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Answering the critics
Matt Pickles | 21 Mar 12
When the Oscar for best original score went to silent film The Artist on 26 February 2012, composer Ludovic Bource had cause to celebrate. Recent winners of the award such as John Barry’s score for Dances with Wolves (1990) and Out Of Africa (1985), John Williams for Schindler’s List (1993), Hans Zimmer for The Lion King (1994) and A.R. Rahman for Slumdog Millionaire (2008) are instantly recognisable musical compositions and it is not uncommon for film soundtracks to sell millions of records. But Hollywood film scores were not always appreciated in this way.
As Professor Peter Franklin of Oxford University’s Music Faculty finds in a new book, Seeing Through the Music, Gender and Modernism in Classic Hollywood Film Scores (Oxford University Press), early Hollywood music in films such as King Kong and Gone with the Wind have been dismissed as low-brow and populist by contemporary and modern critics alike. Classic Hollywood scores were written by composers in the European late-romantic style and have been criticised as nostalgic vestiges of ‘old Europe’ in the face of the rise of ‘high modernist’ styles of music.
He said: ‘Movie music was typically disparaged as redundant and irrational, as soft-centred and manipulative – terms whose contemporary gender associations contrast with those of the more detached, ‘rational’ or ‘critical’ stance attributed to the high modernism of other émigrés like Schoenberg or Stravinsky.’
To criticise early Hollywood scores is wrong, Professor Franklin argues. In fact, these pieces represent a fascinating continuation of European late-romanticism, imported into America by composers escaping World War Two. Eric Wolfgang Korngold (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Anthony Adverse), Max Steiner (King Kong, Gone with the Wind, Casablanca) and Franz Waxman (The Bride of Frankenstein, Rebecca) helped establish a model that would influence later American film composers like Bernard Herrmann and John Williams.
Having been celebrated classical composers in Europe, Korngold et al found that writing for the big screen was a very different experience in a world where the director was king. ‘Composers lost their artistic autonomy and were drafted in at the end of a film to turn around a composition in a matter of weeks,’ Professor Franklin said. ‘The studio initially took credit for everything, including the score, meaning that Korngold didn’t personally collect the Oscar when Anthony Adverse won “best musical score” in 1937.
'Composers would often work in a team with other European émigrés, which made their scores seem less authentic, more like functional, group-authored products than the achievements of the individualist “masters” anachronistically celebrated in some of the films they were scoring.’
The 2011 winners of the Oscar for best original score, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for The Social Network, topped the US Billboard Soundtrack music charts soon after the film’s release. But Professor Franklin does not believe film scores should pretend to stand alone as musical compositions. He said: ‘There is a huge market for original film score recordings today and a popular tendency to want to rescue music from the films to which it is bound. But it was written to complement the films, to fit their tone and support their narrative strategies; it is as a part of a rich musical-dramatic whole that its contribution was made.’
In the same way, Professor Franklin hopes that Seeing Through The Music will encourage academics to study the history of music and film in tandem with each other.