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CLASSICAL  March 2006

CLASSICAL March 2006

Subject:

Good Movie Music

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 13 Mar 2006 07:06:16 -0800

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        Good Movie Music

*  Walton:
     - Henry V - Death of Falstaff
     - Henry V - Touch her soft lips and part
*  Morricone:
     - The Mission Theme
     - The Mission - Gabriel's Oboe
*  Herrmann: Psycho Suite
*  Thomson:
     - Louisiana Story - Acadian Songs & Dances
     - Louisiana Story Suite
*  Elmer Bernstein: To Kill a Mockingbird Suite

Philharmonia Virtuosi/Richard Kapp
ESSAY CD1089 Total Time: 68:58

Summary for the Busy Executive: Ooooo! Popcorn . . . with buttah.

It used to be that otherwise sensible people looked down on movie music
as a genre, just as high-minded, Transcendentally-oriented music lovers
in the 19th century looked down on the composers of bel canto opera,
whose heirs movie composers are, to some extent.  Thank Louis B.  Mayer,
those days are long gone.  Now sensible people, before they make up their
minds on quality, look at individual movie scores.  It happens that a
large number of otherwise respectable composers churned out quite a few
of them: Honegger, Milhaud, Ibert, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Thomson,
Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Copland, and Antheil, as well as the usual
suspects like Korngold, Waxman, Rozsa, Herrmann, and Webb.  Film music,
like opera, is rarely symphonic music.  The skills required aren't quite
the same, but it's a mistake to regard them as lesser.  Verdi may not
have been able to compose a symphony, but Brahms couldn't write an opera
to save his life (and he tried).

Walton's trilogy of scores for Olivier's Shakespeare films - Hamlet,
Henry V, and Richard III - immediately entered the company of such
classics as Honegger's L'Idee, Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky, and Copland's
Red Pony.  They remain for film composers something to shoot for.  As
far as I know, Walton never arranged his scores for concert performance
but recorded the reworkings of Muir Mathieson, the Holy Ghost of British
film music.  It's a particularly rich score, including a terrific sequence
on the Battle of Agincourt that turns Prokofiev's "Battle on the Ice"
in Nevsky from Russian to British epic.  The two excerpts here come from
the quieter scenes.  "The Death of Falstaff" is a two-and-a-half minute
passacaglia that simultaneously portrays the body of the knight sinking
into the grave as his soul rises to heaven.  "Touch her soft lips and
part" accompanies Henry's wooing of the French princess, tenderly and
sweetly.

People know Ennio Morricone best for his work with Sergio Leone.  Indeed,
his work for that director, like the films themselves, raise kitsch to
the level of art through sheer audacity.  Once you hear these scores,
they lodge in your brain, whether you want them there or not.  I admit
I don't care for Morricone's music, but I have to admit that he can give
you something readily-identifiable, like a poem by Edgar Allen Poe.  The
score for The Mission, a forgettable film with some very good actors in
it (including de Niro), doesn't have the campy energy of Morricone's
Leone work.  It reminded me of Auden's remark on Poe: "If he were a
better poet, he would be less interesting." Here Morricone is guilty of
Good Taste.  Nothing's wrong with the excerpts, but that doesn't mean
you want to keep them.

I hesitate to call Herrmann's score to Psycho his masterpiece, because
he wrote so many of them.  Certainly, however, it counts as one of his
most readily-identifiable, lifting a macabre, pungent campfire tale to
something truly creepy.  In fact, I'm convinced that most of that movie's
punch comes from the music, rather than from the wooden acting (Vera
Miles, John Gavin, Janet Leigh) or even, excepting the shower murder,
Hitchcock's assemblage (he used quickie techniques he developed for his
television program, and it shows).  Herrmann's score functioned far
differently than most of the movie music of its time, sounding almost
symphonically integrated.  Perhaps the reason for this lay in its origin,
not in the movie itself, but in Herrmann's Sinfonietta from 1934, one
of his most aggressively modernist concert works.  The score bristles
with so many memorable passages, gestures, and moods, it becomes practically
another character, probably the strongest.  The demonic shrieks as the
murderer's knife falls, the ominous deep groan in the bass, the worrisome
scurrying - a score of many colors, brought off with only an ensemble
of strings - have sunk deeper into the popular consciousness than the
actual movie.

