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Paul Chihara went Hollywood (and Carnegie Hall, too)


From Scene to Shining Screen: A Short History of Film Music

by Paul Chihara

Movie music was not born in the movie theaters but in the worlds of opera, musical theater, and vaudeville. Concert music too, particularly the romantic and melodramatic scores of the late nineteenth century, so popular in the early twentieth, provided a large and immediately available library of recognizable and memorable material suitable for film underscoring. Mendelssohn's Fingel's Cave Overture, Wagner's Ride of the Walkurie, Lizst's Les Preludes, Rossini's William Tell Overture, just to mention some very obvious examples of dramatic and descriptive music, were ideal for movie music. When D.W. Griffeth produced his silent Birth of a Nation (1915), he provided a large orchestral score stitched together from classical and popular sources.

THE GOLDEN AGE (1933-1956)

HollywoodSilent movies were never silent, and the early projectors were always noisy. Music was a necessary mask and accompaniment to the enjoyment of the early films. Not surprisingly, the first composers for the new "Talking Pictures" in Hollywood (beginning in 1926 with Don Juan starring Lionel Barrymore and in 1927 with Al Jolsen's The Jazz Singer) were classically trained, mostly European immigrants, often fleeing Nazi persecution. The Golden Age of Hollywood coincided with the great era of American songwriting, with many of the same composers. Irving Berlin (born Israel Baline from Minsk!), Gershwin, Porter, and Rodgers wrote songs and scores for musical theater and movies during a time when popular and classical musical styles were not mutually exclusive. Europe's tragic loss was America's cultural gain, beginning most respectably with Wolfgang Korngold, that wunderkind from Vienna whose operas and concert music were highly respected and widely performed. Korngold wrote only sixteen movie scores (most notably Captain Blood in 1935, Robin Hood in 1938, The Sea Hawk in 1940, and Of Human Bondage in 1946), but his influence on filmmakers, studios, and other composers was very profound. His scores, with lush music often running throughout an entire scene ("wall to wall" as it is termed in the industry) under dialogue and action alike created operatic scenes of great emotional power and sensuousness.

The Golden Years of Hollywood were typified by this Technicolor (visually and musically speaking) style: a sort of Der Rosenkavalier approach to lavish entertainment. Among his Viennese compatriots who also worked in Hollywood was (my personal favorite) the immortal Max Steiner. Like Korngold, Steiner attended the Academy of Music in Vienna, was a friend of Arnold Schoenberg (who also immigrated to Los Angeles), and enjoyed early success as a classical composer. But unlike Korngold or Schoenberg, he was attracted early in his career to musical theater and in 1914 found himself in New York working on Broadway. He was 42 (in 1929) when he arrived in Hollywood where he eventually made up for his late start with a prodigious output of some 200 film scores. Among his masterpieces are Gone With the Wind (1938), The Informer (1935), and Now Voyager (1942). Steiner's music can be European (by which I mean the heroic vocabulary of the Late Romantic), light and urbane (Little Women, 1933, or Roberta, 1935), or darkly dramatic: the Wagnerian leit motifs in King Kong (1933), as well as the memorable "cowboy" music in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

Speaking of cowboys, the musical vocabulary of the All-American Western was created by ex-patriot Europeans, usually Russian or Polish and often Jewish, who carried the spirit of Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov and Prokofiev (not to mention Klezmer and Yiddish folk music) into the scenes of wide-open spaces and heroic action. Aaron Copland comes immediately to mind, although he only wrote six commercial feature films, one of which is an American classic in the concert world (The Red Pony, 1949), and another which won him an Oscar (The Heiress, 1949). And what could be more Western or American sounding than the title song for High Noon (1952), or the themes from Giant (1956) or Friendly Persuasion (1956), both composed by Dmitri Tiomkin, who was born in St. Petersburg and educated there in classical music at the Conservatory of Music? Compare the Main Title music of Giant with Alexander Nevsky (Prokofiev) and the similarities in harmonic progression and melodic shape (as well as orchestration, including a large chorus) are immediately apparent. Among other European trained musicians were Miklos Rozsa, Franz Waxman, Ernest Gold, Alex North (born in Pennsylvania, educated at Curtis and in Moscow, and a great admirer of Prokofiev's), and Victor Young (who though born in Chicago was raised and educated in Poland). Young composed the haunting score for the supernatural thriller The Uninvited, whose main theme became the ever popular standard Stella by Starlight. These European composers joined the thriving and growing colony of American composers. These would include Bernard Herrmann, Hugo Friedhofer, David Raksin (who studied with Arnold Schoenberg and later composed the wonderful score for Laura), and Al Newman (whose theme for Street Scene became the prototype for all film noir melodies).

Their younger colleagues, now the old guard of the "legit" movie score, would include John Williams, who not only composed the most famous Wagnerian scores in the history of movie music (Star Wars), but the heart-rending Schindler's List as well, Elmer Bernstein (whose themes for Magnificent Seven and To Kill a Mockingbird in 1963 established enduring musical models), and the versatile Jerry Goldsmith (whose scores for Chinatown and Patton are among the modern classics of the genre). Leonard Rosenmann studied with Roger Sessions and created the classic East of Eden score (with its unforgettable melody and it subsequent musical development in a style worthy of Wozzeck), before he went on to win two academy awards.


