Monday Mail: Talk About Film Music

Moulin Rouge
Moulin Rouge (Photo credit: Pep_Parés)

Q: Watching late-night TV movies has made me aware of the background music written for each film. Can you tell me something about film music?

A: My mother and grandmother told me that in the old silent-film days the screen action was accompanied by a "live" pianist who improvised suitable sounds to match the action, or by a small orchestra that played popular tunes and operatic music.

Few people realize that the first original film music dates back to 1908, when composer Camille Saint-Saens (who wrote, "The Carnival of Animals") penned a film score for "The Assassination of the Duc de Guise."

By the 1920s, film companies began to provide pit orchestras with short mix-match descriptive pieces suitable for the screen action, with such helpful titles as "Help, Help" and "Love's Response," and by the late 20s some music was composed just for certain silent films. Well-known composers such as Erik Satie, Richard Strauss, and Arthur Honneger got into the act as well.

With the arrival of the "talkie," about 1929, an original soundtrack became possible for a whole generation of films, some rather routine, but many with genuine musical interest, written by "serious" composers willing to venture into the new (and well paid!) medium.

The list is long and wonderful but here are a few I've highlighted:

Sergei Prokofiev, "Alexander Nevsky" (1938)

Aaron Copland, "Our Town" (1940)

William Walton, "Hamlet" (1948)

George Auric, "Moulin Rouge" (1953)

Leonard Bernstein, "On the Waterfront" (1954)

By the 1950s and 60s, film composing became a distinct profession in itself, with a whole fleet of specialists providing music for all of the Hollywood and New York studios: Dmitri Tiomkin, Elmer Berstein, Miklos Rosza, and Bernard Herrmann (the chief composer for the Hitchcock films), naming a few here.

Today film music has expanded into new dimensions, combining electronic sounds with instrumental and vocal music (such as in the scores for "2001: A Space Odyssey" and the "Star Wars" series) becoming very much an art form in its own right. This fascinating subject is worth investigating at your local library because film making has indeed gone to a whole new level with 3D and all.

All the best,

"The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you." B.B.King
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