Picture Perfect: A HyperHistory of Film Music in the United States

Picture Perfect: A HyperHistory of Film Music in the United States

To refer to the production of film in the 1940s as an assembly line—a term usually considered a derogatory—is appropriate when considering the incredible appetite the American public had developed for film by the onset of the Second World War and the machinery required to fulfill that appetite. To survive as a composer during this era took an incredible amount of stamina (and various kinds of injections, as rumors go) for those in demand worked 20-hour days and were often slated for more than one picture at a time.

Max Steiner continued his prominence, composing now up to ten full scores a year, including Casablanca (1942) and Mildred Pierce (1945). But even so, he was no stranger to the assembly line, often contributing bits of music to films that needed it, or finding his music recycled as background music for scenes. On more than several films in this decade, this famous originator of film scoring techniques goes without credit!

Of course, there was now room for more talent, which graced 20th Century Fox in the form of an unprecedented force named Bernard Herrmann. Establishing himself with Orson Welles‘s Citizen Kane (1941), Hermann quickly became notorious for being as strong-willed as the collaborators he took on. His dark, repetitive themes were as persistent and emotional as he—and many had the impression that the composer must be a hard, joyless man. Matt Williams for the Bernard Herrmann Society writes about Paul Stewart‘s memory of meeting Herrmann while shooting Citizen Kane, in which Stewart played the valet:

“I immediately found him extraordinarily eccentric and irritable. He had very little interest in me, as he did in very few other people. I don’t think he knew he was unfriendly, but he just was.”

But the sensitivity in his simple musical themes is sometimes almost too much to bear. Luckily he made use of his excessive emotion though his work. Only a combination of immoveable will and great intuition could propel one through the assembly line and out the other end as a legend.

It was around this time that composers with distinguished reputations in the concert hall began to dabble in film music. Aaron Copland composed for several films, as did Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose 20 film scores earned him two Oscars. Virgil Thomson was even awarded a Pulitzer Prize in Music for the film score he composed for The Louisiana Story. Prior to his arrival in Los Angeles in 1934, Arnold Schoenberg composed “Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene” (1930). But shopping his music as a demo to attract employment for writing film music, Schoenberg soon discovered the reality of the assembly line. Considering the time constraints expected by the industry to be unreasonable, Schoenberg never ended up composing for film. He did, however, begin teaching at UCLA where some of the greats of film music, such as Alfred Newman and David Raksin, where among his students.

Alternatively, composers such as Dimitri Tiomkin and Franz Waxman received their musical education in Europe, far removed from the influence of Hollywood, only to end up scoring film after film without much opportunity to express themselves in the concert hall. The widespread ghettoization of film composers was particularly troubling for Miklós Rózsa. His enormous output of first-rate concert music was largely ignored during his lifetime. His equally impressive oeuvre of film music on the other hand was highly regarded. Rózsa’s scores for Spellbound (1945) and The Lost Weekend (1945) introduced American moviegoers to the unique sound of the Theremin. Rózsa later went on to score popular historical epics like Quo Vadis (1951), Ben-Hur (1959), and El Cid (1961).

From Picture Perfect: A HyperHistory of Film Music in the United States
By Nicole Zaray
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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