A SURVEY OF OVER-RATED ITEMS, NO. 57:
The Use of Classical Music in Film Scores
by Papa Redcloud
As a service to humanity I am continuing my list of objects and experiences that are over-rated. I shall persist in sharing with you the fruits of my research and analysis. The items on this list all have some quality--had they no merit at all they surely would never have become over-rated. What characterizes the truly over-rated icon is that its reputation is all out of proportion to the enjoyment, satisfaction, or benefit that can be, or commonly is, derived from it.
One can endlessly debate the virtues and defects of the recent seafaring film Master and Commander. Those who remember Captain Kidd (1945, with Charles Laughton), and even Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951, with Gregory Peck), consider it a triumph of historical naval realism. Those who remember the Patrick O'Brian books upon which Master and Commander is based lament the liberties taken. One can, and one has, debated this for hours. What is, in my mind, without a doubt is that the music to this movie is a colossal disappointment. The score is half excrescence, and, even more to be pitied, the remainder a compilation drawn from the director's (or producer's or gaffer's or best boy's) meager collection of CD classical warhorses.
I imagine that the purveyors of classical music love it when their music is used in movie scores. While the film remains in recent memory their shopworn wares can be sold to the unwary millions. A Song to Remember (1944, a.k.a. "Ketchup on the Keyboard"), a late 1940s biopic about Chopin (q.v.), temporarily turned that composer's early 19th-century piano miniatures into bestsellers. Elvira Madigan (1967) is a rarely screened film that is only remembered for having attached its name to a Mozart piano concerto that was used in the score. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, q.v.) did more for Richard Strauss (q.v.) than ten thousand revivals of his lush opera Rosenkavalier. Tous les Matins du Monde (1991) created an instant wave of enthusiasm for the French Baroque--Couperin, Marais, Sainte-Colombe et al. Viol (pronounced "vile") music sold like hotcakes for a good six months. So Master and Commander is not a unique phenomenon. There is a long history of classical concert music penetrating the movies.
Film music got off to a rocky start in the "silent" days when local organists accompanied Mary Pickford (q.v.), Douglas Fairbanks, and Rudolph Valentino with scraps drawn from the sheet music one used to find inside piano benches. Then, in the early 1930s, film-makers were so excited by their ability to make movies talk--remember "all singing, all dancing, all talking"?--that they forgot about the value of a good musical background. The event that changed the world--musically-cinematically-speaking--was the screening of King Kong (1933). When that giant ape, well ahead of al Qaeda (q.v.), had finished laying waste to Manhattan (q.v.), what emerged from the rubble and ashes was an landmark symphonic score by Max Steiner.
One can see the historic difference King Kong made in the music for the two celebrated Frankenstein movies made by James Whale for Universal Studios. The first, Frankenstein (1931), had very little music background beyond a few scraps of classical music borrowed to herald the opening and closing credits. The contemporary Dracula was not more enterprising: the producers seemed to think Swan Lake (q.v.) would evoke a sinister impression. But Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is quite another matter. This sported a hilariously eerie score by the young German immigrant Franz Waxman, and it made his reputation in Hollywood. This music, especially the sequence for the birth of the female monster, was so evocative that it was endlessly recycled in later features and in weekly serials like Flash Gordon (1936-40). British film critic Leslie Halliwell thought the bride's music sounded Hawaiian! Hawaiian or not, the music was splendid fun, just like the rest of this wonderfully over-the-top movie.
Over the next thirty years a talented group of composers--besides Steiner and Waxman there were Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Miklos Rozsa, Alfred Newman, Dimitri Tiomkin, Hugo Friedhofer, Bernard Herrmann, and Elmer Bernstein, among others--fashioned remarkable scores for a wide variety of movies. Who can forget the scores for The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Gone With the Wind (1939), Double Indemnity (1944), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Ben Hur (1959), and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)? There were also outstanding scores written for otherwise poor films: Captain from Castille (1947), Plymouth Adventure (1952), Young Bess (1953), and Vertigo (1958, q.v.), just to name a few.
In the midst of this aural finery, however, a few bad precedents had been set. Tiomkin's High Noon (1952), with its ballad "Do Not Forget Me, Oh My Darling," started a style for movie scores based upon a song. In this movie the score is impressive and the use of the ballad admirable, but, unfortunately, sales of the ballad as a recorded single alerted producers that welcome extra movie revenue was to me made by using films to market songs. Soon you could not have a movie without an aspiring hit vocal, many of them terrible, and often imposed upon the composers by the producers. I shudder to think of the inane title songs to movies such as Green Fire (1954). This led ultimately to the phenomenon of scores, like the one for The Graduate (1967), made up entirely of popular songs. The once-mighty symphonic score languished throughout the 1970s, until John Williams revived it with his stirring score for Star Wars (1977).
