Classical Music Goes Hollywood
Mauceri will lead two performances of Danny Elfman's new Concerto for Violin and Orchestra.
By John Mauceri
The founding director of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra explains how as atonality bombarded the concert hall, traditional symphonists turned to film.
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, on 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 Wagner’s music dramas, in which he coordinated the action and scenic design with the exact beats and gestures of his scores. ln 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 form as well as exotic instrumental colors from non-Western sources. And 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 I960s, 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.
“Movies continued the magic lantern theatrical experience that Wagner imported for his Bayreuth Festspielhaus.”
The word contemporary no longer meant music composed at a certain time but referred to 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 early trauma 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 on with theater music in the same Western lyric theater tradition. It continued to use the musical metaphors and similes that had developed since the era of the madrigals, while embracing, when appropriate, 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 (the leitmotif device, epic scale, and so on) 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 in another medium.
The music of film composer John Williams will be showased at the Bing on April 20.
So while it was quite normal for composers—like Aaron Copland, Miklós Rózsa, and William Walton—to write for the movies and the concert hall in the 1930s and 1940s, 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. 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 cannot ever 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 avant-garde composer György 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—a score 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 were dismissed or even ridiculed by the composers and critics of contemporary music is, by now, very much beside the point and should probably not be seen as an assessment of musical quality. It was, and is perhaps best described as, a passionate difference of opinion.
This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of Gramophone and is reproduced with permission of the licensor through PLSclear.
Related Event: Mar 10-11
Bing Concert Hall
John Mauceri conducts Danny Elfman
Related Event: Apr 20
Bing Concert Hall
Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra
The Music of John Williams