Call of the masses

Classical icons created some of their most compelling work for the screen

They’re a who’s-who of 20th-century composing giants: Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and Virgil Thomson in America; William Walton and Ralph Vaughan Williams in England; Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich in Russia; Georges Auric, Darius Milhaud and Arthur Honegger in France.

And they all composed for movies.

You might not know it from the programs of most symphony orchestras, which rarely play their film works. But unlike many academics and critics, who have often turned up their collective noses at movie music, most of the greats of 20th-century music liked writing for the cinema and exerted a profound influence on their Hollywood colleagues.

Copland “very much wanted to be writing film music in the late ’30s,” says conductor and Copland expert Jonathan Sheffer. “He was very eager to reach a wider audience. He didn’t see film composing as slumming, or an opportunity to do anything less than his best.”

Copland’s Oscar-nominated scores for “Of Mice and Men” (1939) and “Our Town” (1940) anticipated the widely admired folk-based Americana of his 1944 ballet “Appalachian Spring.” His music for “The Red Pony” (1948) and Oscar-winning score for “The Heiress” (1949) confirmed the prevailing notion that nobody did American music better.

“If you think of what preceded him (in Hollywood),” adds Sheffer, “it’s really the European, Viennese tradition of music,” exemplified by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose lush romantic scores for Errol Flynn swashbucklers dominated the field in the late ’30s and ’40s. “Bernard Herrmann hadn’t really come on the scene yet.”

Thomson’s scores for such documentaries as “The Plow That Broke the Plains” (1936) and “Louisiana Story” (1948), which drew on indigenous folk material, were also influential, Sheffer notes. Copland and Thomson “were the Debussy and Ravel of film composers in that they were both working in a very similar, simple American style.”

Across the pond, both William Walton and Ralph Vaughan Williams “certainly realized that film was a very important medium for composers,” says Byron Adams, professor of composition and musicology at UC Riverside and a specialist in 20th-century English music.

“Vaughan Williams became involved (in cinema) because as the second World War approached, he wanted to serve his country in some way that would be useful, so he ended up writing music for British wartime films,” starting with “49th Parallel” (1941) and “Coastal Command” (1942), Adams notes.

Vaughan Williams remained interested in the medium, however, composing a moody, atmospheric score for “Scott of the Antarctic” (1948), which he later turned into his seventh symphony, the “Sinfonia Antartica.” “He continued to write for films to the end of his life,” Adams says. “It wasn’t just a flirtation and it wasn’t just a duty. He really did enjoy working in films.”

As for Walton, his trilogy of Shakespeare films with director-star Laurence Olivier — “Henry V” (1945), “Hamlet” (1948) and “Richard III” (1955) — remain high-water marks of British film music and among Walton’s own best work. “Writing film music helped Walton in his fluency and technique,” Adams contends. “His second symphony is a very film-influenced score.”

Walton was exceedingly practical, however, and according to Adams was mainly in it “for the money.” Still, Walton experts think his “Richard III” score is among his finest work in any medium, and that Walton did his best to enhance whatever picture he was working on.

In fact, after he saw the final print of “Henry V,” he told Olivier: “Well, my boy, I’m very glad you showed it to me, because I must tell you I did think it was terribly dull without the music!”

French composers Auric, Milhaud and Honegger also scored films: Auric, perhaps best known for “Moulin Rouge” (1952), Milhaud for a series of French films in the ’30s, and Honegger for “Mayerling” (1936).

Television composer Duane Tatro (“The Invaders”), who studied in France with both Milhaud and Honegger, believes that films were “another medium that they wanted to investigate” and that, in those early days of sound film, such musical experimentation was encouraged rather than frowned upon.

Prokofiev’s cantata from “Alexander Nevsky” (1938) has long been a concert-hall staple (his oratorio from the two-part 1940s “Ivan the Terrible,” less so), but since the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of Russian doors to the West, a major revelation has been the number and quality of the scores Shostakovich wrote for Soviet films.

There were three dozen — nearly all films that were never screened outside the USSR — and two-thirds of those are now available on CD. “Even when he scored a fairly straightforward scene, it was never a throwaway,” says Citadel Records president Tom Null, whose label has released excerpts from nine Shostakovich scores.

“A lot of these scores, especially from the early films, reflect the kind of witty, satirical, whimsical writing he did in his Symphony No. 1 or the first piano concerto,” reports Null.

Shostakovich was in and out of favor with the authorities for his entire career. During the Stalin regime he frequently scored films to pay the bills or keep the Kremlin happy, but several of his scores, particularly the Soviet version of “Hamlet” (1964), have been hailed as masterpieces worthy of discussion in the same breath as his symphonies or string quartets.

What’s more, the stigma once associated with the film music of these greats — that, because it sometimes played a subservient role in a predominantly visual medium, it is somehow inferior to “pure” concert music — is disappearing.

“That kind of snobbish attitude may exist in the antediluvian depths of a few old duffers here and there in the U.S. and England,” says Adams, “but I think everybody is now looking back and studying these incredible pieces of music that have had an enormous impact on film composers — especially those who do the big, grand, epic kinds of scores.”

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