Music: Lights, Camera, Music!

“Movie music!” is the exclamation of recognition that newcomers often make upon first hearing classical music. They seem as delighted with this discovery as was Moliere’s Middle-Class Gentleman when he realized he had been speaking prose all his life. One tries not to wince noticeably when explaining to the neophyte that William Tell rode long before the Lone Ranger galloped along to Rossini’s overture or that Wagner’s Valkyries stormed through the skies well in advance of the helicopter assault in Apocalypse Now.

Yet the newcomer’s reaction makes sense. The infant movie industry first appropriated classical music wholesale as sound tracks for silent films; later, directors commissioned the real thing from established European classical composers, who arrived in Hollywood to escape the Nazis. One has only to think of Eric Wolfgang Korngold or Miklos Rozsa. For a good part of its history, movie music was, in a sense, classical music.

Film scores, therefore, provide the point of entry to the world of classical music for many young people whose exposure to the movies comes well before a trip to Carnegie Hall. In my own case, it was War and Peace, with a brilliant score by Italian composer Nino Rota, that led to my first LP acquisition. Even as a young grade-schooler, I was entranced by the delicious waltz Rota wrote for the great ballroom scene in which Prince Andrei (Mel Ferrer) decides he must marry Natasha (Audrey Hepburn), and was thrilled by the battle music for Borodino. I wanted the album as a memento of the movie, but some of the music was good enough to listen to on its own. Had I known enough, I would not have been surprised by this. Rota had a substantial career apart from his many film scores (which include The Godfather and all of Fellini’s movies) as a classical opera and concert composer. Only now are many of his concert works being made available on CD.

My early experience, however, did not lead to a lifetime of collecting film scores, and I am mystified by those who do. In fact, I can count on one hand the few I have purchased. I thought Elmer Bernstein’s evocation of the world of childhood was magical in To Kill A Mockingbird (his great West¬ern film score for The Magnificent Seven has now been issued by MGM RCD 10741). I loved the Straussian richness of John Williams’s 1979 score to Dracula, and I was haunted by a trumpet solo over the plains of Libya in Patton. I also was entranced by George Auric’s score to one of my favorite films, Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (now available on an excellent Marco Polo CD 8.223765). That’s about it, and I confess I only listened to these albums a few times.

The problem with movie music as music is that it operates somewhat subliminally and is necessarily subordinate to the movie. It is an art of illustration. As one of the greatest film composers, Bernard Herrmann, said, film scores provide either musical scenery or an emotional counterpart of the drama. One may wish to bask in the musical scenery, but the appeal is limited: Movie music does not usually develop. There is little there to hold the attention once an attractive theme has been repeated several times or the novelty of an orchestral effect has worn off.

That being said, I greatly admire the most skillful practitioners of the art of film scoring, like Herrmann (1911¬1976) and Rota (1911-1979). But my exposure to their film music usually leads me to seek out their concert works to see what they can do when not constrained by a script. For instance, I recently saw The Ghost and Mrs. Muir for the first time since childhood and was beguiled by Herrmann’s haunting expression of bittersweet yearning. The theme he used sounded familiar, and I found a variation of it in his exquisite Clarinet Quintet, Souvenirs de Voyage, in which he captures the kind of aching lyricism that was his hallmark. As I began listening to more of his film scores, I was struck by how much of the music—including the scores of North by Northwest, Mamie, Fahrenheit 451, and Vertigo—was based on ingenious variations of the principal theme in the Quintet.

I never tire of hearing this wistful theme because it so perfectly expresses that mysterious heartache that romance often awakens but can never fully satisfy. Using variations of this theme, Herrmann was able to cast a spell over entire films and psychologically capture the audience in so complete a way that his music can hardly be called incidental. For this reason, he is one of the few film composers whose scores I enjoy listening to in their entirety, rather than as suites of highlights. (Thanks to Marco Polo, this is now possible with Garden of Evil [8.223841] and Jane Eyre [8.223535]; thanks to Arista, Herrmann’s last and unusually jazzy score, Taxi Driver, is also available [07822-19005-2].) Herrmann was also expert at conveying a delicious sense of disorientation in Hitchcock’s films, where so much of the drama depends on the characters’ inability to distinguish between reality and unreality. Unresolved harmonies convey disturbing ambiguities. The single most stunning new recording of a Herrmann score for a Hitchcock film is the new Varese Sarabande CD of the complete score of Vertigo, with Joel McNeely conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. An older recording from 1980 features the score for North By Northwest, with Laurie Johnson and the London Studio Symphony Orchestra (Unicorn-Kanchana UKCD 2040).

