Sunday, March 21, 2010

Music in Film (National Public Radio Milestones of the Millennium)

Any compilation, collection, or "best of" list is always at least as notable for what's omitted as for what's included. The collection that I've chosen to kick off this blog is no different. You won't find some noteworthy composers here: No Max Steiner, no Ennio Morricone, no Jerry Goldsmith, no Maurice Jarre, no Lalo Schifrin . . . among many others. But for one disc that purports to cover all of film music history and has just 80 minutes or so to do it, it's not so bad.

As this release was made through Sony Classical under the aegis of NPR and released in 1999, all of what appears here is stuff that Sony Classical had available to them through their own catalog at the time, I suspect. That accounts for the appearance here of several 20th-century composers who were much more famous for their concert and ballet works than for their film scores: Sergei Prokofiev, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein. I'll deal separately with Prokofiev's blasting and highly influential choral score to Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky, represented here with a song of breathless praise for the film's titular Russian hero (Track #2).

Aaron Copland did just a few film scores, including the film adaptation of Steinbeck's The Red Pony, heard on this disc (Track #5), but his style defined what "American" classical music sounds like to most ears of the 20th century, and was arguably one of the biggest influences on film scoring for Westerns, before Leone and Morricone rewrote the book and the music forever -- or at least to date. Listen to the main theme from The Magnificent Seven (Track #12) by the other Bernstein, the prolific film composer Elmer (no relation to Leonard) and you can hear echoes of Copland's Rodeo all over the place. (Most people probably know a bit of Rodeo nowadays as "The Beef Commercial Song." Copland. It's what's for dinner.)

This makes me want to pause to grouse about the general way that film composers are treated within the world of classical music. With a very few exceptions, those composers who earn their stripes by scoring films as opposed to "serious" concert compositions are regarded with barely concealed condescension by the classical music cognoscienti. Their works draw huge audiences to pops concerts by major symphony orchestras, including lots of people who otherwise would have no interest in showing up at a classical concert. I'd venture a casual bet that orchestras have played and recorded the main theme from Star Wars (Track #18) as often as Eine Kleine Nachtmusik in the last 30 years. Yet few composers have switched with ease between the concert or opera hall and the movie theatre. The only one I can think of in recent memory would be Philip Glass.

Back to the CD - that Film/Classical schism opens the disc, actually -- the great Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the Jewish Austrian expatriate who practically invented scoring for Hollywood sound films, is represented here with a rollicking suite from The Adventures of Robin Hood. (If you haven't seen the classic Errol Flynn film, do yourself a favor and watch it. It's a barrel of fun.) Korngold was unfairly pooh-poohed by critics for his gorgeous violin concerto, into which he wove themes from some of his film scores.

Most of the first two-thirds of this CD is in fact a great introduction to the world of film music from about the '30s through the '60s. Some of the other patron saints of the genre are included, like Bernard Herrman (Vertigo and Psycho in Tracks #13-14), Nino Rota (Track #15 from 8 1/2), and a brief fly-by of an intriguingly jazzy piece by Franz "Bride of Frankenstein" Waxman, from A Place in the Sun (Track #6).

This is also the only place in my collection - unless I buy something during the course of writing this blog - that you'll find anything by Alfred Newman. ("Captain from Castile", Track #4.) Despite his nine Oscars, 40 nominations (four in the same year!), over 200 film score credits, and the fact that he was music director for 20th Century Fox for twenty years, I've got nothin.' Nothing, that is, besides his expanded version of the 20th Century Fox fanfare that appears on all my Star Wars CDs, as re-recorded by John Williams (who is the only human being with more Oscar nominations than Newman).

Oddly enough, the last quarter of the 20th century is represented very poorly on this disc. Perhaps in 1999, the selectors just didn't have enough perspective to judge the best of the years between about 1975 and the present. Otherwise, why would there be not one, but two tracks dedicated to music from the Star Wars trilogy (Tracks #17-18), but only two tracks at all of any music written after 1980. Certainly a few more years' perspective might have caused someone to think twice before including a track from Titanic (Track #20), which isn't even James Horner's best score (that would probably be Krull, actually). It definitely wouldn't deserve to be included before anything by Jerry Goldsmith, Danny Elfman's Batman theme, Vangelis' Blade Runner or Chariots of Fire . . . et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Fortunately, that accounts for the largest portion of my own collection.

But we have to start somewhere, and this is at least a good place to get the lay of the land.

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