I Heard It at the Movies
Film composers, long treated as second-class figures by the musical establishment, have lately come into their own. Schwann Opus, the quarterly catalogue of recorded classical music, recently featured two of them on its cover: Miklós Rózsa, who wrote the scores for such big-budget Hollywood epics as Ben-Hur and El Cid, and Bernard Herrmann, best known for his collaborations with Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) and Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho). Gramophone, the classical-music magazine, has launched a section devoted to film music and has also brought out a collection of reviews, Gramophone Film Music Good CD Guide. And there has just appeared the first English-language biography of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the Austrian composer who, in addition to scoring such popular films of the 3 O’s and 40′s as The Adventures of Robin Hood, also wrote concert-hall works premiered by Jascha Heifetz, Artur Schnabel, and Bruno Walter. Even more significantly, the major classical labels have begun recording movie music in earnest, issuing not only soundtracks of current films but scores of the past in new recordings by first-rank orchestras.
All this constitutes a reversal of a long-prevalent attitude. In the age of high modernism, movie music was considered kitsch, and those who composed it—and, worse yet, profited by doing so—thereby soiled themselves. Before going to Hollywood, Korngold and Rózsa had been viewed as distinguished composers; afterward, it was all but impossible for them to find an audience for their concert music. Even performers who worked in Hollywood were regarded with suspicion: the Hollywood String Quartet, consisting of the first-chair string players of the 20th Century-Fox studio orchestra, was never fully accepted by American critics, though its many recordings for Capitol (all of which have been reissued on CD by Testament) leave no doubt that it was one of the finest ensembles in the history of chamber music.
About the Author
Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.