Kings Row (1942) – Main Title
Prince Valiant (1954) – Suite
The Bad and the Beautiful (1951) – Suite
Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) – Overture
Madame Bovary (1949) – Waltz
Silk Stockings (1957) – Ballet Sequence [arr. Conrad Salinger]
The Wizard of Oz (1939) – Suite
Airport (1970) – Main Title
The Song of Bernadette (1943) – Suite
North by Northwest (1959) – Suite
Gone With the Wind (1939) – Suite [arr. John Wilson]
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Michael Darvell
Reviewed: 9 January, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
The golden age of Hollywood film music came about in the 1930s and 1940s. It was the heyday of the studio system when every company had its own composers and arrangers. Many, although not all, came from an European tradition, such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold from Czechoslovakia, Franz Waxman from Germany, Bronislau Kaper from Poland, Miklos Rozsa from Hungary and Max Steiner from Austria. They were among the best that Hollywood could offer and they more or less invented the sound of Hollywood movie music. Influenced by the great European classical composers – such as Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner – the immigrant composers in the US continued the European tradition by writing film music that was just as thrilling and complex as that of their forebears. Korngold, for instance, was a concert and opera composer in his own right. Waxman inaugurated the Los Angeles International Music Festival and gave the American premieres of works by Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams, Walton and Schoenberg. Rozsa was a collector of Hungarian folk-music and wrote chamber music before graduating to film scores. Bernard Herrmann, born in New York of Russian parentage, became chief conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra, championing the works of Charles Ives, Edmund Rubbra, Richard Arnell and many others. Max Steiner was a child prodigy in composition who had piano lessons from Brahms. He is the great grandfather and probably the most prolific of Hollywood film composers.
John Wilson is an avid exponent of film music. He recently conducted a live performance at the Southbank Centre of the music from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “Singin’ in the Rain” and two years ago presented a concert of the music of MGM films in the BBC Proms season. Introducing the items played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, he admitted that it is often difficult to trace the full scores. For most classical performances you just take the music off the shelf and play it, but with film music the studio archives were not always that diligent in preserving and storing scores and performing them now often requires piecing them together from various sources or, where a score does not exist, laboriously transcribed from recordings.
The concert opened with the main title from the music by Korngold (1897-1957) for “Kings Row”, a magisterial, opulent brassy theme that has almost come to represent the sound of Hollywood music in its prime. It may be a cliché now but in 1942 it was truly stirring stuff to accompany a downbeat melodrama about family life in the early part of the twentieth century. It provided George Lucas with the inspiration for how he wanted the music to sound in “Star Wars”. John Williams, the only film composer of our day to really carry on the tradition of classic Hollywood music, readily wrote multiple scores that hark back to those heydays. Just listen to any Spielberg film (“Jaws”, “E.T.”, “Close Encounters”) or some of the Harry Potter scores and you will hear why.
Franz Waxman (1906-67) wrote a masterly score for “Prince Valiant” which was perhaps, as is so often the case with Hollywood music, better than the film itself. Beautifully photographed in CinemaScope by Lucien Ballard, it was an Arthurian swashbuckler based on a comic strip, with Robert Wagner and Janet Leigh. Technically James Mason was the star, playing the villainous Sir Brack, although he thought little of the making of the film apart from the fact that the Fox studio was near his Beverly Hills home where he mostly enjoyed playing tennis. “Prince Valiant” has a marvellous, evocative score with Waxman utilising brass, drums, gongs and harps in rousing fanfares, a fugal march for the Tournament section and an almost Mahlerian finale.
David Raksin (1912-2004) came from a musical background – his father was an orchestral conductor. After playing in dance bands he graduated to films and was the arranger of the music for Chaplin’s “Modern Times” in 1936. Most noted for writing the music for Otto Preminger’s “Laura”, which also became a hit song when Johnny Mercer added the lyrics, Raksin wrote the scores of several other iconic films including “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, “Force of Evil”, “Pat and Mike”, “Suddenly”, “The Big Combo” and “Too Late Blues” among many others. “The Bad and the Beautiful” was Vincente Minnelli’s film about a ruthless Hollywood producer (Kirk Douglas) and how he turns an unpromising young girl (Lana Turner) into a star. The main title is a lushly romantic piece which then turns into a sleazy melody as we see the underbelly of the film industry. The rest has an ethereal quality often displayed in Raksin’s work that is both attractive and unforgettable. Part of the score was lost as there were notes but no staves on what remains of the original score.
