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


Paul Chihara went Hollywood (and Carnegie Hall, too)

Sunday, April 22, 2001 at 3pm

Notes on the Program
By Paul Chihara and Simon Z. Michaels

"Hollywood has in several instances called on outstanding American composers to provide music for its output. The trend toward inviting men of serious purpose has been developing steadily . . ." (The New York Times, September 29, 1935)

"Igor Stravinsky is considering a Hollywood offer, the West Coast having invited him to modernize a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale (musically, of course), probably that Disney feature length cartoon, "Snow White and Rose Red.'" (The New York Times, April 11, 1937)

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.

Five composers on today's program are closely associated with both film and concert music. Then there is Igor Stravinsky, whose genius and influence were so powerful even in Hollywood, where he lived and worked for so many years.

Psycho (1960)
Bernard Herrmann
Born June 29, 1911 in New York
Died December 24, 1975 in New York

That most famous of film scores, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, was written by a composer whose training and early professional activity seemed to promise a brilliant career on the classical concert stage. Bernard Herrmann was educated at Juilliard, worked professionally with Charles Ives and Aaron Copland, and composed and conducted for CBS Radio (1934-40). Throughout his life, he remained deeply involved in concert music. He wrote many non-commercial works, including a symphony, two cantatas, orchestral and chamber music, and a song cycle for 4 soloists, chorus, and orchestra. But his first film score was the masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941), and he went on to compose for another 60 movies.

Psycho is undoubtedly the most influential and widely imitated score in Hollywood music history. Its very familiarity over the years has obscured its boldness and originality. To begin with, its orchestration for strings only: screams without winds, stabs without percussion, violence without brass, and terror without samples! What imagination! The Main Title begins with five stabs of sound, and is followed by chase music whose agitated melody is accompanied by nervous rhythmic figures. The shower scene uses perhaps the most original device of all: glissandi to high harmonics on the E string, suggesting not just human screams, but sheer animal (bird-like?) terror as well. The vocabulary of film music, as well contemporary concert music for strings, was altered forever. (Interestingly, Penderecki's Thernody for the Victims of Hiroshima was composed in the same year, though it is unlikely that either composer was aware of the other's work.) The on-screen violence of Psycho, compared to more recent and graphic horror movies (Friday the 13th, Scream, Halloween, Hannibal), seems tame and slow paced. The music provides much of the tension, and after forty years Psycho remains a remarkable cinematic and musical achievement.


Four Norwegian Moods
Igor Stravinsky
Born June 17, 1882 in Lomonosov, Russia
Died April 6, 1971 in New York

The Commandos Strike at Dawn-that was the title of the Hollywood movie that Igor Stravinsky began work on in 1942. It dealt with the Nazi invasion of Norway, and would no doubt have depicted the innocence and idyllic charm of these victims of aggression. (The immensely popular movie The North Star (1943) presented a similar idealized picture of rural innocence in the Ukraine, and the heroic Russian resistance to German occupation.) In this sense, his music would have played a musical role much like "Source Music," as opposed to dramatic "Underscore." In any event, the project fell through, and the score was eventually completed and published as these four delightful orchestral sketches based on Norwegian folk music. In his Memories, Stravinsky relates how he and his wife found an anthology of Norwegian folk melodies in a second-hand bookstore in Hollywood. The anthology contained ten melodies, three of which were arrangements by Edvard Grieg. Stravinsky denies any indebtedness to Grieg, though the second movement of Four Norwegian Moods does bear some resemblance to the latter composer's style. The set as a whole, however, is unmistakably neo-classic Stravinsky, particularly in its orchestration and spiky rhythms. The work was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra on January 13, 1944. (The pencil score in his hand is signed and dated "Hollywood, August 18,1944.") As for the title, Stravinsky explains: "Although based on Norwegian folk tunes, the title "Moods" must not be interpreted as "impression" or "frame of mind." It is purely a mode, a form or manner of style without any assumption of ethnological authenticity."

