MUSIC HIDEOUT? IT'S IN HOLLYWOOD
By T.L. Ponick
The death of classical music
in the 20th century has become an almost tiresome cliche, but maybe now is the
time to ask if these reports of serious music's demise have been greatly
exaggerated. Perhaps we have just been looking for it in the wrong place.
Perhaps it merely went into hiding in a place where you would least expect it:
the Hollywood soundstage.
Let's go back to those thrilling days of yesteryear and consider composer
Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Academy Award-winning soundtrack for Warner Bros.'
1938 swashbuckling costume epic "The Adventures of Robin Hood" as a
case in point. Mr. Korngold's score for the film, which starred a youthful Errol
Flynn as Robin and a winsome Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian, has long been
hailed as the gold standard for movie music.
As an exciting new recording makes clear, however, even this high praise
somehow diminishes the achievement, for Mr. Korngold's "Robin Hood"
score was much more than great incidental music. It was nothing less than a
massive, heroic tone poem easily the equal of anything by Mahler or Richard
Strauss and approaching the tight cohesiveness even of Wagner's Ring Cycle.
Maybe classical music never died, after all.
Not that it hasn't been ailing. Long gone are the days when college
students demonstrated loudly in the balconies in support of Hector Berlioz's
tradition-shattering "Fantastic Symphony" or when wealthy young women
routinely handed their room keys to barnstorming pianist-composer Franz Liszt.
Today, serious music is a nonevent for most young people downloading
three-minute cuts of the latest MTV-hyped, high-decibel tripe into their iPods.
To some extent, the classical repertoire hasn't been significantly
freshened for nearly a century. Yes, works by 20th-century composers including
Stravinsky, Bartok, Prokofiev, Ives and Messiaen are increasingly represented in
the concert hall and on the dwindling number of new classical CDs. And modern
composers are commissioned to write new stuff all the time. Nevertheless, the
average concert program today still treats musical diversity as a choice of
Bach, Beethoven or Brahms.
Worse yet, when new music is introduced, concertgoers are turned off by
the snarling cacophony that's a legacy of the Second Viennese School. These
musical ideologues valued new works in direct proportion to the auditory pain
they inflicted. Largely the product of a nihilistic European intelligentsia
reeling from the destruction bookended by two world wars, this institutional
ugliness has mindlessly possessed at least two generations of American academic
Yet while such composers labored mightily to exterminate listenable
music, classically trained professional composers who still longed for money and
an audience — including European Jewish composers anxious to escape Hitler's
wrath — headed for that capital of decadence, Los Angeles, to try their hand
at writing music for motion pictures.
With a hat tip to the French brothers Lumiere for inventing the motion
picture, it was in America where this fledgling art form made its greatest
strides. Early films were stage plays without words, assisted by captions and
transformed into thrilling melodramas with the addition of live music in a small
orchestra pit or by means of a theater organ. Specially composed recorded music
became an important part of the film experience when "talkies" began
to appear in the late 1920s.
It was around this time that Hollywood got lucky. Fearing the rise of
Nazi totalitarianism, a significant minority of classical composers, many of
them Jewish, fled to the United States in the 1930s. Some, like Kurt Weill,
composer of the "Threepenny Opera," were avant-garde musicians still
capable of writing in popular genres. Others, like Karl Hajos and Friederich
Hollander, were mainstream composers who ended up in film. (Even the dreaded
Arnold Schoenberg eventually settled in the United States.)
None of this generation achieved greater stature than Erich Wolfgang
A child prodigy, the Czech-born Mr. Korngold wrote his first symphony at
age 11. His uncommon genius was recognized by Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss,
the leading Germanic lights of the early 20th century. At age 23, he scored his
first real triumph with his opera "Die Tote Stadt" ("The Dead
City" or "The City of Death").
The score for "Robin Hood" was not Mr. Korngold's first
cinematic effort. First noticed by the Warner brothers, he had been invited by
them to the United States in the early 1930s. The Warners were quickly rewarded
for their prescience when Mr. Korngold penned popular scores for their hit films
"Captain Blood" and "Anthony Adverse," the latter of which
won the composer an Academy Award.
Mr. Korngold was strongly influenced by his father, an influential music
critic who hated the Second Viennese School's atonal experiments. The composer
thrived in a then strongly traditionalist Hollywood by remaining an unabashed
Romantic tonalist, although his music is comfortable with dissonance and modern
Mr. Korngold envisioned his film scores, including "Robin
Hood," as "operas without singing." And what story had greater
resonance in the Depression 1930s than the tale of a former lord who robs the
rich to help the poor, thwarting the schemes of greedy royals who would rather
pocket the money themselves? Add a poignant love story with a brave young woman,
and you have the stuff of timeless movie legends.
As in Wagnerian opera, Mr. Korngold organized his score around a series
of leitmotifs, including the famous "March of the Merry Men," love
music for Robin and Marian, and heroic music for Robin Hood himself — borrowed
from the composer's ambitious but failed "Sursum Corda." All were
woven into a lush symphonic tapestry that immeasurably enhanced this already
A valuable new compact disc recording of Mr. Korngold's "Robin
Hood" music on the Marco Polo label, performed by the Moscow Symphony
Orchestra under the baton of William Stromberg, vividly resurrects the entire
score, including moments that ended up on the cutting-room floor. An added bonus
are the extensive liner notes that provide a biographical sketch of the
composer, an explication of the film and a description of the story behind each
track. The 78 minutes of resurrected musical passion and romance on this CD will
end forever any argument about whether film music is worthy of being called
"classical." Mr. Korngold's thematic elements evolve here with an
infinite variety that never ceases to astonish.
