One Score 2014

John Williams conducting at Ravinia


As Tonality Bombarded the Concert Hall, Traditional Symphonists Turned to Film

By John Mauceri

Cinema was never silent. Music was always a part of the performance tradition and, indeed, the success of the medium, whether that was music played on an upright piano, a theater organ or by a symphony orchestra. With the synchronization of image and recorded music, the specificity of the music and the drama could be as finely achieved as in Wagner's music dramas, in which he coordinated the action and scenic design with the exact beats and gestures of his scores. In cinema the collaboration between the visual and the acoustic is achieved in the reverse order: vision first, music after. The effect for the audience, though, is exactly the same.

In the years before the Second World War, orchestral music was developing quite nicely, with a mixture of new ideas of an ever-extended tonality, the acceptance of violence as a worthy aesthetic element in the language, and the continued influence of popular dance forms as well as exotic instrumental colors from non-Western sources. Movie music was simply another delivery system of these trends.

However, a generation of young composers who were born into the horrors of the war in Europe began their compositional life in the late 1950s and early '60s, and what they had to say was quite specific and, I believe, firmly rooted in their childhood experience. American universities and serious music critics supported what might be called the "Second World War School," to the exclusion of a vast and complex tradition of musical depiction and storytelling that had always been at the heart of Western music. The word "contemporary" no longer meant music composed at a certain time, but music of a certain style, even though that style had first been developed in the second decade of the 20th century. And while many were quite convinced that those experiments in atonal and 12- tone music were just that, experiments, this nationality-free language spoke profoundly to this group of young and brilliant intellectual men. It was as if their earliest experiences seemed to find an appropriate voice in their new maturity, a maturity that needed to embrace that experience and confront the excesses of a romantic spirit that had been abused and an optimism that was now devastatingly unacceptable. Truth was no longer Beauty. Just look around.

Movies, however, did not care. Movies-their directors, producers, studios and, most of all, their audiences- simply continued to do what theater music had always done in Western lyric theater tradition. It continued to use the musical metaphors and similes that had developed since the era of madrigals, while embracing, when appropriate, all the newest ideas of what was now called "contemporary music." Because of this, a vast legacy of orchestral music was composed, performed, recorded and promulgated to hundreds of millions throughout the world-not in concert halls, but in movie palaces. Movies continued the magic lantern theatrical experience that Wagner imported for his Bayreuth Festspielhaus. And it is not surprising that composers of film music used Wagner's aesthetic and compositional ideas (leitmotif, scenic descriptive devices, epic scale) and continue to do so today. If Mahler was convinced that the Germanic symphonic tradition would end with his symphonies, he was only partially right. What he could not predict was that this very tradition would continue not in symphonies, but would be delivered in another medium.

And so, while it was quite normal for a composer to write for the movies and the concert hall in the 1930s and '40s-composers like Aaron Copland, Miklós Rózsa and William Walton- this became all but impossible in the late 1950s and onward with the official language of classical music being defined as existing only within a certain style. The European Wunderkinder who had become American citizens-Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Miklós Rózsa, Dimitri Tiomkin and Franz Waxman- inspired the next generation of cinema symphonists: Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, Alex North and Bernard Herrmann; and that influence continues today with John Williams, Danny Elfman and Howard Shore. That Hans Zimmer works and lives in America brings the story full circle. By now it is up to classical music to look back and look around-which, of course, is exactly what it is doing these days-and that is a good thing. It is no longer unacceptable for a John Corigliano, a Philip Glass or a Tan Dun to write for the movies.

The Second World War School composers are, biologically speaking, passing out of this world. Their musical cosmos has left a memorial to a time that can never be forgotten. Their music insists on our attention. Ironically, their musical style has also permeated cinema music, which has always been willing to accept new influences, so that the same vast audience that can accept a Korngoldian uplift also accepts the seemingly chaotic opacity of Ligeti in one score by John Williams. No one questions the skill and genius of Goldsmith's Planet of the Apes-an atonal tone poem that evokes a future of prehistoric brutality-that emanated from the same composer who gave us Star Trek: The Motion Picture. That the output of one film director, Alfred Hitchcock, could require and inspire vastly different musical styles- jazz, high Romantic, atonal, pop, Russian constructivist-is just one more example of the accepting nature of film and film music.

That the greatest film composers themselves were dismissed and/or ridi- culed by the composers and critics of con- temporary music is, by now, very much beside the point and should probably not be seen as an assessment of musical qual- ity. It was, and is, perhaps best described as a passionate difference of opinion.