By Peter Rutenberg
On a dusty shelf in the back of my mind is a song from a musical version of The Emperor's New Clothes. In it, the Empress prowls melodramatically around the stage singing "I'm the woman behind the man behind the throne, and there's nothing much the man can do alone ... "The hierarchy of Los Angeles' prime industry might well be analogous: behind the throne of Hollywood is its ruler, Film. Since the days of silent pictures, accompanied by grand theater organs - and still today with myriad technological advances and surround sound - the two-dimensional celluloid optical illusion known as the moving picture has depended on music for the full sounding of its emotional depth and breadth, as well as for continuity, character identity, motivation, non-verbal action and plot advancement, entertainment, and a host of other purposes, without which the extent of the artistic statement would be limited to its scripted and pictorial inspirations. Impressive as those accomplishments might be in the hands of great film makers, it is common knowledge among composers - and a small but enlightened cadre of producers and directors - that the musical score is often the linchpin of the whole process. Think of any remarkable film and what comes surging to the fore? That score! It drew you in and commanded your attention. Acting as an emotional catalyst, it heightened your awareness of cognitive sights and sounds, thereby enhancing, even memorializing, the entire experience as indelibly as a relic in amber. Such is the propulsive, persuasive power of the orchestral film score. When a special augmentation is called for, the composer may follow in the footsteps of a Ravel in Daphnis et Chloe or a Holst in The Planets with one weapon of grand emotional impact - the Chorus! Veteran film and television composer J.A.C. Redford has combed Hollywood's musical archives for such moments, providing Maestro Salamunovich and the Los Angeles Master Chorale with these memorable choruses from a century's worth of film scores, as Hollywood Goes Classical.
The epic Cinerama adventure How the West Was Won from 1962 told Hollywood's version of America's great western migration through the eyes of three generations of one family. Its episodes of triumph and tragedy, danger at every turn, and the simple truths of nature's bounty, rewards of hard work, and divine inspiration all surface in Alfred Newman's heroic score, in which the chorus plays a pivotal role. American folk tunes and hymns figure prominently in the Overture. Derived from sources like Southern Harmony ("I am bound for the promised land") and recognizable lore such as "Shenandoah" and themes of “the Endless Prairie" and "the Rodeo," they are adapted and elaborated into the grand style of Hollywood's then-waning golden age.
The 1995 film First Knight took as its focus the love triangle between King Arthur, Lady Guinevere and Sir Lancelot (Sean Connery, Julia Ormond and Richard Gere). "Never Surrender," from the score by Jerry Goldsmith, bears this composer's equally unmistakable style and acute consciousness of music's historical context. The unison chorus, singing a Latin text over a drone bass, recalls the style of that era in a modern context, while the mysteriously shifting harmonies evoke its preoccupation with legends and magic.
The mysteries and legends surrounding the composition of Mozart's Requiem, K. 626 notwithstanding, the work represents a high watermark in an all-too-brief career replete with exceptional achievements. The credit for the popular success of the film Amadeus in 1984 must go as much to the engaging and witty, if not entirely authentic, characterization by Tom Hulce, as to the composer he brought to life. Nevertheless, it was director Milos Forman and actor E Murray Abraham (portraying the antagonist, Salieri) who received Oscars that year. One of the most absorbing moments in the movie occurs with Mozart on his deathbed, in a frenzy of delirious creativity, too weak to write, dictating the opening of the "Confutatis" movement: first the wild harmonies and angular melodies sung by the tenors and basses to "confutatis, maledictus," then the sudden contrast of serene treble voices sustaining "voca me" - a musical depiction, perhaps, of the composer's own vision of heaven and hell each beckoning his soul. We see Mozart's impatience to birth the idea, his "apprentice" willing but not quite able to grasp the full brilliance of the creation in the urgency of the moment. And all the while, we hear the finished product swirling through the composer's mind. The "Lacrymosa" movement has its own genius to purvey: the teardrop motif, with its mood of brittle grief, brings the ancient text to its then-most modern and compellingly tender rendering.
