveting emotional experiences, often giving good films the extra boost that made them classics.

To director Steven Spielberg, music is among the most important of the many elements that go into a film, whether acting or staging or editing, because music possesses the emotional and sensory power to propel a scene beyond words and images. So add music. Or don’t. To Spielberg’s longtime collaborator, composer John Williams, the basic decision about whether a scene needs music is profound, and that decision’s importance recalls what French director Jean-Luc Godard calls “the only great problem of cinema, [which] seems to be . . . when and why to start a shot and when and why to end it.” For a film, like any work of art, is the result of choices. When should a scene begin and end? How should those scenes be strung together? Where and when should music be added? What kind of music?

From film’s earliest days, music has played a lead role. And while composer Aaron Copland once laid down what seems a logical ground rule for film music—that a score should not call attention to itself, distracting viewers—moviegoers clearly love the music that accompanies films. People buy recordings of film scores for the music itself, and because hearing the music can help re-create a sense of the film, can rekindle the mood and emotions that the film stirred. True, in the movie theater you don’t see the orchestra playing the score, so you may form only a subliminal sense of how much the music contributes. That could change, were you aware of the musicians’ presence.

This month, when the San Francisco Symphony inaugurates its new film series, musicians and movies share the stage—as though to proclaim a bond, spotlighting a symbiotic relationship whose importance is often underestimated. Screenings of Vertigo and Psycho highlight a week devoted to Alfred Hitchcock, with the Orchestra playing Bernard Herrmann’s original scores. That this composer is so closely linked with Hitchcock in the minds of moviegoers—although Herrmann scored only seven of the director’s many films—says everything about music’s cinematic power. Herrmann’s music convinces us that he has captured the essence of what Hitchcock meant to convey. You cannot think of Vertigo or Psycho or North by Northwest without Herrmann’s music; had they been scored by another composer, they would be different films. 

Some of film music’s most eloquent practitioners have tried to define good film music. Herrmann himself was characteristically blunt: “When a film is well made, the music’s function is to fuse a piece of film so that it has an inevitable beginning and end. . . . Music essentially provides an unconscious series of anchors for the viewer. It isn’t always apparent . . ., but it serves its function. I think Cocteau said that a good film score should create the feeling that one is not aware whether the music is making the film go forward or whether the film is pushing the music forward.”

The British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, best known for his nine symphonies, also relished his film work. (His Seventh Symphony, the Sinfonia antartica, is a re­working of his score for the 1948 movie Scott of the Antarctic.) Vaughan Williams believed that the most effective film scores “intensify the spirit of the whole situation by a continuous stream of music”—although just how continuous that stream should be is not only the composer’s decision. The composer’s job, asserts John Williams, is to serve the film, to grasp what director Sergei Eisenstein called the “structural secret which conveys the broad meaning,” and to reinforce and project a director’s technique.

“I need to know how [a film] breathes and where I can help to accelerate it or retard it or create an expectancy or defuse one,” John Williams has said. “If the music is quicker than the editorial rhythm it may seem to slow the film down, and the reverse is also true. You need to get into the rhythmic ‘pocket.’ We know we’ve got it right when it’s riding with the action in an effortless way.” And director Spielberg attends closely to the link between musical and visual narratives. The visual narrative inspires the music, but the flow of the music may in turn suggest tweaks to the visual narrative. In the final stages of reviewing a film with the score added to the soundtrack, Spielberg might sense the musical narrative stalling at a scene, revealing a problem in the overall narrative. The solution: Cut the scene, thereby creating a seamless musical-visual flow.

Here is an instance of how music propels the narrative. In director Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) finds the body of his brother Charley (Rod Steiger), a mob operative who has suffered payback for refusing an order to kill Terry. Terry lifts Charley’s corpse off a meathook and onto his shoulders. The scene is ghastly, but Leonard Bernstein’s tender music contrasts sharply with it, and with the dissonances that until now have filled the score. We understand that Terry has a side not yet displayed. The scene and the music signal a pivotal point in the story.