Bronislau Kaper (1902-83) wrote many scores for Hollywood films including “Gaslight”, “The Red Badge of Courage”, “Lilli” and “Them!”, although his magnum opus is probably the 1962 version of “Mutiny on the Bounty”. The overture has great dramatic impetus reminiscent of Shostakovich. Miklos Rozsa (1907-95) wrote his famous waltz for “Madame Bovary” before Minnelli shot the sequence to accompany it. He gave the composer his instructions – he wanted something emotional but teetering on madness. The result has the same kind of urgent inevitability as Richard Rodgers’s waltz for “Carousel”. Cole Porter (1891-1964) wrote a musical version of the Garbo film “Ninotchka”, the result being “Silk Stockings”. The ballet sequence performed by Cyd Charisse is a kind of striptease in reverse, in which the Communist commissar takes pleasure in putting on the silk stockings, something she never enjoyed in Russia.
In a programme packed with outstanding music and played brilliantly well, one particular highlight was the incidental music by Herbert Stothart (1885-1949) for “The Wizard of Oz”, which had songs by Harold Arlen (1905-86) and E. Y. Harburg (1896-1981). The suite of Stothart’s incidental music includes quotations from the songs ‘Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead’ and ‘Over the Rainbow’, the latter being a song that was originally rejected by the studio head Louis B. Mayer because he felt it slowed down the action. The suite has wordless vocals intoned here by the BBC Symphony Chorus who, along with the BBCSO, managed to recreate the true sound of the original soundtrack to the film.
This quality exhibited by the Orchestra under John Wilson was also apparent in its playing of the main title music for “Airport” by Alfred Newman (1900-70), long-time music director for 20th Century Fox and who wrote over 250 film scores. His “Airport” music has a bold, swaggering style, staccato rhythms and the use of jazz-infused bongos and guitar. His music for “The Song of Bernadette”, however, was quite different with an almost Biblical feel to it. For ‘The Vision’ the BBC Symphony Chorus provided another vocalise as the Virgin Mary appears to Bernadette, complete with harp and celesta, the requisite ingredients for such a sacred theme.
Bernard Herrmann (1911-75) is forever associated with the films of Orson Welles, Ray Harryhausen, Martin Scorsese and, chiefly, Alfred Hitchcock. For the main titles in Hitch’s “North by Northwest” he sets up the exciting nature of the plot with an urgent, rushing theme with drums and tambourine over Saul Bass’s credits, culminating in an anticlimax as Hitchcock puts in his signature appearance as a man who misses getting on a bus. This and the playing of the music for the scene in which a drunken Cary Grant has to drive a car down a hill of tortuous hairpin bends, and the heralding of the Mount Rushmore scenes, with drums, cymbals and gongs, brilliantly evoked memories of the original film.
Finally, the original only begetter of classic film scoring, Max Steiner (1888-1971), surely the busiest man in Hollywood, was heard at his best in a suite from “Gone With the Wind” arranged by John Wilson. It begins with the Selznick International fanfare, followed by the main-title theme that interpolates such all-American tunes as ‘Dixie’ and ‘Marching Through Georgia’. There’s an Irish lilt to the music of ‘Driving Home’ in which Scarlett’s father rides to Tara on horseback. The piece shows how talented Steiner was at fitting the music to images and, of course, in Tara’s theme he wrote arguably the most famous movie theme ever. It’s easy to say that they don’t write music like that anymore … but it’s true. Steiner was so prolific that he was associated with nearly six-hundred film scores, either as composer or arranger. In 1939, the year he wrote the music for “Gone With the Wind”, he also wrote eleven other scores. He composed over two hours of music for the film over a period of just five weeks, working night and day with just fifteen minutes’ sleep per night, and using special drips to keep awake. When he had completed his score he put a notice on his office door stating that he was now working from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and not 9 a.m. to 5 a.m.!
Keeping this music alive is the admirable aim of John Wilson, particularly when it is performed as well as this. This concert is to be broadcast by BBC Radio 3 in June, the precise date to be confirmed. Don’t miss!