Classical music chestnuts sometimes showed up in films when producers were desperate for a "touch of class." They would instruct a compliant composer like Dimitri Tiomkin--his autobiography is called Please Don't Hate Me--to fashion a score from, say, themes of Debussy (Portrait of Jennie, 1948). Tiomkin, by the way, is famous for his Oscar acceptance speech for The High and the Mighty (1954): "I would like to thank Johannes Brahms, Johann Strauss, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner, Beethoven, Rimsky-Korsakov . . ."
Please don't imagine that I hate poor Dimitri Tiomkin. Some of his scores--It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Red River (1948), and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)--are among my favorites. When he incorporated a ballad in a movie he usually wrote it himself. He could newly compose what sounded just like a folk song, and when he used traditional material, he made it sound as if it was his own. Although he was born in Russia he had an instinctive feel for music that conjured up an epic vision of the American west. And in his speech he wasn't apologizing for plagiarism, but acknowledging the debt all movie composers owed to their concert and operatic forbears.
The main insidious entry point that allows pre-existing classical music to infiltrate and displace original scores is the "temp track." The temp (or temporary) track is music chosen by the film-makers to stand in for the score while the film is being made. It is often used for advance and preview screenings. The composer often does not see the film until it is otherwise finished. The temp track is also used to instruct the composer as to what kind of music is desired for each scene. Nowadays the temp track is frequently cobbled together from the music of a recently successful movie. Obviously that kind of soundtrack has to be replaced with something new. But if the temp track is classical, this is not necessarily the case.
Directors and producers have been known to fall in love with their temp tracks. Stanley Kubrick (q.v.) engaged film composer Alex North to write an original score for 2001. North listened to the various classical pieces Kubrick had selected as guides and, for example, composed his own fanfare to replace the opening to Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra (q.v.). When North came to the movie theater on opening night he was shocked and mortified to discover that his own score had been entirely discarded and that the temp track--Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss (q.v.), Aram Khachaturian, Georg Ligeti--reigned supreme. In Kubrick's defence one could argue that North's score was not a great one, and not as good music as the temp track classics. But, aside from my sympathy with the composers' union, I feel that the presence of classical music in a movie score constitutes an unnecessary distraction. The emotion in the classical music may sometimes be right, but it draws one's attention away and breaks the illusion the film-makers are otherwise trying to create. "Hey," one says to oneself while watching a Vietnamese village burn in Platoon (1986, q.v.), "that's Samuel Barber's Adagio!"
The Master and Commander score fails on three counts. First of all, as a big Napoleonic-era naval epic, it calls for a grand symphonic score in the tradition of The Sea Hawk (1940). Instead we get a few drum-beats and sub-musical rumblings, courtesy of a panel of three composers. When I heard that the score had been composed by a committee I had a bad feeling. My fears were fully realized when I watched and heard the movie. The only musical cues that were any good were the classical excerpts sprinkled liberally throughout (about half the score).
Now it must be allowed that the plot and premise of Master and Commander calls for the playing of classical music, at least in the foreground. Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend, surgeon Stephen Maturin, play the violin and cello respectively. They occasionally adjourn to the captain's cabin and play 18th-century chamber music together. The film-makers, however, largely chose 18th-century orchestral music over chamber music. Did they not have the budget to buy a few CDs of sonatas by Leclair or Locatelli? The most interesting thing that the film composers did, when presented by the director with a Mozart Violin Concerto CD for their delectation, was to locate and feature an obscure transitional passage in the third movement of the third concerto. I came away from the film feeling that Mozart could have put that bit of music to better use than to throw it away so casually.
The third failing of Master and Commander, and the most important, is that the emotional heart of the film, in scenes showing lives lost and grief expressed, is accompanied not by original music--what an opportunity for a grand new theme for Master and Commander--but by Ralph Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. This is not a period classic of the time of the story or a representative of the kind of music Aubrey and Maturin would have known. The composition comes from 1910 and the theme comes from the Tudor period. Neither the music of Tallis nor Vaughan Williams would have been familiar to the naval melomaniac heroes of the story. The use of the Fantasia is clearly another case of composer failure and the triumph of the classical temp track. All I could think during the scenes meant to be poignant in this movie was: "poor Vaughan Williams," "boy did the composers screw up," and "what philistines the director and producers were." Had I not been able to immediately identify this famous classical music, I would have been even more distracted, wondering "Where have I heard this music before?"
I hope the composer committee, if they are called upon to accept an Academy Award--and no egregiously poor selection is beyond the Academy, just remember The Greatest Show on Earth (best picture, 1952)--has the honesty to admit, "We would like to thank--and owe it all--to Thomas Tallis, Archangelo Corelli, Johann Sebastian Bach, Luigi Boccherini, Mozart, Vaughan Williams . . ." Bob Hope, we trust, will rise from the grave and quip, "You'll never get on this show again."