Film ReelFrom the world of television came a young lion in the late fifties, which revolutionized and totally Americanized Hollywood's concept of underscoring. In 1959, a young jazz pianist named Henry Mancini created a score for a TV series Peter Gunn with a distinctly Stan Kenton/Pete Ruggulo sound. A wonderfully talented composer of upbeat melodies with contemporary rhythms and imaginative instrumentation, Mancini won the Oscar for Breakfast at Tiffany's (and the song Moon River), and composed the catchy melodies (with ubiquitous Saxophone) for The Pink Panther. Another revolution in film music, introducing the analogue synthesizer in place of the orchestra, was heralded by Vangelis in Chariots of Fire (1981), and he was soon followed by others such as Harold Faltemeyer (Beverly Hills Cop), and presently by Hans Zimmer, whose large orchestral scores are transformed by computer techniques and complex sampled sounds.


The influence of European cinema after the Second World War, particularly from Italy (Neorealism) and France (Nouvelle Vague), eventually had a profound effect on Hollywood movies and their underscores. At first in New York City where writers, directors and theater actors were hard at work on live television (during its so-called Golden Years), a new attitude towards underscore began to emerge. A sort of musical realism (an oxymoron?) where spare orchestration, far less music, more emphasis on period Source Music (music which is visible on screen), and an avoidance of the clichés of the Forties, became the rule. With Truffault came George Delarue, but with De Sica (The Bicycle Thief, 1948) or Ingmar Bergman came no prominent composer.

Suddenly movies were silent again, but the cinematic void was soon filled with American composers writing in their own colorful vernacular, with firm grounding in the classical compositional techniques of former times, but embracing all the idiomatic styles of down-home Americana. Alex North's A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), besides being a great score for a great movie (and play, ballet and eventually opera by Andre Previn), was also one of the first major Hollywood scores to be derived from New Orleans Dixieland and Jazz. European composers would again assert their hypnotic power and influence in the very operatic scores by Ennio Morricone who, ironically, came to our attention during the early Sixties with his creative and bizarre scores for Italian "Spaghetti" Westerns by Sergio Leone (For a Fistful of Dollars, 1964). Thus, the ultimate transformation wherein Europe imitates Hollywood, and in certain respects surpasses it. (French film critics have often cited Jazz, Westerns, and film noir, as the three significant American contributions to World Culture!)

Tony Richardson's brilliant Tom Jones (1963) was enhanced immeasurably by the witty and neoclassic score by John Addison, and with David Lean's epic Lawrence of Arabia, a young percussionist and classically trained composer, Maurice Jarre, made his spectacular entrance on the cinematic world. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) introduced Michel Legrande to American audiences, and with Fellini and Zefferelli came the wonderfully operatic (and circus-influenced) Nina Rota, whose score for Coppola's Godfather is one of the great achievements in the history of movie music. These composers influenced American music, and were themselves influenced by it, creating an international style of movie music at times enriched and at others clichéd. But almost always designed to give pleasure and emotional catharsis.


That most American of musical styles, Jazz, has contributed some noteworthy scores by the most distinguished of musicians: Duke Ellington (Anatomy of Murder, 1959), Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Herbie Hancock, Dave Grusin, Randy Newman, and Tom Scott are among the most important. Perhaps the most successful use of Jazz in a memorable movie was Quincy Jones' first movie score The Pawnbroker (1965), directed by Sidney Lumet. The influence of popular music from the era of the Great American Songbook made its powerful impression from the very inception of sound movies (The Jazz Singer, 1927), and in this day of MTV and universal advertising, the Pop Cultures of Rap, Reggae, Rock, Latin, and Country Western, sometimes in grotesque fusion with sampled orchestral montages, assault audiences in decibels approaching the painful.

Contemporary movie scores (where the Music Supervisor gets screen credit precedence over the composer!) is very big business, and closely allied to the worlds of television and recordings.


In the second century of the history of movies, and at the dawn of the Third Millennium, music in the movies is now a legitimate subject of study at respected universities. Films are no longer a "guilty pleasure" (well, not always!), and the scores that accompany them are often contributed by serious concert composers. (Maurice Ravel once remarked that he wanted Walt Disney to create a film on his opera L'Enfant et les Sortileges). Saint Saens, Jacques Ibert, Prokofiev, Shostakovitch, Benjamin Britten, William Walton, Kurt Weill, Georges Auric, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein (On the Waterfront, 1954) were among the first serious composers to write film scores. Among contemporary composers, Toru Takemitsu, Peter Maxwell Davies, Andre Previn, Elliott Goldenthal, Alfred Schnittke, Leonard Rosenman, John Corigliano, Steven Sondheim, Tan Dun, Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, Paul Chihara and William Bolcom are especially noteworthy.


The list of fine composers working today reveals a bewildering variety in backgrounds, musical styles, and techniques. Postmodernism is a term aptly applied to the melange of musical styles in most major films. Chocolat with its beautiful score by Rachel Portman has music by Satie as well as Duke Ellington (Caravan in a wonderful rendition by Django Reinhardt) played as Underscore (not as Source). Many young composers step out of the universities or conservatories into prominent commercial assignments. Of course, many are also out of work, but the work is there-as is an international audience of many millions whose appetite for movies and music seems insatiable.

Paul Chihara is Profesor of Music at UCLA. Among his many television and film credits, he is composer for 100 Centre Street which debuted this season on A & E.

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