American Film Music


Major Composers, Techniques, Trends 1915-1990

Paperback: 623 pages
Publisher: McFarland & Company (November 1999)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0786407530
ISBN-13: 978-0786407538
Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 5.8 x 1.3 inches

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A number of highly recommendable books on the subject of film music have appeared recently, including Christopher Palmer’s ‘The Composer in Hollywood’, Steven Smith’s Bernard Herrmann bio, ‘A Heart at Fire’s Center’ and his treasure-trove Film Composers Guide, and the forthcoming revised edition of Tony Thomas’s archetypal ‘Music for the Movies’. Among them is this detailed historical study of American film scoring.

Darby, an English professor, and Du Bois, a teacher and opera student, have compiled a well-researched and thoroughly documented treatise on the history and development of American movie music. They analyze, historically, dramatically and musically, major film scores from 1915’s BIRTH OF A NATION through 1986’s TOP GUN, enhanced by musical excerpts from significant themes and movies. Although the book is mainly concerned with American movie music, the authors do discuss many foreign composers in connection with their work on American films. Chapters on 14 individual composers – Steiner, Newman, Waxman, Friedhofer, Tiomkin, Victor Young, Rozsa, Herrmann, North, Bernstein, Mancini, Goldsmith and Williams – offer in-depth looks at the work of these important figures in film music history. Each of these chapters includes a filmography of the discussed composer. Other chapters like ‘From Silents to Sound’, ‘Studio Arrangements’ and ‘The 1960s and 1970s’ offer perceptive views of these stages in the development of American movie music. The book is supplemented by a comprehensive bibliography of film music books and publications, listed by subject, and an Appendix of all film music-related Academy Award winners and nominees.

The authors identify 2 broad stylistic categories of American film music – the leitmotivic style characterized by Steiner, Korngold and John Williams, and the more atmospheric style of Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann, who often employed only a single major theme to represent certain key elements reprised throughout a score. “In examining Hollywood’s major composers,” the authors write, “we have come to believe that the motivic approach of Korngold and Steiner is more in keeping with what film music should do and be. A motivic score can more readily be fitted to the varying dramatic and temporal demands of a film. The atmospheric approach tends to produce scores that often numb or bewilder because of the frequency with which their leading musical ideas are employed”. With this attitude established at the onset, the authors endeavor to analyze the works of American film music along primarily motivic lines, even when discussing such “atmospheric” composers as Newman, Herrmann, Friedhofer, and North. This is not necessarily a drawback, but it does color the approach of the authors and as a result some notable scores that derive more form atmosphere than motive will be given contrastingly short shrift.

All the same, ‘American Film Music’ is a very commendable and broad overview of its subject. It is especially notable for discussing in comparative degree of detail the efforts of minor composers (such as the Salter-Skinner-Stein-Mancini et. al. music factory of Universal in the 1940s-1950s), although several notable motivic composers, especially Roy Webb, are dispensed with in only a few paragraphs, even though their work cries out for a longer retrospect.

In closing, the authors remark, “Certain stylistic trends in film music will probably continue into the 1990s with far too many films having scores that resemble the pastiche of TOP GUN rather than the unity of HOOSIERS or RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. No matter what the future of film scoring, one can only hope that greater attention will be paid to the dramatic powers implicit in music, so that even a score by many hands can attain a degree of artistic sophistication and integrity so often lacking. If TOP GUN achieves a certain musical-dramatic integration most of the time, its end credits, with a new song by Harold Faltermeyer, designed to get the audience out of the theater to an uptempo beat, represent a mindless approach to film scoring. A modest hope for the film composer’s craft would be the eradication of such lapses in taste as well as artistic logic in the future; and given the commercial nature of film production, a modest hope is all that any reasonable observer would want to entertain.” (p. 550).

Randall D. Larson

Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.11/No.41,1992


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