Saturday, February 18, 2012

800 Words: A Brief History of Film Music - The Silver Age Part 3

(Accompaniment to a Film Scene by Schoenberg...the film was never made)

One of the most interesting phenomena of film music was the differing attitudes of the greatest composers to it. One would expect that most ‘highbrow’ composers would think of film music as something intolerably vulgar, but that attitude was not nearly as pervasive as it might seem. Composers loved movies as did every other profession, both Schoenberg and Stravinsky lived their Golden years in Hollywood and were friends of many film stars. It was generally not the lowbrowness which they abhorred, it was the relinquishing of control. There’s a famous story about how Stravinsky met with Sam Goldwyn about the possibility of writing a four-movement symphony that would be accompanied by a film score. Everything seemed signed and sealed, until Goldwyn let slip the condition that each movement had to be a minute long. Thus ended Stravinsky’s Hollywood career.

But outside of the most rarefied composition circles, the attitude of the great composers to film scores was by and large accomodating. Earning good money to write music is not something to be lightly dismissed, particularly when a composer was ordered to do so by his government. In communist Russia, both Sergei Prokofiev and Dimitri Shostakovich wrote film scores that stand with their finest music.

(The Battle of the Ice from Alexander Nevsky...the greatest thing Prokofiev ever did?)

Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky is not a particularly good movie, but it is a war epic made with incredible aesthetic sophistication. Neither Kurosawa nor Kubrick nor the grand technicolor epics of the 50's would be possible without Alexander Nevsky’s example (whether that’s a good thing is for another day). If Nevsky still retains a raw viscral power, it’s in large part thanks to Prokofiev’s score, which is so good that it allows us to forget so much of the film’s ridiculousness. Prokofiev’s music, like Eisenstein’s movies, is a monument to pure craft - with effects that can make your hair stand on end, even if you’re never particularly moved.

(Shakespeare and Shostakovich, almost a partnership of equals.)

How different Prokofiev is from his great rival Shostakovich, in film scoring as in every other genre in which they wrote. Whereas Prokofiev wrote film music that perfectly fit virtuoso display, Shostakovich wrote film music whose interior power can hold its own with Shakespeare. Prokofiev’s technique was perfect, and almost perfectly empty. Shostakovich’s technique was great, but could also be faulty because he put it to the service of a far more ambitious artistic mission. Shostakovich two most famous film scores are for Shakespeare adaptations. In the mid-60’s, the Russian director, Grigory Kozintsev, made cinematic versions of Hamlet and King Lear that must stand as among the greatest Shakespeare adaptations ever put to film For my money, his Hamlet is the very greatest of all Shakespeare movies. The movie is an incredible marriage of acting, cinematography, script (of course), and music. For source material like this, only the very greatest composers could meet Shakespeare on his own terms. And Shostakovich still does not get his due as the very greatest composer of the 20th century. Just watch the above scene, the Ghost scene. We never see any more of the ghost’s face than his eyes, we don’t need to. It’s all described in Shostakovich’s music, in which he finds the perfect tone to capture the eerie otherworldliness, the terror, and the lurid fascination of this apparition.

Toru Takemitsu was not only the dominant composer of late 20th century Japan, he was also the dominant film composer. His most famous score is also a Shakespeare score, Ran, Kurosawa’s adaptation of King Lear. Ran is the Japanese word for chaos, and chaos is probably as good a one-word description of King Lear as exists. But Takemitsu’s music is precisely the opposite of chaos. No composer, not even Debussy or Webern, approaches the extreme delicacy of Takemitsu’s music. Even the most dramatic passages of Ran are accompanied by extrarodinarily still music. Rather than literally imitate the action in sound, Takemitsu seems to offer a kind of poetic commentary on the action.


Perhaps it’s the effect Shakespeare’s prestige, but many of the greatest classical composers did their best work in Shakespeare movies. Another great composer who excelled in Shakespeare movies was William Walton - who scored the Olivier movies. Walton’s music is a perfect counterpart to Olivier’s Shakespeare: dramatically flamboyant, highly nuanced, and quite bombastic. Both of them found themselves a bit out of their depth for Hamlet’s complexities, but were perfect vessels for the tub-thumping extravagance of Henry V. Years later, Olivier found himself (wrongly) uncertain about the quality of his Henry V, but he had no such qualms about Walton’s score, which he thought the best thing about the movie.

(Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront. Yet another chapter of unfulfilled promise in the story of the greatest should have been composer in American history.)

Many other great composers wrote memorable film scores, including Aaron Copland, Georges Auric, Malcolm Arnold, Leonard Bernstein (his one score, for On The Waterfront, can easily convince you that he could have found a natural home in Hollywood) and more recently John Corigliano and Philip Glass. Nor were the greatest film composers always relegated to the soundtrack - Erich Korngold, Miklos Rozsa, Franz Waxman, and Elmer Bernstein all wrote somewhat successful concert works. Even if Nino Rota was probably the only composer to achieve something approaching equal emminence in both fields, the dividing line between one type of composer and the other was never as bifurcated as people say it was.

(in all it’s glory......, its a nice theme though.)

But a completely different type of great composer is to be found in Vangelis Papathanassiou. Simply known as ‘Vangelis’ to most people, he is one of the first truly legendary composers of electronic music. And during the fifteen year period that Hollywood largely gave its movies to electronic scores, no film composer found himself more in demand. This is partially where I have to admit to some limits to my knowledge. It’s not that I don’t know enough about Vangelis, though I probably don’t. I’ve just never seen Blade Runner, which is both his most famous score and one of the most influential movies of the last half-century (you have fifteen seconds to hiss before moving to the next sentence). Vangelis’s other most famous contribution to film scoring is the much-loved, much-abused theme to Chariots of Fire, as heard in every soft-rock compilation album of the last thirty years.

Click here to redeem Vangelis a little bit.

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