Stravinsky had other abortive film projects date from this period. The Ode (1943), dedicated to the memory of Natalie Koussevitzky, began as an Eclogue for orchestra, which in turn was originally composed as a hunting scene for a movie version of Jane Eyre. The Scherzo a la Russe (1944) was composed in Hollywood, and intended for a war film set in Russia. More musically significant was Franz Werfel's suggestion to compose music for his Song of Bernadette. Though the music he subsequently wrote was never used in the film, the "Apparition of the Virgin" scene eventually evolved into the very emotional and moving second movement of the Symphony in Three Movements (1945). Despite these various efforts and their later concert transformations, by far the most famous of Stravinsky's "movie scores" remains the prehistoric dinosaur segment in Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940). That he hated this colorful, if somewhat silly, rendition of the Rite of Spring is well known, but it offered generations of moviegoers their first unforgettable experience of his music, or of any serious music, for that matter. And despite his disdain for all things Hollywood, Stravinsky did live more years in West Hollywood (on Weatherly Drive, just above Sunset Strip) than in any other place in the world.


Spellbound Concerto
Miklós Rózsa
Born April 18, 1907 in Budapest, Hungary
Died July 27, 1995 in Los Angeles California

Miklós Rózsa was born in Budapest, educated at the Leipzig Conservatory, worked in Paris with Arthur Honegger, and eventually found himself in London with another Hungarian expatriate Alexander Korda, who was also working his way West. In 1940, while working on The Thief of Bagdad in London with the Battle of Britain raging overhead, the decision was made to move the production to Hollywood. Thus began for Rózsa a remarkable career of immense achievement, in both cinema and concert music, which he never ceased to pursue. His film career was in four distinct periods: his first pictures were exotic, subtropical adventures (The Thief of Bagdad, Jungle Book). Then in 1945 he scored The Lost Weekend, and Spellbound followed shortly thereafter. In 1947, he began a series of dark urban movies for Universal, stories of crime and punishment: Brute Force (1947), Naked City (1948), and The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Then in 1951, with Quo Vadis at MGM, Rózsa began his final, best remembered series of Technicolor costume features: Ivanhoe (1952), Ben Hur (1959), King of Kings (1961), and El Cid (1961).

The score for Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) made a sensation at its premiere due to its use of the Theremin. This spooky-sounding instrument was actually invented in 1920 by a Russian physicist named Leon Theremin, but was not adopted by Hollywood until its introduction to mass audiences in Spellbound. It soon became a staple for science fiction and horror movies. (Today, the characteristic sound of this instrument is immediately available on any sample, digital keyboard.) The music for Spellbound provides one of the classic melodies in film history. This haunting theme is usually performed on the piano (as it is in the movie), though a memorable performance on tenor saxophone was recorded by Coleman Hawkins in 1952. It is often heard as a piano concerto, much like the Warsaw Concerto by Richard Addinsell, who also wrote his popular concerto for a movie, Dangerous Moonlight (1941). The Spellbound Concerto was created by composer, organist, and movie accompanist Dennis James.


The Thing (1951)
Dmitri Tiomkin
Born May 10, 1894 in St. Petersburg, Russia
Died November 12, 1979 in London

One of the delightful ironies in Hollywood film lore is the fact that the most American of films were created by Russian immigrant musicians. What could be more American than Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, more Western than High Noon, or more Texan than Giant? Yet, each of these archetypal movies was scored by Dmitri Tiomkin, who was born and educated in St. Petersburg (with Glazunov and Felix Blumenthal) and began his professional career in Berlin (with Busoni and Egon Petri). Tiomkin was a virtuoso pianist, toured extensively in the United States, and in 1928 gave the European premiere of the Gershwin Concerto in F. After the stock market crash of 1929, he and his wife Albertina went to Hollywood to make a living in the burgeoning music business that talking pictures offered. Success did not come immediately, but in 1930 his dream project presented itself: Lost Horizon. The exotic setting (Shangri-La) and romantic adventure story were ideal for a young romantic and dramatic composer, a disciple of Glazunov in the school of Rimsky-Korsakov.

