Saturday, October 27, 2012

Notes and Frames: The Neglected Art of Film Music

If you ask most people, they'll tell you that they never notice the music in a film. Many will even go so far as to tell you that if they did notice it, it meant that it was likely bad music. Even classical composers, who should be the film composer's most obvious supporter, generally dismiss film music as 'hack work.' It's a thankless job, they'll say, especially since it's commonly believed a good score can never save a bad picture. How can an art form British composer Ralph Vaughn Williams once described as "containing possibilities for the combination of the arts such as Wagner never dreamed of" end up so demeaned? Especially since music and movies have been intrinsically linked since the silent era. While there's no simple answer to that question, it's possible that since the motion picture has always been a popular art form and not regarded as one of the High Arts, the use of classical music (a High Art form) has been perceived by some as a form of sacrilege. Yet despite the class snobbery, what is clear is that the movies have always needed and desired music as some part of the storytelling.

Hanns Eisler, in his comprehensive book Composing for the Films (1947), even suggested that silent films needed music because their ghostly quality strongly resembled that of a shadow play: "The magic function of music...consisted in appeasing the evil spirits unconsciously dreaded. Music was introduced as a kind of antidote against the picture. The need was felt to spare the spectator the unpleasantness involved in seeing effigies of living, acting and even speaking persons, who were at the time silent." This appeasement took the form of a piano player in a pit situated below the screen. He might play Beethoven's Minuet No. 2 for the opening credits. Then he'd accompany a chase with a scherzo, or provide an andante for the customary love scene. Sometimes Bach chorales could be heard accompanying scenes of profound sadness, while hacked fragments of Tchaikovsky's symphonies would turn up as sinister mysterioso music to highlight intense moments. Wedding marches by Wagner and Mendelssohn would underscore not only scenes of marriage, but marital discord and divorce, too. The sheet music business flourished in the silent era only to become obsolete when sound arrived.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold
After the success of Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer in 1927, Hollywood was determined to make a full transition to talkies. So the sound era was inaugurated – naturally – with more musicals. But as sound became even more sophisticated, scripted dialogue between actors became more prominent. Producers were naturally confused about how best to use music to intensify a drama, especially where action was no longer the predominant force. They found their answer partly in the romantic music established in the mid- to late-nineteenth century by Puccini, Wagner and Richard Strauss. When four inheritors of this style – Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, Franz Waxman and Dimitri Tiomkin – immigrated to Hollywood, they brought with them a great knowledge of the relationship between music and drama. What they recognized (Korngold especially) were the similarities between screen drama and opera. Wagner, according to Donald Jay Grout in his book, A History of Western Music (1965), saw the function of music as an instrument to "serve the ends of dramatic expression." The early pioneers of screen music perceived cinematic drama as a further evolution of the opera. "If we equate the dialogue in a film to the 'sung words' of opera, we can see there is little difference between opera and film." Roy Predergast goes further in his book, Film Music: A Neglected Art (1977) when he says that in opera "the stage is the most visible element and, like the screen in a film, it draws most of our attention...In opera, like film, when the action onstage is the most important element, the orchestra disassociates itself from the action and becomes a commentary on it."

Olivia de Havilland & Errol Flynn in Robin Hood
So when Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland exchange love vows in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Erich Korngold composes such commentary on it: a love theme that treats their dialogue as if it were an operatic aria. When the female creature is being created in James Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Franz Waxman doesn't write the typical scare music that accompanied a silent horror film; instead he composes a romantic rhapsody expressing the longings of the monster, eagerly anticipating the birth of his intended. In Casablanca (1943), Max Steiner took the popular song, "As Time Goes By" (sung in the film by Dooley Wilson) and developed variations based on its theme. Running like a leitmotif throughout the movie, "As Time Goes By" comments on the turbulent romance between characters played by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Many composers essentially found their sensibility coming through in writing for the screen. In Music for the Movies (1973), Tony Thomas described how, by underscoring the dramatic meaning of the picture and heightening the characters' motives, the individual identity of each composer could be fully expressed. "[It's] Eric Korngold persuading you that Errol Flynn was really Robin Hood in a previous life," he wrote. "Max Steiner telling you what it was like to be a Southern aristocrat and lose the war and a way of life [Gone With the Wind], Miklos Rozsa letting you know how Ray Milland felt on a lost weekend when he craved a drink, or Bernard Herrmann helping you to die of fright as some weirdo butchers Janet Leigh in the shower [Psycho]. If you believed Dana Andrews really loved Laura, thank David Raksin, or if you shared Dana's mind wanderings as he sat in the nose of a wrecked B-36 and mused on the best years of his life, you might tip your hat to Hugo Friedhofer."

While the consideration of movies being a disreputable art form has now been largely dispelled, the aesthetic considerations of movie music are still rarely debated (even among critics). That's too bad. The core of that debate could well be this old Hollywood story about movie music that has been repeated so often it's almost an urban myth. In 1944, while Alfred Hitchcock was making Lifeboat for 20th Century Fox, he made the decision to jettison the score. After being informed of the bad news, composer David Raksin asked how this rather unusual decision was reached. "Well, Hitchcock feels that since the entire action in the film takes place in a lifeboat on the open ocean, where would the music come from?" a studio bureaucrat replied. Raksin paused for a moment before making a logical retort of his own: "Ask Mr. Hitchcock to explain where the cameras come from, and I'll tell him where the music comes from."  

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.      

No comments:

Post a Comment