Search
  • Graham Abbott

Film Music

The impact of cinema on our lives in the past 120 years or so is quite amazing. From its beginnings as an offshoot of vaudeville, where it was regarded as a novelty entertainment, cinema has become a major art form and a major component of popular culture. It holds, in many respects, the same position in modern life that theatre or opera have held in past times; it exercises aspects of story-telling, fantasy, escape, engagement, morality, the dissemination of political or other ideas and public education. All these can play a role in cinema as they have and still do in older forms of theatrical activity. And all of these applications require, to a greater or lesser degree, music.


The subject of film music is vast but in this post I want to look at just one aspect of music for the cinema, namely, the music written for film by what we might call “mainstream” composers. Some very fine composers of film music have primarily made their name in that medium (think only of John Williams, Howard Shore or Danny Elfman), but I’m not going to cover those composers here. I want to look at some of the music written by composers whose names are familiar to classical music lovers who have not only written concert music or theatrical works, but who have also branched out and composed for film.


Music in cinema didn’t start with the talkies in the late 20s of course. In the silent era, from the 1890s onwards, music was regarded as an integral part of the cinematic experience, although the music had to be performed live with each screening of the film, just as it had always been with incidental music for plays. It was also rare for original music to be composed for silent films. Music for films was either improvised using various well-worn cliches, or, if an ensemble or orchestra were used, compiled from popular classics.


One of the earliest original scores for a silent film was composed by Camille Saint-Saëns in 1908. (We think of Saint-Saëns as a 19th century composer, but he had a very long life and lived until 1921; see an earlier post in this blog devoted to his life and work.) The film was The Assassination of the Duke of Guise, and Saint-Saëns’ score was played for the entire length of this fifteen-minute silent classic. This link takes you to a YouTube video which has synchronised the score to the original film: [listen]



The first feature-length film with sound dialogue is generally acknowledged to be The Jazz Singer which was made by Warner Bros in 1927. However this didn’t mean that silent films stopped being made immediately. The sound process was very expensive at the time - some sources say it doubled the cost of a film - and some places, like the Soviet Union, didn’t get sound-capable cinemas until well into the 30s. Live music was still being written for silent films by a number of composers in the late 20s and early 30s, such as this music for the epic Napoléon, written in 1927 by Arthur Honegger. [listen]


Albert Dieudonné as Napoleon (1927)

Dmitri Shostakovich would write much music for the cinema throughout his career, and he wrote for silent films and talkies. This is part of his music for the 1931 Soviet film Alone. This was originally planned to be a silent movie, but it was eventually released as a talkie with Shostakovich’s score. [listen]


Read more about Alone here


Yelena Alexandrovna Kuzmina in "Alone" (1931)

With the advent of sound in films, music took on two differing functions. One of these was music contained within the action or the story of the film. This would be things like the music heard in a bar or fairground, or the music played or sung by a character on the screen. Sam the pianist in Casablanca is a perfect example of this. This sort of music is called diegetic or intrinsic music. This is music which could very well be imagined as actually happening in real life in the scene being portrayed.


The other sort of music is background music. Also called extra-diegetic music, or underscoring, this music is designed to assist the audience member in becoming involved with the emotional content of a particular scene, to enhance dramatic content or even to convey extra information. This is music which, if it’s thought about, could usually not actually happen in a scene. The audience member doesn’t expect to see, for example, a symphony orchestra flying around the skies over England playing exciting music in The Battle of Britain.


(This convention was sent up brilliantly twice in the comedies of Mel Brooks. In Blazing Saddles Count Basie turns up the desert playing April in Paris, but my favourite is in his homage to Hitchcock, High Anxiety. Brooks’ character is being chauffeur-driven down a freeway when suddenly they’re overwhelmed by dramatic music. They look around to find the Los Angeles Philharmonic playing the music in a bus in the adjoining lane.)



The distinction between these two types of music can be blurred by movie directors for dramatic impact too. Shostakovich’s music which is used for the opening credits of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut is initially underscoring, until a few minutes later one of the characters turns off a CD player to end the music, showing it was also part of the action.


This survey is made up pretty well entirely of underscoring or background music, and it’s the composition of this sort of music which has given some of the finest composers the chance to exercise their gifts in new ways.



In 1933 the French composer Jacques Ibert composed the music for a film version of Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote (Don Quichotte in French). The film starred the famous Russian bass Fedor Chalyapin in the title role, a move inspired by his creation of the title role in Massenet’s Don Quixote opera in 1910. The movie was made in three versions - French, German and English - and Ibert’s score included four songs which Chalyapin recorded with the composer conducting on 78 rpm discs. This recording of one of the songs features the American bass Henry Kiichli. The use of both harp and harpsichord in the accompaniment to create a feeling for Spain and also of the period is particularly striking. [listen]



The 1930s was a decade of huge activity in film making and in the composition of film music for all sorts of purposes. Sound films were seen as having huge potential not only in the field of entertainment but also in the areas of documentaries. Film was also seen as a useful tool for the propagation of religious ideas, and films with religious subjects were also very popular. Ibert wrote music for a 1935 film dealing with Christ’s final days, called Golgotha. (It was released in English-speaking countries as Behold the Man.) It’s an expansive, symphonic score on a very large scale. This is the music written to underscore the scene where Jesus overturns the money-changers’ tables in the temple. [listen]



