June 19, 2013
Written by Mark Schumann, Father of Three
Thursday, 03 February 2011 11:48
Each week, the Reel Dad checks the nutritional value of a movie — new or classic — to help parents choose what to watch with their children. This week, in preparation for a salute to film music on Saturday by the Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra, we pay tribute to all the music we hear when we watch movies.Movie audiences who revel today in 3-D and high definition may be surprised to imagine that, less than a century ago, movies had not yet learned to talk. Dialogue did not join the cinema party until the late 1920s when Al Jolson exclaimed, “you ain’t seen nothing yet,” in The Jazz Singer.
Starting in 1908, however, music became a movie staple when French composer Camille Saint-Saëns created the first score for the silent L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise. Filmmakers quickly learned how to use music to cue audiences to laugh and cry, anticipate and suspend belief.
Today when we go to the movies — no matter how sophisticated the dialogue and visual effects may be — music prepares us for what may happen, suggests how to react to a character or situation, and helps us remember special moments and people. What we hear is an essential ingredient of what we watch.
This weekend, the Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra will honor the magic of movie music in an evening filled with famous film scores. “Films provide a rich and varied body of orchestral music,” said Gina Wilson, the symphony’s executive director. “We will perform wonderful themes from Doctor Zhivago to Harry Potter, The Incredibles and Psycho, among others, and even serve popcorn in the lobby.”
Max Steiner, whose score for Gone With the Wind will be featured at the concert, is well remembered for his innovative use of themes to advance a film’s story and enhance characterization. In Wind, he creates a special melody for each major character that he weaves together to support scenes in which they appear. When two characters are on screen together — such as Rhett and Scarlett — their two musical themes connect, too. Steiner also suggests traditional songs of the Old South in the elaborate musical world he creates to support the drama on screen.
When a movie is made, the composer usually comes in near the end of the production to work with the director to identify where to use music in the film. The composer then writes the score that, after it is arranged, is recorded as the conductor watches the film to ensure precise timing.
Director Alfred Hitchcock knew just what he wanted music to contribute to his films. Because he conceived, visually, of pivotal scenes while imagining the music, his movies contain some of the most legendary scores. Consider, for a moment, how empty the classic hallucinations of Vertigo would be without the accompanying music or how music perfectly parallels the thrills of Psycho. Miklos Rosza’s Oscar-winning music from Hitchcock’s 1945 film Spellbound, with its pioneering use of the theremin, supports an elaborate dream sequence where the lead character explores his emotional stability. The brilliant score tightly connects the audience to what the character experiences on screen.
In the 1960s, as films grew in size and length, musical scores became more elaborate. Epics such as Doctor Zhivago — with Maurice Jarre’s Oscar-winning score — became musical showcases as “roadshow” film presentations often began with “overtures” before the opening credits. Sometimes, to find the right musical approach, a composer would reach into the archives rather than create a new score. Marvin Hamlisch won an Oscar in 1973 for adapting the ragtime tunes of Scott Joplin for the year’s Best Picture, The Sting. Ultimately, movie music creates an emotional connection between the audience, the movie and the period. Henry Mancini’s haunting “Moon River” from 1961 is perfect for its film (the classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s), the star, Audrey Hepburn, and the moment in time the film first played.
Perhaps the most famous connection of music and film comes, from 1977, when John Williams won an Oscar for his musical description of “a galaxy far, far away” in Star Wars. With just a few chords at the start of the movie, Williams signaled that this was to be a cinema event unlike anything we had experienced. Star Wars would become a film to remember for the ages thanks, in great measure, to its fabulous score with the depth of a symphonic composition.
Today, when we watch the movies, we may be dazzled by the visuals and touched by the drama, but our emotional response is directed by the music. Congratulations to the Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra for reminding us how vital this element can be to the movie experience and how enjoyable it will be in concert.
(The Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra concert is Saturday, Feb. 5, at 8, at Ridgefield High School, 700 North Salem Road/Route 116. For ticket information, call 203-438-3889 or visit ridgefieldsymphony.org.)
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