Today it is difficult to imagine how frightening a movie The Thing was to American audiences in 1951, especially when it is viewed on late night TV or on video. But during the Eisenhower 50's when the enemies of mind and soul were perceived no longer to be beyond but within our borders, paranoia and suspicion threatened the respectable façade of middle- class security. The "vegetable" invader from outer space-a variation on the archetypal "uninvited guest"-is a modern-day Frankenstein, but he could well have been a Communist! Very little happens in The Thing, especially when compared to today's high tech-visuals and computer graphics. Fear and trembling were engendered by dialogue, suggestion, shadows, unexpected situations, and of course, music.

Tiomkin contributes to the tension with his dramatic score, which always seems to threaten with unspeakable terrors. The suite performed today is in five short sections, which include two cues where the vegetable monster from outer space is electrocuted and destroyed.


Clouds (&ldots;from out of the past)
Paul Chihara
Born July 9, 1938 in Seattle, Washington
Now living in Tarzana, CA

Paul Seiko Chihara received his D.M.A. from Cornell University in 1965. In addition to studying with Robert Palmer at Cornell, his principal composition teachers were Nadia Boulanger in Paris, Ernst Pepping in West Berlin, and Gunther Schuller in Tanglewood. Mr. Chihara also holds an M.A. and B.A. in English literature from Cornell and the University of Washington respectively.

Mr. Chihara's prize-winning concert compositions have been performed to great acclaim. His works are concerned with the evolution and expression of highly contrasting colors, textures, and emotional levels, which are often dramatically juxtaposed with one another. Mr. Chihara has been commissioned by the Guggenheim Foundation, the Roger Wagner Chorale, the Naumberg Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He has also received commissions from the Boston and London Symphonies, as well as the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Cleveland Orchestra. Composer-in-Residence with the San Francisco Ballet for ten years, Tempest and Shinju are among his well-known ballet scores.

In addition to the many concert works Mr. Chihara has written, he has composed music for over 70 motion pictures and series for television. He has worked with directors Sidney Lumet, Louis Malle, Michael Ritchie, and Arthur Penn. His movie credits include Prince of the City, The Morning After, and Crossing Delancey.

Paul Chihara is currently a Visiting Associate Professor in the Music Department at UCLA and is writing the music for 100 Centre Street, which debuted on A&E's this season.

About the work, the composer writes:

This, my most recent composition, has two titles which suggest its two sources of inspiration: Impressionism and film noir. I composed my first movie in 1974, a masterpiece of junk art by Roger Corman called Death Race 2000. That was the first tonal music that I had ever attempted, and it was the beginning of my career as a film composer. Before that, as one of the musical supervisors of the Monday Evening concerts in Los Angeles, I was known (if at all) as a member of the West Coast avant-garde, a term still held in approbation during the late sixties! This was no easy transition, but I did have some strong moral support for the career change: from Toru Takemitsu and Peter Maxwell Davies.

I met Toru in 1966 in Tokyo while participating in Roger Reynold's Crosstalk Series of contemporary Japanese and American Music. Later we were both composers-in-residence at the Marlboro Festival of 1971, and he stayed with me in Venice, California on his subsequent visit to Hollywood. Peter Maxwell Davies was teaching at Tanglewood the following year, and I had many opportunities to discuss music and movies with him. Toru and Max encouraged me to explore the possibility of writing music for movies. Though they were already extremely accomplished composers, they were not nearly as famous in the early seventies as they are now. I knew them primarily through their wonderful film scores: Toru's Kwaidann, Face of Another, Woman in the Dunes, and Max's the Devils (by Ken Russell). Toru loved film noir, and Max was mad over foxtrots. Both of these influences are in my composition Clouds, which borrows stylistically from the worlds of jazz standards, big band arrangements, and ragtime, in a musical dreamscape reminiscent of Debussy. My composition is a symphonic poem in five sections, played without pause. None of the musical elements in it is a direct quotation, except the Alto Saxophone melody in the third section, which is based on my theme from Sidney Lumet's Prince of the City.

