Tombs of Unknown Composers

Tombs of Unknown Composers

Before 1900, “theater music” meant opera, operetta, or incidental music for plays (e.g. Grieg’s Peer Gynt). But with the advent of motion pictures and television, and their need for dramatically supportive soundtracks, theatrical music (as an expressive style) started to reach the ears of moviegoers and couch potatoes, not just concert, opera, and play goers. When Max Steiner, Alfred Newman, Herbert Stothart, and other conductors and composers of 1920s Broadway musicals moved west to create underscoring for Hollywood sound films (followed shortly by the opera composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold), they brought the legacy of Wagner and the theater to an audience of millions, making orchestral romanticism a lingua franca for the man in the street. Some commentators have viewed jazz as America’s real classical music. Others, like conductor John Mauceri, have publicly opined that studio-era movie music is the real new classical music. Perhaps there’s something to both views.

Yet paradoxically, some of these composers of soundtrack music, who are among history’s most widely heard composers, died totally unknown and unheralded. Take Leroy “Roy” Shield (1893-1962), a classically trained composer who was Eva Gauthier’s piano accompanist in songs by Arthur Bliss. He performed Milhaud, Holst, Bax, Casella, Ravel, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg in concert as a pianist, and in the 1940s assisted Toscanini with contracting the NBC Symphony. This same Roy Shield was also the composer of the deathlessly familiar “Our Gang” music for the Hal Roach studios! Millions upon millions of Americans have heard this music on television (as The Little Rascals) and could whistle the tunes of Roy Shield but would be baffled if asked to name him. Shield had an endless fund of catchy melody and a peculiar genius for expressing the joyousness of childhood in music; his Our Gang music is a unique, sentimental pastiche of early jazz, Dickens, and the Great Depression. IMHO he was an inspired composer, in the same sense that Sousa and Johann Strauss were inspired composers. Shield’s arrangements, with their sweet saxes and rollicking rhythms, were lovingly recreated by the Netherlands-based Beau Hunks Orchestra on Koch CDs in the mid-1990s. It may well be that Shield’s music was heard on TV by a wider audience than the radio audience of history’s two richest pre-rock composers, Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin. But he’s forgotten today and was never rich.

Shield is not the only unknown soldier of theatrical music written for mass media. Appreciation for Warner Brothers cartoon composers Carl Stalling and Scott Bradley has been fairly well resurrected, but not for Philip Scheib, the composer of hours of original orchestral underscoring for decades of the Terrytoons. And what about Leon Klatzkin’s symphonic theme for TV’s 1950s Adventures of Superman—no subsequent Superman film scoring (with due respect to the remarkable John Williams) has ever topped it in my view. A prolific but little charted film and TV composer, Klatzkin was a conductor and orchestrator who, like Shield, had gotten his start composing for the Hal Roach Studios.

Shouldn’t music and cultural historians start to examine Shield and his brethren? Who’s your nomination for the most unknown well-played, well-heard composer? I’m not talking here about the armies of art music composers who died little known and whom posterity continues to ignore; that’s another subject. I’m talking about unknown composers of well-known music of post-1900 mass media. Caveat: Jingle writers don’t count, even though the jingle idea was invented by Wagner (viz., the leitmotif), because jingles are not through-composed, are brief, and rarely are scored for full orchestra.

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7 thoughts on “Tombs of Unknown Composers

  1. MarkNGrant

    Since posting the above, I happened upon a webpage [] that asserts that Leon Klatzkin’s claim to composing the theme to Superman is disputed– even though his name is listed on the copyrighted sheet music of the theme and in all music credits for the Superman TV program of the 1950s, and is registered with ASCAP as the composer of the theme.

    In a way, this further drives home my original point– that the last couple of American generations have been engulfed in an aural sea of endlessly rebroadcast leitmotivic symphonic music composed by Anonymous.

