Somewhere I came across a statistic whose source I have since lost: ‘serious’ music, including classical music, makes up about five per cent of all music sold. That five per cent also includes jazz and music for films. Those interested in classical music belong to a tiny minority of music-lovers. I don’t want to get into a debate about relative worth, at least on this occasion. This post is about music for films, and I decided on such a post after last weekend’s ‘Countdown’ on ABC Classic FM — the top 100 film music scores, as determined by listeners. I didn’t vote, but listened with interest to the music as it proceeded from number 100 to the final three, which I had guessed (correctly) would be John Williams’s Star Wars scores (2), Ennio Morricone’s The Mission (1), and Howard Shore’s The Lord of the Rings (3). I didn’t get the order right, though.

But there were so many  scores that I’d forgotten, until they re-appeared on the radio. I also learned from composers on how they write for films, which I had known very little about, and learned too of the history of some of the music. There were lots of classical composers in the 100, and a debate continued over the weekend about whether or not it made real sense to compare, say, Mozart’s K.467 piano concerto’s slow movement, used in Elvira Madigan, with Vangelis’s original score for Chariots of Fire. My own feeling is that they represent two quite different approaches to film music, and the ABC might have stuck to real film music scores. But wotthehell, Archie, it made for a good weekend, especially on one day that was perpetually cold and wet.

My boyhood saw me going to the cinema every Saturday afternoon, while my parents played golf. I saw hundreds of Westerns and as many serials, many of them Westerns too. I am the sort of audience member that Mel Brooks wrote Blazing Saddles for. My favourite composer in those distant days was a Soviet expatriate called Mischa Bakaleinikoff, who became Columbia’s music director, and did the music for Sam Katzman’s serials. You can hear some of these on You Tube, and they make clear that Bakaleinikoff was no slouch — he knew how to write good music that would accompany the action and prepare the watcher for what was coming. I know someone who knows to close her eyes in The Lord of the Rings, because Howard Shore’s music tells her when the nasty fighting  stuff is coming. We in the audience have to be prepared.

It seems to me that early in the 20th century occurred a great divide in the composition of music, stimulated by technology. We are told that a few days after the production of The Magic Flute in Vienna in 1791 shop boys in the street were whistling the tunes from the opera. In the next century the middle class who invested in music for their children and themselves bought the music of Brahms and Dvorak as well as the popular songs of the day, like ‘Hearts and Flowers’. That ditty later became background music for the new silent films, where it was used for moments of extreme sentimentality. Opera composers found that Broadway in New York and Hollywood in Los Angeles offered a secure income, especially, in time, through recordings. ‘Serious’ music was left to Schoenberg and serialism, which drove audiences away. It is only in the last twenty years or so that ‘serious’ composers have begun to write music that attracts audiences back to the concert hall. Gavin Bryars, about whose music I wrote recently, is a good example.

John Williams, certainly the most honoured film composer (he has received the second highest number of Academy Award nominations after Walt Disney), has written a lot of serious music not intended for films at all, and in his films he uses the musical language and techniques of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, along with the leit-motifs of Wagner, as did Howard Shore in  The Lord of the Rings. The largely electronic score by Vangelis for Chariots of Fire (which came in 4th) is relatively rare in the top 100. Most preferred orchestral accompaniment, and the major film companies in Hollywood had their own orchestras for quite a time. Andre Previn’s autobiography (which alas I lent to someone — if it was you please ring me up, and send it back) has a lovely account of how the system operated. He won four Academy Awards too, as composer, and is arguably the most versatile composer of our time.

Classic FM’s Countdown of the top 100 in film music was unexpectedly absorbing. It made clear to me how the arrival of the cinema, and especially of soundtracks after the late 1920s, had transformed the way we the people enjoyed music over the 20th century. But more, so much of that film music can be enjoyed without needing to watch the film. That, I think, is the great success of the film composers: their best music is great music in its own right.

Join the discussion One Comment

Leave a Reply to Who was the best composer ever? « DON AITKIN Cancel Reply