Thursday, 19 September 2013

Hollywood underscore

Regular listeners to Francine Stock's Film Programme on Radio 4 will be familiar with Neil Brand's illuminating (if occasionally overlong) musical illustrations. They called out for collation into a TV series with the benefit of actual film clips and full orchestral soundtrack. Now we have it, in The Music that made the Moviesthe first episode of which was shown last week. That dealt with the golden era of Hollywood when the basis of film composition was the Austro-German symphonic tradition, while tonight's introduces jazz, pop and rock.

Film music has been touched on before in TV documentaries on cinema. What makes this series unique is that it is presented by someone who is a practitioner, who has composed not only for contemporary productions but is also familiar with the art of accompanying silent film.

If I have a quibble about the first programme it is that it had time only to deal with the pioneers and stars of Hollywood composition - and could not even find room for Dimitri Tiomkin. It therefore missed out the second rank of composers, who had to produce music by the yard to a tight deadline to feed the stream of lower-budget pictures and second features. But the likes of Roy Webb and David Raksin also had their moments - e.g. Cat People and Laura.

It was David Raksin, in an extended interview with Edward Seckerson in the Radio 3 series Stage and Screen  (no episode of which has been preserved by the BBC, apparently) who told one version of the historic break-up of the partnership of Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock. The only common factor is that it centred on the rejected score for Torn Curtain. According to Raksin, Hitchcock knew that the studio had already lined up a younger replacement for Herrmann. Nevertheless, Hitchcock had Herrmann play through the entire score before cruelly telling him that his music was out. Another version (presumably emanating from the Hitchcock camp) has it that Hitchcock confided in Herrmann as soon as he had the bad news, but as a sympathetic gesture booked an orchestral session so that Herrmann could at least hear the score performed. According to Brand, Hitchcock had the say on what music was to be used, though the studio had pressed him to select something current and commercial. He passed on these requirements to Herrmann, who as he might have known, obstinately wrote what he thought the screenplay required. Hitchcock fired him after hearing just the first music cue. Certainly there was a disagreement between two autocratic men as to whether music was an adjunct to a movie or part of an integrated whole.

Perhaps this is something we will hear more of in the third episode of The Music that made the Movies, of which I cannot find the details. Eastern Europeans took the lead in the integration of music, plot and photography. Sergei Prokoviev worked closely with Eisenstein on his classic films, reaching a peak in Alexander Nevsky. Alexander Korda, working in England, indulged Sir Arthur Bliss (though quietly dropping some passages which held up the action) in Things to Come. Another European composer best known for his work in the concert hall was also enthusiastic about writing for the screen, but then Dmitri Shostakovich had before becoming famous earned a crust as a pianist in silent cinemas. He probably has the honour of being the first serious composer to write a film score, though it was not until comparatively recently that it was actually married up with The New Babylon.

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