Silver Screen Classics Programme Notes

Over a century of music yields some fun and dance-inducing newer songs, and surprisingly familiar pieces of a certain age.

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Symphony Series 2 :: Silver Screen Classics

Music has been an important part of film since its emergence as an art form at the turn of the century. Early silent films were accompanied by a piano or organ in the theatre; the keyboardist would play from a collection of set pieces, organized by mood or situation. For example, there might be several options for ‘romantic’ scenes, and a different set of cues for use in ‘chase’ scenes.

The first movie to feature sound was The Jazz Singer, released in 1927; there was some dialogue but the new sound technology was used primarily in the form of songs. Well-known actor and filmmaker Charlie Chaplin composed music for his (otherwise silent) films City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936), but film scoring was elevated to a higher form only with the advent of a new generation of classically trained composers, many of whom were educated in Europe.

Composers such as Austrian-born Erich Korngold, who wrote the scores for the swashbuckling films Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), were well versed in late Romantic classical music. Max Steiner was another important figure; his score for King Kong (1933) was the first fully original, classical orchestral film soundtrack.

Steiner’s scores, including Gone With the Wind (1939) and Casablanca (1942) incorporate jazz and popular music as well as classical influences such as Wagnerian leitmotifs (themes connected to specific characters, places, or situations). At this time film music became more integral to the drama; Steiner’s use of leitmotifs in Casablanca is particularly effective, featuring material borrowed from such disparate sources as the French national anthem and the popular song “As Time Goes By”.

Hollywood films made during the studio era (the 1930s and ’40s) usually fit into one of several set genres, including the drama, the mystery, the horror film, the romantic comedy, the musical comedy, and the Western. Western films in particular developed their own musical idiom, thanks to composers such as Dmitri Tiomkin and Elmer Bernstein; these traditions were passed on and can still be heard in John Williams’ 1972 score for Cowboys.

The massive historical epics of the studio era featured dramatic music tailored to the subject matter. Hungarian composer Miklós Rózsa scored both El Cid (1961) and the monumental Ben-Hur (1959), two epic films starring Charlton Heston. For Ben-Hur, Rózsa researched ancient Roman music to develop a modern score with an archaic sound; his efforts paid off, the film winning the Academy Award for Best Score that year.

Walt Disney’s animated movies began to popularize the release of original soundtrack albums; the songs from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Pinocchio (1939) were particularly popular. Eventually soundtracks began to be released and marketed separately from the films themselves. However, with the rise of rock and roll, film soundtracks began to change; many films adopted the marketing strategy of included at least one hit song, often as a title track.

A good example of this is the Bond franchise; each film opens with a song recorded by a popular artist. In addition, every Bond film since Dr. No (1962) has featured the iconic Bond theme. Originally composed by Monty Norman, the theme was then arranged by John Barry, who wrote the scores for eleven Bond films. The title song for the latest Bond movie, Skyfall (2012), performed by British singer Adele, references this main theme in the orchestral accompaniment.

In the 1960s, jazz and popular music became ever more ubiquitous in film scores. Italian composer Nino Rota drew from many influences, including Italian folk music, jazz, popular music, and more traditional classical music. The two Love Themes from Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1969) and The Godfather (1972) are examples of Rota’s Romantic, orchestral style. The theme from Romeo and Juliet references period Renaissance styles as well as a more traditional classical language, while the theme from The Godfather includes Italian folk influences.

Another Italian composer, Ennio Morricone, forged a very individual style, focusing less on orchestral textures and more on highlighting individual instruments, rhythms, and melodies. Known for his exuberant scores for ‘spaghetti’ Westerns, Morricone also wrote for more serious movies such as The Mission (1986). Morricone’s score combines liturgical chant with Spanish styles and indigenous music to evoke the clash of cultures between Spanish Jesuits, the Guarani people of the South American rainforest, and Portuguese colonials.

In the 1970s, popular and rock music were extremely prevalent in film; however, at the same time there was a resurgence of the neo-classical film score, launched by the work of John Williams. Williams borrows from Romantic composers such as Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Antonín Dvořák, and Gustav Holst. The 2005 film Munich, which examines the events following the Munich massacre at the 1972 Olympics, features some of Williams’ most lush orchestral writing, including the poignant “Prayer for Peace”.

The scores for the Star Wars films played a particularly important role in the resurrection of the orchestral film score; the films themselves also spawned the new film genre of the fantasy epic. Canadian composer Howard Shore continues this tradition with his classical, folk-inflected score for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), drawing on the legacy of late Romantic British composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams. Vaughan Williams himself wrote for films, including Scott of the Antarctic (1948).

Some films go one step further than borrowing stylistic elements, and use existing classical works; an extreme example of this is 2001: A Space Oddessy (1968), which uses classical music almost exclusively, including works by Richard Strauss and György Ligeti. The exquisite “Adagio for Spartacus and Phrygia” from Aram Khachaturian’s 1954 ballet Spartacus, has been used in several films, most recently in a dream sequence in the animated movie Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006).

Today, a film score may contain a wide range of musical styles, from traditional late Romantic orchestral scoring to post-tonal developments, electronic music, and popular music including jazz and rock. James Horner’s score for Apollo 13 (1995) was notable for its integration of period songs from 1970 with a more traditional classical soundtrack.

These days, scores may even be written by a committee, as was the case for the score of the 2003 swashbuckler Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. Music producers Klaus Badelt and Hans Zimmer wrote many of the main themes, and headed a team of several composers who filled in with additional material and orchestrated the score.

Programme Notes by Camille Rogers