  2. kontrabass47

    unknown composers
    Writing music for a movie means you give up your right to be famous. The few movie composers who have become famous, either conducted their works live, or have a style which is unique. What about all the composers of pop songs. I couldn’t name any of the writers of Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, or N’sync songs. In most movies the music is only part of the overall work. There could still be undiscovered composers whose work could stand on its own, but I doubt it.

  3. Chris Becker

    I’ve posted this question before – Jim Helms who composed all of the music for the TV series Kung Fu is really an under appreciated composer. Seth Gordon sent me some mp3s of arrangements Helms did post Kung Fu awhile back…but information about this man is really hard to find! See below (this is from my website…)

    I’ve been watching episode after episode of the 70’s TV series Kung Fu (all three seasons are now available on DVD). It was and still is an incredible show – one of the many reasons being the composer Jim Helms who wrote all of the music for the show including it’s beautiful opening theme. What happened to this guy? I can’t find ANY information about him on the Internet…I discovered there is a recording that came out while the show was on the air that features his music for Kung Fu along with bits of dialogue (I have to find that!). But I’m unable at the moment to find out what he did after Kung Fu…which is a shame because the music for that show is incredible.

    Helms’ orchestrations are always carefully balanced and sonically surprising (as someone who mixes music I’m very impressed with the clarity of the show’s sound mixes). Instruments used in the score include harpsichord, wooden flutes, horn, and strings along with plenty of Asian, Native American, and African percussion. Recurring themes evoke traditional indigenous musics alongside elements of the European avant-garde. His melodies are timeless. Like the best of TV scores in the 70’s the music is always supporting (in a meticulous but never superfulous way) the on screen action, underlying emotions – there are motifs that trigger shifts in time (i.e. flashbacks or the slow motion sequences). And the show’s creators knew when to leave things silent. A lot of the fights have NO accompanying sound save for birds or other outdoor ambient sounds…anyway, I wish I could link everyone to the Jim Helms Fan Website but I haven’t found one. Yet…

    1. Jesse Feliciano

      I’m absolutely with you. That music in the Kung Foo series is fantastic. A mood for every moment and beautiful orchestrations . Why are these composers left out of the lyme light . Did they get royalties?
      I’d love to find recodings of that music. If only to study the style and additude that he conjures up from out of seemingly nowhere.
      He in my opinion is right up there with Bernard Herman . Composer of several Alfred Hitchcock movies and sci fi movies with the expertise of Ray Harryhousen special effects.
      Im sure there’s got to be recodings of his music somewhere. Greatfull for Kung Foo.

  4. William Osborne

    I watched about five or six Fred and Ginger movies recently after a friend sent me copies. People forget that the scores and songs for most of them are by Irving Berlin (plus or minus whatever the studio system back then contributed.) And one of the scores is by George and Ira Gershwin. The Fred and Ginger films, even if well-known, are still overlooked as music theater masterpieces.

    William Osborne

  5. MarkNGrant

    The Ghost Composers behind Berlin and Gershwin
    William, I too love the Astaire-Rogers films. Their real musical scorers were Max Steiner, Maurice de Packh, Roy Webb, among others, and, above all, Russell Bennett, who was also the master ghost composer behind most of the great Broadway musicals of the golden age. Sure, Berlin and Gershwin wrote the tunes, but the continuity and arrangements — which extend the 32-bar tunes to prodigious lengths at times–were the handiwork of the unknown (or little known) gentlemen cited above. Read Bennett’s autobio The Broadway Sound for more.

  6. William Osborne

    Thanks for the additional info, Mark. There is a very interesting, though completely undocumented, Wiki article about Russell Bennett here:

    It is incredible how deeply Irving Berlin has affected American culture. His tunes run through our minds almost like they are part of our cells, like White Christmas, God Bless America, There’s No Business Like Show Business, and Alexander’s Ragtime Band, just to name a few. I think my favorite is Cheek to Cheek, written for the Astaire-Rogers film, Top Hat. It is interesting that he died in 1989 at the age of 101, but after about 1950 his new works were no longer appreciated. It was not just that he seemed less inspired. There was also a paradigm shift in American culture.

    William Osborne


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