Saturday, February 18, 2012

Music for Movies

Who can forget the impact of watching the first Star Wars movie in 1977?

A black screen with the words, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” Then the now famous music of John Williams burst forth with the opening sequence, filling the audience in on the background of the story. That opening sequence, I think, is pure cinematic magic, and a stroke of genius on the part of filmmaker George Lucas. The music promises the great adventures that are to come.

Now imagine watching the same opening to the same movie, but without any music at all. Much of the impact is gone, isn’t it? To make a film without music is to take away an entire dimension of filmmaking. What I said above about Star Wars can be said about most of the movies that we have grown to love. Can we really imagine the opening of The Godfather without that famous trumpet solo? And can we see James Bond entering a scene without that taunt and suspenseful theme by John Barry?

In the wonderful Alfred Hitchcock film I Confess, a Catholic priest, played by Montgomery Clift, walks into a church into the middle of the night because he heard a noise. He is about to encounter a man who is about to confess that he had committed murder. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin, who wrote the musical score, quotes the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath), the sequence from the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass. By using this sombre 13th century music, the composer immediately creates the tension and atmosphere that is to pervade throughout the film.

If music is such an integral part of films, why are composers who write music for film being held in such low esteem by critics and Classical music cognoscenti? Other than the fact that many people, especially critics, tend to like to label musicians into easily definable categories – he is a showman, she is a scholarly player, and so forth. Another reason may be that movies are viewed by many as entertainment and not art.

Conductor, composer and pianist André Previn, who spent his teenage and young adult years as composer and arranger for MGM Studios, had to fight against the labelling of “Hollywood composer” when he later embarked upon his career as a symphonic conductor. Early reviews for his concerts would, he said, inevitably begin with the phrase, “Last night, Hollywood’s André Previn…” He quipped that people would more likely forgive him for being a mass murderer, but not for having written music for films.

If we were to look at some of the “famous” composers who had written film music, the list is pretty impressive – Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Honegger, Richard Rodney Bennett, Aaron Copland, Phillip Glass and Sir William Walton. Hardly any of the men listed above would neatly fall under the labelling of “Hollywood composer”. Copland’s music for the movie The Red Pony is in a class of its own, and would even occasionally show up in concert programmes. The same can be said for Sir William Walton’s music for Battle of Britain. And John Williams’ moving music for Schindler’s List has entered the active repertoire for many of today’s great violinists.

There have been composers who managed to straddle the world of films and the concert hall. Miklós Rózsa’s violin concerto was written for Jascha Heifetz and his viola concerto for Pinchas Zuckerman. John Williams wrote concert music as well as his music for many memorable films. Nino Rota wrote two beautiful piano concerti. And the operas and symphonic music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold is slowly making their way back into concert halls, opera houses and recording studios. And yet, to quote Previn again, “Music critics have made it quite clear that any composer who ever contributed a four-bar jingle to a film was to be referred to as a “Hollywood composer” from then on.”

After a performance of a symphonic work by Sergei Rachmaninoff who, incidentally, never wrote a film score, a critic refers to the work as “music for Doctor Zhivago”. A few years back, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who has consistently tried to extend himself as a performer, made a recording of the film music of Ennio Morricone. The music as well as the performance is beautiful and moving. Yet I am quite certain there are those who would accuse Mr. Ma as being a sell-out, and pandering to popular taste.

When will the distinguished writers of the press stop categorizing music and musicians and judge performance and musical works purely in terms of their merit, and help rather than hinder listeners in truly enjoying music?

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