Christopher Tookey regrets that film scores do not receive the attention they deserveby Christopher Tookey / May 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Who can now remember who won the music awards at this year’s Oscars? Music critics are much more likely to review a concert or opera heard by a few hundred than a film score heard by millions.
Almost 50 years ago, music critic Hans Keller wrote: “Film music is ripe, not to say sufficiently putrid, for widespread criticism.” Yet lack of space, or confidence, means that even today few critics evaluate a composer’s contribution to a movie.
In their defence, critics might point out that few leading 20th century composers have written for film. There are exceptions: Sergei Prokofiev, whose scores included Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible; and Ralph Vaughan Williams, who came to the genre at the age of 69 but wrote scores for 49th Parallel and Scott of the Antarctic.
Composing for film was once a lowly handmaiden to the movie business. Early practitioners in Hollywood were seen as hacks and plagiarists. Even in the late 1930s, it was not uncommon for a studio’s music department to compose, orchestrate and record a score in a week.
Composers were rightly upset when studio executives told them that the best film music was unnoticeable, or when they heard their music being swamped by dialogue, re-orchestrated without their permission (the “Rite of Spring” sequence in Fantasia ended any interest which Stravinsky had in going to Hollywood), or simply replaced.
Even America’s senior composer Aaron Copland, whose score for The Heiress (1949) won him an Oscar, found his main title music curtly rejected by the executives in favour of “Plaisir d’Amour.” It was his first and last Hollywood job.
Top composers became even more upset when tone-deaf directors instructed them to organise their music so that an appropriate phrase illustrated a particular action. This practice was described as “mickey-mousing,” but was not confined to cartoons or comedies. Max Steiner, Hollywood’s foremost composer of the golden age, was a master at it; his overuse of the technique makes some of his most famous scores (such as his Oscar-winning music for John Ford’s The Informer) now seem laughable.
Another reason why film music never became culturally acceptable was that it was heavily influenced by the Viennese and romantic traditions. For years, music critics considered this retrograde, but because films meant mass audiences, composers had to write music which could evoke feelings and contribute to an atmosphere-unlike the emotionally arid, earnestly intellectual ordeals…