In London around the same time, the young Benjamin Britten was writing film music, for documentaries made by the GPO Film Unit. These films were radical and experimental in many ways, and provided Britten with an amazing opportunity to hone his craft. On a shoe-string budget, in some cases playing instruments as well as conducting the small ensemble, Britten created some dazzling scores. He collaborated on many of these projects with the poet WH Auden, whose scripts are poetic, occasionally pompous, but always engaging. Here is the end sequence of Night Mail, with Britten’s music (written in 1936) and Auden’s text read by John Grierson. [listen]



Of course Hollywood had some fine composers at its disposal in the 30s as well, many of whom were escaping the rise of fascism and racism in Europe. Possibly the finest was Erich Korngold. A prodigious Wunderkind who was steeped in the Austrian Romantic tradition, admired by Gustav Mahler and Bruno Walter, Korngold wrote some wonderful operas, songs and orchestral works. He deserves to be thought of in the same frame of mind as Richard Strauss, and yet he is often denigrated because he worked in Hollywood from 1934. He pioneered a new form, the symphonic film score, and he put his amazing gifts for melody and dramatic timing at the disposal of Warner Bros. His most famous film scores include some for Errol Flynn: Captain Blood, The Prince and the Pauper, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and The Sea Hawk. He won two Academy Awards for his film scores. The opening title music of Captain Blood is a good example of his work. The film was made in 1935. [listen]



Korngold had a gift for melody which made him not only a great composer but a great film composer. This sequence describing Queen Elizabeth I (as played by Bette Davis) in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) shows this very well. [listen]



Another of the greats who wrote for Hollywood was American-born. Aaron Copland wrote eight film scores (six feature films and two documentaries) between 1939 and 1961. Four received Oscar nominations, and one - the score for The Heiress in 1949 - won him an Academy Award. Copland’s musical ethos was very different to that of Korngold; he’s credited with introducing true modernism into mainstream American film music, while at the same time maintaining a true American-ness. Some of Copland’s film scores - like those of many other composers - were made into concert suites. This is the “Happy Ending” music from Copland’s music for The Red Pony, written in 1948. [listen]



In 1954, six years after Copland wrote the music for The Red Pony, another American-born composer penned a major film score which also had a subsequent life in the concert hall. Leonard Bernstein’s score for Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront lives on in a symphonic suite arranged by the composer largely as an act of preservation, such was his dismay at the way his music was used (or in his eyes, abused) in the film. The film starred Marlon Brando and it’s tempting see a connection between the gritty, real-life story of the film and the power which exploded in a different genre with West Side Story only a couple of years later. This recording of the Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront is conducted by the composer. [listen]



The English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was nearly 68 before he composed his first film score in 1940. This was for 49th Parallel. It is probably fair to say, though, that Vaughan Williams’ greatest film score was for Scott of the Antarctic, released in 1948. So excited was he by the dramatic potential of the story that he wrote a large amount of the music before receiving the script. This meant that much of his work didn’t actually appear in the film and it has only recently been recorded complete. Vaughan Williams’ involvement with the story - and his music for it - continued to develop when he adapted the film music into his seventh symphony, the Sinfonia Antartica, which premiered in 1953. (See a recent post in this blog on the Vaughan Williams symphonies.) The film music is stunningly powerful (as is the symphony). The following links contain parts of the original film soundtrack, which was conducted by the composer.


Scott on the Glacier [listen]

Descending the Glacier [listen]

Distant Glacier [listen]


Another English composer who wrote superb film music was Sir William Walton. He wrote scores for some 14 films, including three of Sir Lawrence Olivier’s finest. One of my favourite scores of his is the one he wrote during the second world war for Olivier’s version of Shakespeare’s Henry V. A wordless chorus is used, as was done in Scott of the Antarctic, but the effect is completely different to that achieved by Vaughan Williams. The pastiche of Elizabethan music in the Prologue is delightful and skilfully sets the perfect mood. [listen]


See how this music fits into the original film here



I’ll end with just one more example of a mainstream composer’s film music and I want to go to Japan and the music of Tōru Takemtisu. Takemitsu, who died in 1996, has yet to find his place in the popular mainstream of 20th century composers among audiences in the West, but this position is certainly deserved and long-overdue. His many, many film scores include Rising Sun, composed for 20th Century Fox in 1993. His ability to include traditional Japanese sounds in a contemporary context was masterful. This is just a small sample of his Rising Sun score.


Web Meets Connor [listen]

Yakuza Pursuit [listen]



As I said at the outset, my brief here has been limited to film music written by a few composers who made their name in more of what we might call a conventional classical context. It’s fascinating to see these composers so readily, and so effectively, adapting their skills to this medium, and of course this still goes on today. This focus is not designed in any way to denigrate those other composers whose principal area of activity has been film music. Rather, I hope it gives us a new appreciation of parts of “the repertoire” we might not be aware of.


This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in June, 2007.

58 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All