Persecution of Jews, ethnic minorities and dissidents in the early twentieth century is a murky chapter of European history. Some of the composers who escaped a grim fate were admitted to the USA, where they basically had three options: music teaching, musical theatre on Broadway or film music in Hollywood.
This evening’s programme presents a good handful of Hollywood’s success stories. Why were just these composers so important to the development of film music? One major reason is the fact that they were all exceptionally gifted, both technically and musically. They had their stylistic roots in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and most already had a good grasp of musical dramaturgy. This was to benefit film as a medium.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold is a prime example. As a child in Vienna he was considered a genius by no less a personage than Gustav Mahler. Incredibly, his ballet pantomime Der Schneemann (the Snowman) was completed before he was twelve! However, it was Max Reinhardt, the theatre director and actor, who brought Korngold to Hollywood. Reinhardt had been commissioned to direct a film version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), using Mendelssohn’s music. Korngold came across the Atlantic as an arranger, and this was a saving grace for him: within a few years film music became his principal occupation, and he lived in Hollywood for the rest of his life. His melodious Violin Concerto in D major represents his desire to compose for the concert hall alongside his lucrative profession as a composer of film music. In this work he re-uses themes from his film scores, and the soloist, the main character, is in the picture from the first frame.
The development of film music in Hollywood’s golden era is inconceivable without Max Steiner and the close connections between music, image and story that he was known for creating. He too was a Viennese child prodigy, who came to Hollywood as early as 1929. Many of the films for which he composed have gone down in history as classics. In the greatest of them all, Gone with the Wind, there is 2 hours and 36 minutes of music for full orchestra. The fact that the film starts with a still picture and overture before the monumental titles testifies to the musical ambitions Hollywood had for its epic films at the time.
Hungarian-born Miklós Rózsa, another child prodigy, was introduced to film music by his good friend Arthur Honegger. In Ben Hur we witness yet another example of the combination of a monumental epic film and monumental music. The versatile composer Frank Waxman (Franz Wachsmann) had in Berlin already embarked on a sideline career as an arranger of film music. Alongside his own virtuoso Carmen Fantasy, the film Humoresque also contains his arrangement of Dvořák’s piece of the same name, op. 101:7. The film is about a young violinist’s relationship with an older woman, a patron of the arts. The playing hands we see in close-up in the film are those of a stand-in – the celebrated Isaac Stern.
In our part of the world Hanns Eisler and Kurt Weill are probably better known for their collaboration with Bertolt Brech in Berlin than for their Hollywood film music. In principle they were also more modernistic in their approach than the other composers in the programme. However, the very fact that Eisler and Weill also played a part is a comment on the political situation, on the limitlessness of music and on the versatility of the composers. Here Weill’s main area of activity was Broadway, where he revitalised American musical theatre, but it is only one facet of his musical involvement in the New World. The arrangements of Weill’s ever-vital music thus form an appropriate exclamation mark to conclude the concert.
Text: Magnar Breivik
English version: Roger Martin