To some extent a Herrmann protege, Elmer Bernstein, a pupil of the
avant-garde Stefan Wolpe and no relation to Leonard, also helped break
the hold of Tchaikovskian pasticheurs on American film music.  Like most
successful film composers, Bernstein is an all-rounder when it comes
to musical styles, but I find him at his best usually in a jazz or
Copland-pastoral vein.  To Kill a Mockingbird for me is one of his finest
scores.  There was once an LP conducted by the composer of the complete
soundtrack, but that, of course, is long gone.  In the meantime, you'll
have to make do with excerpts.  To me, the music is the perfect aural
evocation of Harper Lee's book.

One can argue for Virgil Thomson's movie music as the most radical
in concept, among the scores here.  Thomson is one of the few American
Modernists who wasn't really a Romantic in disguise.  Of all the
"first-generation" American moderns, he remained far closer to the
"objectivity" of Twenties Paris - Satie and the Stravinsky of the Octet
filtered through a no-nonsense Midwestern sensibility.  His movie music
doesn't underline mood or manipulate emotion as much as it describes
physical setting and movement.  In the late Eighties, with the composer's
help and participation, Kapp recorded and later released a landmark CD
(ESSAY CD1005) of Thomson's The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River
in their original film incarnations, as opposed to the composer's concert
re-orchestrations.  Something similar was planned for Louisiana Story.
But Thomson had died in 1989, and the guardians of his papers wouldn't
release the material.  So we get the two concert suites Thomson salvaged
from the score: Louisiana Story which contains original material, and
Acadian Songs and Dances which sets traditional tunes.  For the longest
time you could get the first, but not the second.  Both show Thomson
pretty much at or near his best.

Thomson's music often deceives: it's so full of dominant-tonic harmonies
(like "Old McDonald") that people think it simple-minded.  Even composer
Ned Rorem, who worked for Thomson as a copyist, had trouble with it.  I
admit myself that certain works of Thomson go on too long for me with
that sort of thing.  But it usually turns out that dominant-tonic is
seldom just that.  Thomson works minimal but brilliant variations on the
trope.  In the "Squeeze Box" movement of Acadian Songs and Dances, for
example, the harmony doesn't quite mesh with the rhythm or the melody,
evoking amateurs who lose their place.  When Thomson leaves these
harmonies, his new ones are breathtakingly original, even startling or
as far-out as you like.  Thomson is an almost mathematically-elegant
composer, a magician who lets you see everything he's up to.  Paradoxically,
the result is more, rather than less enchanting.

I love both suites, with maybe an edge going to Thomson's original
movements.  The opening "Pastoral" gives you the surreal beauty and
loneliness of the bayou.  The last two movements, the most elaborate,
depict "Robbing the Alligator's Nest" and "Boy fights alligator." They
are also a free passacaglia and a fugue, respectively.  But it's not
merely a stunt: the music has dramatic point.  The passacaglia calls up
the stealth of the boy.  The wild-and-wooly fugue eschews any hint of
the classroom or even Bach.  It reminds me a little of, believe it or
not, Cesar Franck, or at least his followers, although none of them
turned out any fugue as flailing and slashing as this one.

Another winner - a delight, even - from Kapp and the Philharmonia Virtuosi.
My only quibble is the Walton: I want more excerpts, but they would
likely have required a much larger ensemble.  Kapp whets the appetite
for more.  I'd seek out Walton's own recordings of the Shakespeare
trilogy, a classic of the stereo era, released on EMI.  At any rate,
Kapp's performances are live, but there's very little a studio session
could have improved.  The playing is electric.  Nothing just lays there,
not even the Morricone.  The musicians sound really into these works and
alert to one another - chamber music on a big scale, with a sense of
people doing something very well indeed that they enjoy.  Barring the
rare audience cough, the recorded sound is fine and concert-hall natural.

Steve Schwartz

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