Steven Spielberg offers another example of how, as he says, “music can actually carry a scene.” In conversation with John Williams (in The Art of Collaboration, a program of the American Film Institute), Spielberg considered the great love scene between James Stewart and Kim Novak toward the end of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Spielberg’s claim is that, minus the music, the scene could hardly work. Stewart—Scottie Ferguson in the film—would just stand for a long time at a window in a dimly lit hotel room. Then he would turn to look at something, but not even the emotion he displays would suggest what he sees. Now add Herrmann’s score. On the soundtrack, the strings quiver with nervous, obsessively repeating music as Scottie waits, looking out into the night. The strings grow more insistent as he turns and then as we see what he sees: a woman who a minute ago was someone else, and who has emerged from the next room transformed—by a change of clothes and hair style. When she left the screen she was Judy, someone Scottie has been dating casually. Now she is a double for Madeleine, with whom he is still obsessed, and whom he believes dead. As they embrace, the orchestra begins to recall what it played to accompany an earlier scene with Madeleine. (For Judy is Madeleine, although Scottie does not yet understand this. Things are complicated at this point, but the music helps us negotiate the story line.) We circle Scottie and Judy/Madeleine in a 360-degree shot while the orchestra grows increasingly prominent, straining and pulling and pushing as it finally swells toward a climax, at which point the circle is complete, the music crests suddenly from minor into major mode—tense, plunging lines open broadly and soar—and the screen goes black. That was Hollywood consummation, circa 1958. No screen suggestion of love fulfilled has been more breathtaking than this one engineered by Hitchcock and Herrmann.

What all this comes down to is the communication of ideas and emotions through sound. The most memorable film music, whether epic or intimate, not only underlines and conveys the spirit of the moment but contributes to the overall impact. In other words, film music does exactly what we expect of concert music. It touches our hearts and makes us feel.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, you can add a few thousand more words to the value of a picture plus music. When we watch a film, we begin, after themes are introduced and recur a few times, to recognize—consciously or subconsciously—how specific music is fit to specific characters and states of mind, and places and situations. Music becomes linked to the drama we see on the screen. When we listen to a piece of concert music, a similar drama unfolds in our minds, a drama determined by musical events to which we respond and which we recognize as they recur: We fit a picture to the music. Whether we are watching or listening, music and images combine in a powerful punch. What music can do for a film, and thus for a film audience, is very much what music does for an audience in a traditional concert. I will go so far as to say that a movie and its score open a gateway to the concert hall. I went through that gateway years ago.

It wasn’t just any movie that lured me. Part of what makes a symphonic score exciting is the immediacy of sound you experience in the concert hall. To someone with ears accustomed to hearing music reproduced on a standard home system—that is, on less than top-flight electronic equipment—the clarity and visceral impact of a live orchestra can be overwhelming. In the Palace Theater in downtown Chicago—I will not tell you how many years ago this was—I first heard what sounded like a live orchestra. It wasn’t. It was the music on a film soundtrack. The film: Seven Wonders of the World. This was a spectacular shot in Cinerama, a super-wide-screen process remembered wistfully today only by geeks such as myself. In those days when movies were discovering how to compete with television for the public’s entertainment dollars, Cinerama promised a life-like experience, pledging to put viewers into the picture, much as 3-D pledges the same today. Cinerama made good on the words of its promoters, but the process was costly and unwieldy and soon gave way to cheaper and less cumbersome wide-screen methods. Among the tools in the arsenal Cinerama used to re-create a true-to-life movie experience was its revolutionary theater sound, a seven-track surround system that rivaled anything you might encounter today. Through this system, I first heard a hundred-piece orchestra. It changed my life. Theater sound systems have come a long way since then, which reflects the ongoing attempt to create a more perfect illusion, and the recognition of how music, reproduced faithfully, serves the film.

Several composers contributed to that Cinerama score. David Raksin worked primarily in film. Jerome Moross divided his time composing for film and for the concert hall. Many composers identified primarily with concert music have also written movie scores, not only Copland, Vaughan Williams, and Leonard Bernstein, but also Sergei Prokofiev, Miklós Rózsa,  John Corigliano, and, famously, the Austrian composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold. (Arnold Schoenberg was intrigued by film music, and so was Stravinsky, although neither of them worked in film.) In the 1930s and ’40s, Korngold led a pack of European expatriate composers in creating the sound we identify with Hollywood in its heyday, a sound defined by lush orchestrations and sweeping themes, all inspired by the Viennese Romantic tradition in which those composers were trained. Over the years, music snobs have disdained film scores, and the notion that popularity equals diminished artistic value is hard to shake. But the roster of those who have written for the movies includes many who have given their best, classical giants as well as artists associated mainly with film: composers of the past such as Newman, Waxman, Hugo Friedhofer, and Elmer Bernstein, into the present with John Williams, Hans Zimmer, and James Horner. All have created music that does its job and then some, with no apologies needed from anyone.

