The Film Score

4 The Rise of Film Score Composers and the Development of Composition Techniques

Around 1935, the importance of film composers began to grow, along with the establishment of permanent orchestras (of about fifty members) at the large film studios. Moreover, nearly all of the film composers had solid academic training and had frequently made a name for themselves outside the movie industry. The differences between autonomous music and the film score were considered slight. The latter was therefore often translated into a concert suite. Symphonic music, frequently enhanced by a choir, was popular for the screen. Sergei Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten, William Walton, Arthur Bliss, and many others composed scores for film. In terms of aesthetics, the sound film did not require a break with previous practice.[12] Thus, underscoring was adhered to, the sounds of wind or rain continued to be imitated through the use of instruments (e.g., in Sunset Boulevard, US 1950, dir. Billy Wilder, music: Franz Waxman, there were dropping eighth notes from the piano during the steady rain). The master of substituting noises through instrumental tone colors was the music score composer Bernard Herrmann. Although Hitchcock had not originally planned music for the murder scene in the shower in Psycho (US 1960), he could not have arranged the scene—with Herrmann’s high, piercing, dissonant strings—in a more haunting way.

So-called Mickey Mousing,[13] a technique by means of which the music is adapted to the movements being shown in the image—for instance climbing or falling down—was improved through synchronization. This imitation of movement was transferred to the sound film from Walt Disney’s animated films. Here, however, it often had a comical effect. The musicians were no longer solely in control of the soundtrack; thus, they developed techniques to preserve the symphonic standard. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, renowned for his extraordinarily pronounced sense of timing, set the musical climax of the music running behind speech into the brief periods when the actors paused for breath (underneathing).[14]

The leitmotif technique practiced in Hollywood was copied from Richard Wagner’s musical theater. Persons or ideas were assigned a theme that both sustained the action by means of a traditional motivic-thematic work and could engage other themes as well. The theme fulfilled important dramaturgical functions of preannouncement. In Hollywood, music had to be composed at a rapid pace, in view of which the leitmotif technique was also practical, because the composer could create a kind of vocabulary even before completion of the film. Max Steiner, who was the first to use this technique, paid strict attention to the conciseness of his musical themes, so that they were identifiable even after editing. Thus, due to its unusual opening with an octave boost, the Tara theme from Gone with the Wind (US 1939, dir. Victor Fleming) could be shortened to four notes. In terms of music history, there is very little evidence of earlier use of this opening, and yet it displays great expressive power.[15] Film scores always had to express both love and sorrow.

Great value was placed on the acoustic indication of locations and time, for example by means of folkloristic instruments in The Third Man (UK 1949, dir. Carol Reed, music: Anton Karas), where the zither stands for Vienna, or by means of orthodox church music, such as in Ivan the Terrible (US 1944, dir. Sergei Eisenstein, music: Sergei Prokofiev) during the coronation scene in the church. In Hollywood, funds were invested in the research of suitable music for the history films to be set to music by Miklós Rózsa.

In the 1960s, only few of the old-school composers received commissions; grand symphonic orchestration had become only one of many possibilities. Continual musical accompaniment, such as in Gone with the Wind (three and one-half hours of musical underscoring in a film lasting four hours), had become uneconomical. At the same time, contemporary styles of music found their way into the film genre. While in the 1950s, jazz could occasionally be heard (e.g., A Streetcar Named Desire, US 1951, dir. Elia Kazan, music: Alex North), beginning in the 1960s, rock music was increasingly used (e.g., Easy Rider, US 1969, dir. Dennis Hopper; Taxi Driver, US 1976, dir. Martin Scorsese, music: Bernard Herrmann). Electroacoustical sounds produced by instruments such as the ondes Martenot and the theremin also reached Hollywood. Soundtracks produced with the trautonium, such as that for Hitchcock’s The Birds (US 1963) by Oskar Sala and Bernard Herrmann, seem almost to be drafts for later synthesizer productions. However, these means did not find their way into the film genre as extensively as did the symphonic sound, which experienced a big renaissance in the 1970s.

Eisenstein, by the way, was an admirer of Mickey Mousing. Eisler, on the other hand, vigorously criticized its equating falling from a cliff with a decreasing G-sharp minor triad; Adorno and Eisler, Komposition für den Film, 114.  
This effect is lost in synchronizations.