Since our November concert features a work which was written to accompany a TV production (Mark Isham’s beautiful American Crime Suite, which we are performing with scenes from the show), I thought I would briefly discuss the genre of film music. In order to do that, we have to go way back in history to consider incidental music, i.e. music written to accompany stage plays. There is some evidence to suggest that incidental music dates back as far as Greek drama! It is known for certain that 16th-century English drama began to include songs and music to connect one act to another; and many of Shakespeare’s works, including Much Ado About Nothing, The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, and As You Like It, incorporated incidental music—often simply improvised instrumental passages.
By the 19th century, the use of such music was commonplace, and there are several famous examples of plays with incidental music: Ludwig van Beethoven's Egmont music, Franz Schubert's Rosamunde music, Felix Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream music, Georges Bizet's L'Arlésienne music, and Edvard Grieg's music for Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt. Suites from all of these are often performed in concerts today.
When silent films, or “photoplays”, began to appear, it was unthinkable that there be no music to accompany them. Not only did the music set the mood of a scene and punctuate important moments in the film, but it served another essential function. In those early days, the idea of a projection booth separated from the audience had not yet arrived, and the music was the best way to mask the ever-present noise of the projector! At first, film scores were improvised in real time by a pianist or organist, who would usually get to know the film ahead of time. Some of the talented musicians who mastered this art were alive until pretty recently. I remember a life-changing performance of Cecil B. de Mille’s epic silent feature film “King of Kings”, with live improvised organ accompaniment, at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral in the late 1970s.
People are often surprised to learn that the first score specifically written for a film was by Camille Saint-Saëns! The film industry was in its infancy, and it was a major coup for the producers of “L’assassinat du Duc de Guise” (1908) to hire France’s most famous composer to write a score for their 15-minute historical drama. Saint-Saëns composed the music scene-by-scene, in front of a movie screen. The first frame-by-frame film score was written by the composer of the ever popular Gymnopédies, Erik Satie. The year was 1924, and the film was a dadaist silent production called “Entr’acte”. Satie devised an ingenious system of synchronizing his music to specific frames in the film, a first in film music history. The technique of syncing music to film was to evolve steadily all the way to today’s efficient computer aided approach.
“Talkies” soon appeared, and music formed an integral part of the sound track along with dialogue and sound effects. The need for expert composers was suddenly acute, and Hollywood turned to Europe for the talent. The first completely original score for a movie with sound was composed by Max Steiner, for “King Kong” in 1933. At first, these scores were mostly concerned with setting a general mood and highlighting the drama, but gradually film composers began to experiment with writing specific music for different characters and plot elements in the film (as their colleagues in the world of opera had been doing for some time already). There were so many great film composers in the 30s and 40s! Here is a short list: Erich Wolfgang Korngold (“The Sea Hawk”, “Of Human Bondage”), Miklós Rósza (“Double Indemnity”, “Ben-Hur”) , Dmitri Tiomkin (“Lost Horizon”, “It’s a Wonderful Life”), and Franz Waxman (“The Bride of Frankenstein”, “Rebecca”). But the arrival of Bernard Herrmann (“Citizen Kane”, “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, “Psycho”) ushered in a new era of American born composers whose scores became an indispensable part of films, hard to separate from the director’s overall vision.
The stellar film composers since Herrmann are too numerous to list fully, but among them are Alfred Newman, Nino Rota, Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, Maurice Jarre, John Williams, and even concert hall favorites Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, John Corigliano, and Philip Glass. Their music is so beautiful and well-crafted that it has merit apart from the film, and appears regularly on orchestra concerts around the world.
This history of film music is necessarily curtailed, and completely leaves out the important original music written for commercial radio and television. So many ideas, so little time!