It helped that Herrmann was also a brilliant orchestrator. He left behind the Viennese lushness of Korngold’s treatments and favored a more economical use of the orchestra. The most famous example of this is the score for Psycho, written for strings only. Yet when called for, Herrmann could also whip up a wonderfully Wagnerian delirium, as in the Tristanesque scene d’amour in Vertigo. His wizardry with a wide assortment of instruments can be heard in the more exotic films he scored, such as The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and The Day the Earth Stood Still (available on various London mid- priced CDs, conducted by the composer). These scores are fun to listen to for their brilliant orchestral effects, but understandably do not hint at the psychological depths of Herrmann’s other music.

Along with the Quintet, Herrmann has other concert works well worth exploring. His Symphony No. 1 is a highly accomplished, very exciting work that deserves wider currency. It can be heard in the composer’s own traversal with the London Symphony National Philharmonic Orchestra on Unicorn or on Koch International Classics with the Phoenix Symphony under James Sedares. The idiom may be neoromantic, but it has a crisp freshness and is completely free of the almost obligatory Americana characteristic of most works from the ’40s. Herrmann’s one string quartet, Echoes (1964), precedes the Clarinet Quintet, but is equally attractive and comes from the same world of nostalgia and yearning, albeit with a more pervasive sense of sadness. Its themes are reminiscent of a number of movies, including Psycho. Herrmann’s opera, Wuthering Heights, is a very gripping work, at turns stark and ecstatic, bleak and passionate. While Herrmann did not live to see a performance, he conducted a convincing recording with the Pro Arte Orchestra and various solists on Unicorn-Kanchana (UKCD2050/51/52).

Nino Rota shared with Herrmann an expressive directness, seeming simplicity of means, and total mastery of craft. Suites of his film music can be heard on several CDs from Sony, conducted by Riccardo Muti. One contains a ballet suite drawn from La Strada, a suite of dances from Il Gattopardo (which proves that Rota’s wonderful waltz from War and Peace was not an exception) and an excellent concert work, The Concerto for Strings (Sony SK 66279). Recent releases have focused on Rota’s previously unavailable symphonic and chamber works. BIS has issued Rota’s first two symphonies, performed by the Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra, under Ole Kristian Ruud. These youthful works overflow with melody and grateful harmonies. While not great, they nonetheless are immediately likable and endearing. Rota himself was not in the least worried about the stature of his work and preempted any condescension towards it by saying, “Look, when they tell me that in my works I am only concerned with bringing a little bit of nostalgia and a lot of good humor and optimism, I think that this is how I would like to be remembered: with a little bit of nostalgia, a lot of optimism, and good humor.” Rota studied with Alfredo Casella and Ildebrando Pizzetti, but I hear an even more pronounced influence in his symphonies from another member of the generazione dell’Ottanta, Gian Francesco Malipiero. In addition, the end of the First Symphony comes very close to quoting the utterly magical finale of Richard Strauss’ opera, Daphne.

An enchanting BIS CD of Rota’s chamber music, recorded live at the Lockenhaus Festival, presents his Nonet, The Trio for Flute, Violin, and Piano, and other chamber works. Many of these exhibit Rota’s neoclassic side, perhaps developed during his long friendship with Stravinsky. The melodies are still gorgeous, but the rhythms are spikier and the textures have a Gallic clarity. The music, however, never displays the acerbic edge of many of its neoclassic contemporaries and is an unalloyed delight to listen to.

The French connection comes to mind again in listening to Rota’s piano concertos. Here, it is the impish spirit of Francis Poulenc that adds spice and levity to the Rachmaninov-inspired melodic swells that roll so impressively through each movement. Two concertos receive their premiere recordings on Chandos, with pianist Massimo Palumbo and I Virtuosi Italiani under Marco Boni. The first movement of the E minor Concerto begins with a meltingly lovely, dreamy theme that recurs in various guises. The Concerto in C major starts with a delightful, delicate, faux 18th century melody that Rota has great fun playing with. Both works provide a great deal of sheer enjoyment.

In Rota’s popular Concerto Soiree for piano and orchestra (1961), the level of Poulencian whimsy and insouciance rises to new heights in one of the most delightful, high-spirited musical romps of the past 50 years. There is finally an excellent modern recording of this work on Nuovo Era (7063), with pianist Benedetto Lupo and the Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliana under Massimo de Bernart. It is accompanied by the Sinfonia on a love song, from 1947, which is comparable in its beauty to the two earlier symphonies. Both works demonstrate how music flowed from Rota’s classical compositions into his film scores: from the Concerto Soiree to La Strada and Otto e mezzo; and from the Sinfonia to The Crystal Mountain and Il Gattopardo. From wherever Rota’s music came and in whatever form it was fashioned, his goal was to make “everyone around me experience a moment of happiness.” These new recordings will do just that.

Herrmann and Rota prove that the best movie music is an invitation to explore its creator’s concert works. If you are impressed by a film score, there is a good chance you will find lurking behind it within an even richer cache of concert works. After all, where did you think the Middle Class Gentleman learned to speak prose in the first place?


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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