Korngold, one of the greatest of all film composers, thought of movies as operas and scored them in that spirit. (He once called Puccini’s Tosca the greatest movie score ever.) To Korngold, a screenplay was a libretto, the main title music was an overture. Listen to some of Korngold’s main title sequences. Their strongly defined themes proclaim the nature and mood of the dramas they introduce—the sweeping minor chords and broken phrases of Of Human Bondage (1946) foretell its protagonist’s debasing struggle, the crashing dissonance of The Sea Wolf (1941) warns us about the sadistic Captain Wolf Larsen. Korngold loved movies. In his scores, he intended to provide what he called “symphonically dramatic music which fits the picture, its action and its psychology, and which, nevertheless, will be able to hold its own in the concert hall. . . . Never have I differentiated between my music for the films and that for the operas and concert pieces. Just as I do for the operatic stage, I try to invent for the motion picture dramatically melodious music with symphonic development and variation of the themes.”

Korngold was among the first in his profession to emphasize the link between film scores and concert music. He assigned themes to characters and put those themes through the permutations that would reflect and advance plot. You have only to listen to his score for Kings Row (1942) to get some idea of how his music worked. Every principal theme is introduced in the first ten minutes of the film. During the two hours that follow, the music’s ebb and flow will add a third dimension to the performances, and when Betty Field tries to seduce Robert Cummings, Korngold is helping them convince the audience that they really are Cassie Tower and Parris Mitchell.

If Tosca is a great movie score, so is the Beethoven Fifth Symphony. The Beethoven, first heard in 1808, opens with the impact of the original Star Wars movie, from 1977. Remember how Star Wars begins? Not a sound. Then a short phrase appears, lettered on a black background: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. . . .” And then fanfares and more fanfares break the silence, introducing a theme that has become as instantly recognizable as the four pounding notes that open the Beethoven Fifth. Both the Star Wars music and the Beethoven herald what is to come. They promise the excitement of a story worth telling. The magnificence of the sound—the kind of thing I experienced in that Cinerama theater long ago—lures us. But that deafening splendor is just the beginning.

In the Beethoven Fifth, without words or visual images to follow, listeners are swept into a plot, catapulted from the struggles of the opening movement to the victory of the conclusion. Beethoven harnesses our attention through themes repeated, varied, combined. He would have been a great film composer, especially for one of those films that celebrates a protagonist who conquers the odds: Rocky, or Seabiscuit, or hundreds of others.

Music targets the gut, through its many qualities of sound and a composer’s many strategies. The final movement of Beethoven’s Fifth erupts in a solar storm, bursting from a murky tunnel whose walls are closing in. Darth Vader’s Starfleet gathers its menace from the accompaniment of the pulse-quickening Imperial March. In both cases, the composer leads us. Some call this manipulation. I’ll call it engagement.

Today, film music can lead us toward the concert hall. But for many film composers the reverse has been true. Film composers have absorbed much from those composers of the past whose music triggered dramas in an audience’s imagination, long before other audiences gathered in dark rooms to watch dramas projected on screens. Concert music has offered film composers much to absorb. Because film music and concert music pursue the same goal. They aim to tell the tale and help us see. The most ambitious and beautiful examples of either genre can accomplish even more. For in those moments that follow the final notes, and when the lights come up, we return from what we’ve seen and heard, back to our lives: the same lives we started with, but now a little more full.—Larry Rothe

Larry Rothe, former editor of the San Francisco Symphony’s program book, is author of the SFS history Music for a City, Music for the World and co-author of For the Love of Music. Both books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall and at sfsymphony.org/shop. 

On DVD

The Hollywood Sound: Music for the Movies (Kultur Video 2007) A tribute to Hollywood composers of the Golden Age, including Korngold, Waxman, and Steiner.

Music for the Movies: Bernard Herrmann (Kultur Video 2007) Documenting the life of the composer who helped make Vertigo and Psycho the films they are.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Composers of Our Time (Arthaus Musik, 2003) The sad, triumphant life of a great and often misunderstood composer.

John Williams and Steven Spielberg’s conversation in the American Film Institute’s The Art of Collaboration has been posted on YouTube.

To Read

The Composer in Hollywood, by Christopher Palmer (Marion Boyars, 1990)

A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann, by Steven C. Smith (University of California Press)

Double Life, by Miklós Rózsa (Wynwood Press, 1989) A composer’s memoirs and reflections on a career divided between music for the movies and for the concert hall.

“Loving Memories of Movie Music” and “Erich Wolfgang Korngold: A Meditation,” by Larry Rothe, in For the Love of Music, by Rothe and Michael Steinberg (Oxford University Press, 2006)