When music for the silver screen strikes gold


Where film music sits in relation to classical music is not always clear-cut. Is it just ultra-programmatic orchestral music? Does its association with what’s happening on screen constrain or enrich it? Does it – can it – stand alone in its own right? The answer, of course, is that it depends on the score; like all music, some of it will be brilliant, some not so much. 

What is clear is that those who dismiss movie music as something separate, lesser even, are not only ignoring its often extraordinary creative power, but also denying themselves some really rewarding musical experiences. And now we have Anne-Sophie Mutter, one of our age’s greatest violin virtuosos, telling us so. 

Our columnist, Edward Seckerson, recalls this month how, as a child discovering music, he met with parental disapproval that his film score purchases would sit alongside core symphonic repertoire. Undaunted, he now represents one of those enlightened reviewers whose catholicity of taste is only restricted by whether or not something is good: musicals, movie scores and Mahler rightly vie for his shelf space. (That he cites Leonard Bernstein as his musical hero is no surprise.) 

And Seckerson is not alone: many artists and concert-goers see no reason why they can’t enjoy both Brahms and, say, the LSO in full intergalactic flight performing a John Williams score – something I’m sure the orchestra’s legendary Principal Trumpet Maurice Murphy, who can be heard prominently on the soundtracks of some of the most successful films in cinematic history, would have heartily agreed with.

As would Anne-Sophie Mutter. When, for our cover story, a soloist of her stature talks with as much passion for John Williams as for Penderecki and Thomas Adès, it’s only right to take her argument, and the music itself, seriously. And, to cite another example, it’s only a few months since Riccardo Chailly was praising Nino Rota’s music for Fellini’s films in our pages, describing one particular score as ‘an incredible universe of sound, from semi-Baroque music with a harpsichord in the orchestra, up to almost a quotation from The Rite of Spring’. 

Of course, the place of film music within classical composition is complex: Shostakovich, Walton and Korngold all wrote for both concert hall and silver screen; it’s only recently that the compartmentalisation of composers has become, with a few notable exceptions, so acute. However, the craft and inventiveness of film-focused figures such as Williams, or Morricone, is worth celebrating in its own right.

Finally, film music can offer an amazing opportunity for the classical world in simply showing vast numbers of people what a symphony orchestra sounds like. Many orchestras incorporate film music concerts into their programmes, and that’s aside from the ‘pops’ concerts which, particularly in America, have long played such a key role in the summer season. All of which strengthens the message that film scores are not meant to be background music – they’re an intrinsic, emotionally shaping element of a film. Initiatives such as these, and advocacy by the likes of Mutter and others, deservedly puts the genre centre stage. 

martin.cullingford@markallengroup.com

This article appeared in the September 2019 edition of Gramophone, available now

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