BY PETER RUTENBERG
Film and music became inextricably entwined from the moment the first silent movie was shown with live accompaniment. From tinny, out-of-tune pianos in rural towns to grand theater organs in cosmopolitan movie palaces, music emphasized the action and portrayed the drama as it evolved on the silver screen. With the advent of “talkies,” sound joined sight in the cinematic art. Recorded music replaced live performance; ambient noise and sound effects added to the realism of the experience. The emotional context — that part of the film’s meaning and message which could not be seen nor heard — was given voice in the underscore. Great directors instinctively partnered with great composers — Hitchcock with Herrmann, Spielberg with Williams — in recognition of music’s ability to unify the many-faceted medium of film. What better way for the Los Angeles Master Chorale to pay farewell tribute to the vibrant realization of Dorothy Chandler’s dream — the Pavilion named in her honor and the Chorale’s concert home for four decades — than with a concert of film music that has affected so many people the world over, comprised of scores that engage the unexcelled expressiveness of the chorus to speak directly to our hearts!
Film scores require and indeed embrace all forms and styles of music, from all periods and genres. They are great equalizers, if you will, for nowhere else do people from all walks of life encounter musical sounds they themselves might not otherwise choose to hear, in juxtaposition with, or often opposition to, those they prefer: a medieval song of courtly love, an ancient church hymn in plainchant, a swing or jazz tune, a classical symphony, a rock’n’roll hit, a rap anthem, an infinite variety of ethnic folk songs, celestial harps, devilish tremolos, electronically-synthesized echoes from other worlds, and always, the theme that so enticingly but so thoroughly ingratiates itself with our consciousness that we forever associate it with the cinematic microcosm it helped to define.
William Walton, though well-known, accomplished, and a veteran of several film scores, had not yet composed the music for the coronation of Elizabeth II when the visionary actor-producer-director Sir Lawrence Olivier approached him to score his film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Made during the hard-scrabble last year of World War II and released in 1945, Olivier’s dramatic masterpiece was more than adequately served by what James Agee called “one of the few outstanding scores in movie history.” (He was zealous if somewhat dismissive of other deserving efforts.) Walton was called on to write three different types of music: for the present day, for the time of the action (early 15th century), and for the Renaissance (16th century) to accompany the opening action of a performance at the Old Globe Theatre. Historically, Henry V had renewed the Hundred Years War and defeated the French at Agincourt in 1415, taking Normandy in the process. The concert opens with the sweepingly evocative Overture and Agincourt Song.
At the conclusion of production on his 1997 film Amistad, director Steven Spielberg summed up his then 24-year, 15-film partnership with John Williams with obvious admiration: “He has the gift to become any character necessary to retell with music the story of the film he is working on. After all [this] time, John has never failed to surprise me, uplift me, or make me look good.” The Chorale sings the slaves’ anthem of return, Dry Your Tears, Afrika!
The Coen Brothers’ 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou, based on Homer’s Odyssey, included a combination of music score by T Bone Burnett and American folk songs sung by Emmy Lou Harris and others active in the Bluegrass and Appalachian music movements — the source of the a cappella folk hymn Down to the River to Pray.
Cliff Eidelman came to the fore in 1991 as a result of his acclaimed work on the sixth feature film in the Star Trek series, The Undiscovered Country. Two years earlier he had tackled a much different kind of film that focused on one of many untold stories from the Holocaust — the Greek Jews of Auschwitz — in Triumph of the Spirit. The film’s reliance on long sequences without dialogue offered an unusual opportunity for the composer: a chance to portray the mass suffering on a purely emotional and introspective level. Eidelman chose the chorus as the most effective mode for this expression, and the extended Suite highlights the many choral sections. The text is Ladino — the lingua franca of the Jews who populated the Mediterranean following their expulsion from Spain during the Inquisition — a mixture of medieval Spanish and Hebrew.
One of the most curious and pervasive uses of music in the last twenty years has been for computer games. Jeremy Soule has become an important operative on this new frontier, and he’s taken the unprecedented step of combining several different game “themes” with a text by Victor Hugo in the choral score we hear today.
Tim Burton is another director who knows the composer’s true value. His highly original fantasy from 1990, Edward Scissorhands, takes full advantage of frequent collaborator Danny Elfman’s musical idiom, executed so beautifully in the other-world-ness of the film’s Main Title & Ice Dance.
Legendary film composer Jerry Goldsmith pens one of his characterically moving melodies in The Mission, from the 2002 film starring Ben Affleck and Morgan Freeman — The Sum of All Fears.
When director James Cameron met with composer James Horner to discuss the music for Titanic, their shared depth of feeling for the subject set a serious tone. As Cameron was to recollect in his introduction to a new recording of the Titanic Suite: “I felt strongly that the score should be unconventional... James had anticipated me, and already was hearing in his mind’s ear a kind of soaring and transcendent sound using human voice... combined with Celtic instruments like uillean pipes and pennywhistle to create lyrical and haunting emotionalism... James has created a new suite of music, comprising light and dark sections from the score, which represents the ‘soul’ of his remarkable music for Titanic. Sections of the score which were not included in the original soundtrack are integrated into this suite.” Indeed, this music echoes the innocence of that distant tragedy, stirring our souls afresh with the same promise of new life ahead, goading us to think the best is yet to come, and singing us to sleep when sleep we must.
Sunshine is one of those movies that everyone should see because it reminds us that even after unspeakable pain and deprivation, happiness and freedom will return, if only we’ll keep the song in our hearts. That is the message of The Sonnenscheins’ text, “Please, God, may we always go on singing,” so graciously set in Maurice Jarre’s grand score.
Kenneth Branagh’s remake of Henry V in 1989 has a great deal in common with the Olivier version from the standpoint of creative élan, however Olivier was already in his prime while Branagh was embarking on his directorial debut. The films also share music as an integral feature of the process. Olivier had cast Walton from the start and the composer wrote most of the music ahead of time. In Patrick Doyle’s case, he was already an actor, composer and music director working on the Renaissance Theater Company’s first UK tour with Hamlet. He recalls: “I had never written a feature film score and Ken had never directed a film: understandably he was very worried about taking an inexperienced composer on board... He asked me to come up with some ideas... [On tour in Denmark, we] met in the ballroom of the Marianlyst Hotel, where I played through a few rough sketches. They liked what they heard, and on our return to London, Ken asked for orchestrations.” Doyle played the role of Court in the film and worked on the score between scenes. Like other felicitous pairings of director and composer, Doyle would say of Branagh: “He has an uncanny instinct for what is required of the composer. He originally planned to have 50 minutes of music, but after we saw the finished film the score grew to around 90... Ken always maintained that the film needed it.” The triumphant chorus Non nobis Domine appropriately concludes the Master Chorale’s residency in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.