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brian on film music

30th January 2004 permanent link

On film music: a semi-connected string of thoughts and anecdotes triggered by Brian Micklethwait’s thoughts on “how Classical Music lives on in the cinema”.

Brian talks about the use of classical music in film soundtracks. I see clear influences the other way round too. I find a lot of "serious" twentieth century orchestral music by people like Shostakovich and Bartok sounds like film music and basically silly. But then, I'm very rationalist-classical in my musical inclinations and generally have a hard time taking most Romantic music seriously. I freely admit that their chamber music is anything but silly. (As Brian already knows, I am very well aware of the circumstances that forced Shostakovich to operate in this way)

Here's a half-formed Big Thought: film music is a return to musical normality. Throughout most of human history in most societies (including our own), music has mainly been a mood-altering adjunct to other activities, generally religious ceremonies and/or dancing. (Religious ceremonies and dancing having also been much the same thing throughout most of human history). What western classical music has tried to do in the last two hundred years is take music out of the temple, off of the dancefloor and make listening an end in itself, a quasi-religious act in its own right. An interesting experiment that, in the long run, didn't work.

Like Brian, I have classical music playing a lot of the time at home and at work, but I don't often just sit and listen to it and do nothing else. And, as Brian has also pointed out, this is a situation and an audience attitude that all musicians up to and including Haydn and Mozart would have found completely normal. Did Beethoven invent the idea that people should just sit still, shut up and *really* listen? If you're going to ask the audience to behave in such a strange way you should at least write music that's compelling enough to make it worth their while - which is ok if you're Beethoven, a lot less ok when hundreds of lesser composers start thinking they can take the audience's attention for granted.

(For Brian's listening habits see this piece – and while you're about it you should read his entire classical music archive)

The Hollywood studio orchestras of the Golden Age – 1930s to 1950s – were quite possibly the most technically proficient symphony orchestras ever to walk the earth. They had their pick of the world’s best orchestral musicians, America at the time being full of Jewish refugees from the previously-best symphony orchestras in Germany and Austria. I once heard a fascinating documentary on BBC Radio 3 about the Warner Brothers house orchestra playing music for cartoons. The music, they said, had to be exactly, to the frame, in synch with the film – i.e. accurate to a 24th of a second. At this point I assumed that they were going to say they would record the soundtrack first then synch the visuals to it. No. They recorded the soundtrack, basically live, in front of a screen with unfinished bits of the film running as the film was being made. Apparently they usually got it exactly right on the first take.

These guys could play “real” music too. The Hollywood String Quartet, whose chamber music recordings are legendary, was a part time ensemble whose members all had day jobs in Hollywood studio orchestras.

A lot of the movie movie soundtracks I’ve been most impressed aren’t derived from classical music but from American folk music of various kinds – by blues, country etc. Ry Cooder’s slide guitar soundtrack to Paris, Texas is the most obvious example that springs to mind – along with, sort of, The Blues Brothers, which doesn’t really count because there the music is the whole point of the film, not just a soundtrack. But I think those two would have to be on any list of “all-time great movie soundtracks”.

Story told to me by my brother, who is both a professional musician and a war movie buff: in the climactic air battle over London at the end of The Battle of Britain, the music changes from stirring patriotic marches to a sudden piece of quite striking modernism. Apparently this bit, Walton’s Spitfire Fugue, is the surviving remnant of an original score by Walton that was commissioned for the entire film and could have been a Shostakovichesque modern masterpiece. But the producers lost their nerve and commissioned something less challenging at the last minute, thus resulting in the actual Battle of Britain score which is also perfectly decent music, but not by any stretch of the imagination a masterpiece.

Update: (google is your friend) the Spitfire Fugue is a different Walton piece. A CD was released in 1999 with both the original Walton Battle of Britain score and the replacement which was by a guy called Ron Goodwin, who seems to have written the scores for most of the classic British World War II flying films. This reviewer likes the Goodwin better than most of the Walton except the bit they actually used; reviewers on amazon were impressed by both. The CD is discontinued. Pity.

Another update: Michael Brooke, in Brian’s comments, points out the huge effect Stanley Kubrick had on the fame of Gyorgy Ligeti by liking his music and using it extensively in 2001 and The Shining. (My knowledge of Ligeti is restricted to having bought a CD of his string quartets in a second hand shop a few years ago and, as far as I recall, never actually listening to it. Perhaps I should)

related entries: Music

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