John Williams' score for Empire of the Sun (1987) plays against type when compared to his work for the Star Wars and Superman series. Here, in a mood of celebration using the "Exultate justi" text, he creates a regal backdrop against which to set an almost folksy melodic theme. Yet slowly, inexorably, that theme develops its innate, mature complexity, without losing the basic simplicity. It makes for a wonderful musical allegory of the film's underlying story.
One legend of South American folklore concerns the coining of the term "firewater" or agua ardente: when a particular group of missionaries first arrived, the story goes, they faced many obstacles, not the least of which was convincing the indigenous peoples to accept a strange, new religion to the exclusion of their traditional tribal beliefs. Bound by their vows to continue, but frustrated by the natives' perceived recalcitrance, the missionaries finally threatened to turn all the lakes and rivers to fire. Naturally, the Indians reacted with mockery and skepticism, that is, until barrels of a crude form of cane liquor were cast upon the waters and ignited. It wasn't necessarily ethical, but it was effective. The more serious and ill-fated storyline of The Mission from 1986 elicited a wonderful score from Ennio Morricone, as exemplified by three excerpts: the hymn sung by native voices in simple harmony, "Ave Maria Guarani" (named for the subject Brazilian tribe); "Gabriel's Oboe," so evocative of the film's Baroque-era explorations; and "On Earth As It Is In Heaven," combining a mist of string harmonies with sharp punctuations of the Latin text by the chorus, native percussion, and a reprise of Morricone's gorgeous oboe theme.
One of this town's living legends is David Raksin, a brilliant composer and tireless champion on behalf of his art form. His theme for the classic 1944 murder-mystery Laura has enjoyed both popular and critical acclaim for its long life. The Bad and the Beautiful from 1952, also scored by Raksin, starred Lana Turner and Kirk Douglas, and was directed by Vincent Minnelli, winning five Oscars for its expose of Hollywood's dark secrets. The state of a cappella jazz is improved just by the mention of Gene Puerling's name: his well-known arrangements for groups like Manhattan Transfer allow voices to shine in a remarkable way. Both films' title songs -"Laura" and "The Bad and the Beautiful"- have been arranged especially for this concert: Raksin's haunting melodies glisten alongside Puerling's delicious jazz harmonies.
In the early 17th century, the great German composer and theorist, Michael Praetorius, declared that it was through choral music that one could best converse with God. That indelible connection is brought to the fore in a group of choruses from three films by a trio of composers, demonstrating the fullness of Praetorius' thesis: the quietly moving "Prelude and Birth of Christ" from Franco Zeffirelli's 1977 miniseries Jesus of Nazareth by Maurice Jarre (arranged by Christopher Palmer); "The Lord's Prayer" from the beautiful score for King of Kings by Miklos Rozsa; and the rich lyricism of Ken Darby's arrangement of "The Promise of the Holy Spirit" by Alfred Newman, from his cantata Man of Galilee. (The various sections of this cantata were arranged from the composer's many Biblical scores. This movement is from The Robe - the first film ever shot in CinemaScope, from 1953.)
Selections from two Russian-themed films exude the fierce pride of that country's people, from soldier and peasant alike. In his "Hymn to Red October" from The Hunt for Red October (1990), composer Basil Poledouris first pairs Russian folk and liturgical music. The subsequent victory march sung by the men's chorus culminates in a heroic climax. The familiar strains of "Alexander's Entry Into Pskov," from the 1938 masterpiece Alexander Nevsky, reprise some of the stirring musical themes of Prokofiev's expansive score. Although the subject was, symbolically at least, the 13th century defense by Cherkassov and the Russian Army against a German invasion, parallels to the more current western aggressor would have been obvious to the Russian audiences of that time. The apt finale to this survey of film music featuring chorus is "Non nobis Domine," from Kenneth Branagh's 1989 version of Henry V by Patrick Doyle. The humble opening chant, sung without instruments by the tenors, evolves methodically into a majestic climax with full chorus and orchestra.