Saturday, August 15, 2009

Classical composers: a rare film breed.(awards for top-ranking classical composers)

If recent Oscar fields are any indication, Hollywood is no longer able to attract a wide range of top-ranking classical composers to write soundtrack music.

Time was when noted composers like Aaron Copland, Miklos Rozsa, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Bernard Herrmann all mined Oscar gold for their soundtracks.

For most of the past 30 years, the only Oscar'd composer with solid classical concert hall credentials was the Fellini veteran Nino Rota, who won in 1974 for "The Godfather, Part II."

That was until 1999 when the American composer John Corigliano won for "Red Violin"--and promptly announced he would never score another film. Corigliano stated in May 2001, "I decided not to do any more films because of the complete lack of control a composer has in the dubbing room."

Does the need to compromise and please the suits mean that strongly original composers will shun screen work and remain out of the running for future Oscars? What went wrong, making classical composers go the way of the -land on the Hollywoodland sign?

Classically waning

Philip Glass, always noteworthy for his commercial savvy as much as for any musical inspiration, seems an exception to this general trend that separates Hollywood from highbrow composers. Otherwise the insurgency of traditionally classical composers currently appears to be waning.

In the industry's infancy, the silent screen was a sonic blank canvas that appealed to famed composers like Camille Saint-Saens, Arthur Honegger and Dmitri Shostakovich.

The lost ideal of writing music for silent movies formed a lingering regret, even for successful latter-day composers.

In a memorable 1961 BBC radio interview, Copland spoke of being attracted to a project based on the silence -- or lack thereof -- in a given picture.

Unfortunately, the film in question turned out to be the forgettable Carroll Baker vehicle "Something Wild."

But even after sound was introduced, composers willingly offered high art in exchange for shekels.

In 1938, the Viennese composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold was Oscar'd for his swashbuckling score for the Errol Flynn vehicle "The Adventures of Robin Hood."

Through the '40s and '50s, serious composers like Copland, Rozsa and Herrmann were handed Oscars for bringing the expressive sensitivity of highbrow music to the popular medium of film. With their command of sweeping or spare symphonic messages, these composers embodied the kind of idealized respect -- sometimes without comprehension -- that early Hollywood accorded classical musicians, typified by films from Walt Disney's "Fantasia" to the sentimental biographic pics on musicians such as Grieg and Tchaikovsky.

Some of the first generations of Hollywood producers and directors, many of them European emigrants, had a built-in magnificent obsession with classical music.

Happy to please

But later all-American Hollywood power brokers allowed studio symphony orchestras to lapse into unemployment as a sea change in cultural awareness occurred.

By the 1960s, classical music performance began to seem more accessible to Americans, thanks to homegrown talents like Leonard Bernstein -- himself an exuberant film composer -- and Van Cliburn. But the most admired new highbrow music grew more distant. Some composers gladly eschewed popularity, like vehement avant-gardist Milton Babbitt, who asked audiences in a 1958 article in High Fidelity magazine, "Who Cares If You Listen?"

With a customer-be-damned attitude among "serious" composers, songwriters such as Burt Bacharach took their place, happy to please the masses and studio execs.

A further deterrent to traditionally classical musicians was the increase of music commissioned and then jettisoned by Hollywood. No musician likes to see his work dumped, and cinema offered a distinctly higher risk of rejection than music written for other venues.

Once a relatively rare phenomenon, score rejection became frequent. Ennio Morricone's music for "The Bible," Herrmann's work for Hitchcock's "Torn Curtain" (both in 1966), and Alex North's music for "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) were all turned down.

Isolated signs

Stanley Kubrick partly replaced North's score with music by the Hungarian modernist composer Gyorgy Ligeti, without asking Ligeti's permission beforehand, causing more upheaval.

Hollywood's suits will have to decide whether they want today's best composers to work on major films and if so, whether they can yield somewhat to some of the composers' more pretentious creative requirements.

Throwing Oscars at them after the fact is clearly not enough to keep them working films, as the Corigliano experience proves. And posthumously recording rejected scores decades later, like North's "2001" and Herrmann's "Torn Curtain," both now out on CD from Varese Sarabande, provides cold comfort.

But there are isolated signs that the old tradition hasn't languished completely.

The Oscar winner in 2000, Tan Dun, for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," is an accredited classical composer, but hardly a familiar name in America's concert halls.

Tuning up

Lovers of less trendy and more meticulous screen music may want to hear future scores from top younger composers like Aaron Jay Kernis, Mark Anthony Turnage and Kaija Saariaho.

Whether or not Hollywood will cooperate and whether or not the arena of music scores have totally given way to populist tastes remains to be seen.

Benjamin Ivry is the author of biographies of the composers Maurice Ravel ("Welcome Rain") and Francis Poulenc ("Phaidon"), and writes and broadcasts frequently on music, film and the allied arts.

Source Citation:Ivry, Benjamin. "Classical composers: a rare film breed." Daily Variety 278.1 (Jan 6, 2003): A25(1). Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 15 Aug. 2009

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