Mr. Korngold knew how to generate an emotional response. The "March
of the Merry Men" — adapted, ironically, from an earlier waltz — is
jaunty and optimistic. The distant trumpet call announcing Robin is thrilling.
Yet at crucial reversals in the film, these themes are transformed into a
sinister minor key, creating a sense of impending doom. Near the film's climax,
Mr. Korngold pulled out all the stops for the villainous Prince John's
eventually thwarted Coronation Procession, adding brass and tolling bells to
stunning effect, reminiscent of the Coronation Scene in Moussorgsky's
The heroic music for "Robin Hood" influenced and continues to
influence new generations of composers. Clearly, John Williams has taken many
cues from Mr. Korngold in his exciting scores for the "Indiana Jones"
and "Star Wars" films as well as his poignant music for
"Schindler's List." Danny Elfman's arch, growling motifs in the
"Batman" films and others have their roots in Mr. Korngold's villain
music. Riffs from Robin Hood's final battle music were quoted in John Belushi's
mock heroic scene at the climax of "Animal House."
Mr. Korngold attempted to return to the European music scene after World
War II but was rejected as not serious by the European cognoscenti. Then as now,
they resented his resolutely romantic tonalism and regarded him as a hack for
sinking to the composition of movie music — which had, in fact, enabled him
and his family to survive the Nazi Holocaust. Returning to the United States, he
died in Hollywood of cerebral thrombosis in 1957 at age 60, neglected and
The Marco Polo "Robin Hood" CD coincides with a renewed
interest in Mr. Korngold's music in Europe, where new performances of "Die
Tote Stadt" are the centerpiece of this year's Salzburg Music Festival.
Presciently, the opera was given a quite decent performance several seasons ago
by Washington's Summer Opera company at Catholic University. Perhaps the
Washington National Opera will follow the trend in an upcoming season.
Mr. Korngold was among the first composers to comprehend that
entertainment history and perhaps the musical arts themselves had been forever
changed by American advances in cinema. Further, he alertly recognized that a
film composer, as opposed to a composer of operas and symphonies, could actually
support a family on this stuff — no trivial matter, as any professional
musician will acknowledge. Thus, a significant classical talent turned
decisively toward composing for motion pictures, imbuing them with an operatic
sense of tragedy, gallantry and high seriousness.
Many others would follow Mr. Korngold's path, the best of them preserving
the romantic, the heroic and the popular aspects of classical music and
structure, even as the Second Viennese School led the establishment off the
cliff and into oblivion.
Leonard Bernstein, who grew up against the backdrop of motion pictures,
preferred an edgier approach to musicals and film scores more in touch with
urban sensibilities. Perhaps better known as a conductor, Mr. Bernstein regarded
himself primarily as a composer. He was a master of many genres who experimented
with the 12-tone row but never really had his heart in it.
Mr. Bernstein's only original movie score, his Oscar-nominated music for
Elia Kazan's monumental "On the Waterfront" (1954) starring Marlon
Brando and Eva Marie Saint, is one of the best such scores to come out of the
1950s. Yoking a modernist, gritty, city sensibility to strong thematic elements
and identifiable motifs, it is not, perhaps, as readily listenable as
"Robin Hood," but it accurately captures the monochromatic despair of
working-class has-beens, as opposed to the idealism of Mr. Korngold's Sherwood
Mr. Bernstein himself arranged his original score into a suite that still
is heard occasionally in concert halls. A new recording of this work was issued
recently by Naxos and is performed crisply by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Marin Alsop. Bonuses are three dance tracks from Mr. Bernstein's
"On the Town" and a recording of the composer's most popular classical
piece, his "Chichester Psalms."
From Mr. Korngold's operatic brilliance to Mr. Bernstein's acerbic
modernism to John Williams' triumphant popularity, movie music clearly has
provided a welcome outlet for talented composers who combine their love of the
tradition with an ability to earn a significant living and attract an admiring
Programs of ambitious film music already draw significant crowds to
summer pops concerts in such venues as Wolf Trap and Tanglewood. In a daring
experiment last season, National Symphony Orchestra conductor and Music Director
Leonard Slatkin — long attuned to the sometimes surprising peregrinations of
classical music — mounted a well-received film-music festival at the Kennedy
Center. More programming like this is overdue.
As these new recordings and others amply demonstrate, it is long past
time to recognize Hollywood's greatest film scores as significant milestones in
the legitimate classical repertoire. Continued academic snobbery and pointless
experimentation will only further alienate musical culture from its traditional
and popular roots in the unities of dramatic presentation and formal structure.
These universally identifiable elements will continue to attract eager audiences
now and in the future — even if they have to conceal themselves within musical
genres where the snobs will never find them.
This article was mailed from
The Washington Times
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