Clouds (&ldots;from out of the past) was commissioned by American Composers Orchestra with the support of the late Francis Goelet


The Bad and the Beautiful
David Raksin
Born August 4, 1912 in Philadelphia, PA
Now living in Van Nuys, CA

From time to time in Hollywood, movies about "movies" are made which purport to reveal an insider's perspective on the professions. The Bad and the Beautiful was such a film: no mere photograph of Hollywood but a story that is not without its truth. Unrelenting about certain aspects of "the movie business," it is still an affirmative appraisal, one that catches the spirit of time and place with a cunning eloquence, yet when it looks at scars and wrinkles it is with a lover's eye. Back in 1952 we were still infatuated with our little world, and this film, which is a collage of memories assembled upon a strong narrative framework, reminds us that we were not unlike children playing with toys-super-toys, of course.

The Bad and the Beautiful is a film in three parts that examines the effect of a powerful and unscrupulous producer (Kirk Douglas) on the careers of a director (Barry Sullivan), an actress (Lana Turner), and a writer, who was played by Dick Powell. Vincente Minnelli and John Houseman, director and producer of the picture, knew that because of the nature of the principal character it would require more than an artful impersonation on the screen to convince the audience of the persuasiveness of this charismatic man. They understood that there is just so much that can be conveyed with words and cameras, and that music would be called upon to employ its powers to make their point about "Jonathan." In fact, when we were discussing the role of the score Houseman would refer to the desired theme as "the siren song." Film composers are accustomed to such invitations from their colleagues; what you do is go home and work. Which is what occupied my weekend.

When I arrived at MGM on Monday with the theme I had composed, I set about reducing its complexities so that it was playable-not easy. It took most of the morning to accomplish that, and at noon in barged my colleagues, André Previn and Jeff Alexander, who had been working nearby. "What in the world is that tune you've been playing?" asked André, unable-like all superb pianists-to understand what it is like for those of us who have only ten fingers. After I complied with his request by stumbling through the theme, André paid me the honor of being frank. "Lunch!" he said in ringing tones. Once again I found myself confronted by evidence that, just possibly, none of my music should ever be played for the first time-it only confuses people. But when, about six weeks later, I was on the recording stage at MGM, rehearsing the music in which the theme first appears, who should walk in but André. This time he listened and was ecstatic about the melody, but I was not easily mollified. "C'mon, now," I said, "you and Jeff were the first guys to hear this thing, and you were unimpressed?" "Well," said he, "the way you played it, who could tell?" Suffice it to say that he has subsequently recorded The Bad and the Beautiful-twice!

The Suite from The Bad and the Beautiful begins with the principal theme Love is for the Very Young, which title comes from a line of dialog in the film. The second movement, The Acting Lesson, was composed for a scene in which Jonathan (Kirk Douglas) coaches Georgia (Lana Turner); this film within a film has overtones of Anna Karenina, so it pleased me to score it in the manner of a piece for string orchestra by Anton Arensky: Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky. The third movement is drawn from the music of two sequences. In the first of these Jonathan and Fred (Barry Sullivan) are finding old scenery to use in their low-budget quickies. In the second they are in a mad rush to get the picture to the sneak preview. The fourth movement, Nocturne and Theme, combines music from several sequences, beginning with Georgia's fall from grace, and including music that has accompanied Jonathan's explanation of his "after-picture blues." Finally there is another statement of the theme, but instead of the obligatory fortissimo ending for the credit titles I have borrowed the one I composed for my friend Stan Getz and the Boston Pops.

-David Raksin


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