Korngold: Suite from The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex
North: “Forest Meeting” and March from Spartacus
Herrmann: “Scène d’amour” from Vertigo
Waxman: Excerpts from Sunset Blvd.
Rózsa: Prelude and Finale from Double Indemnity
About This Performance
In celebration of film music – one of L.A.’s greatest contributions to the music world – the leading cinematic composer of our time curates and conducts a program of “old and new Hollywood,” including works by such masters as Herrmann, Korngold, Previn, Rosenman, Waxman and, of course, Williams himself.
Music from the City of Angels
Notes by Christopher Anderson-Bazzoli
With the art of cinema now in its second century, a select group of feature films is finding its place among popular culture’s most enduring artistic achievements. As evidenced by their inclusion in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry and the American Film Institute’s “100 Greatest Movies,” films such as Sunset Blvd., Vertigo, Double Indemnity, Chinatown, and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial continue to prove their relevance to new generations. Vital to the success of these and other classic films is the music that helps them to tell their stories. To consider that nearly all of this music was composed here in Los Angeles is to acknowledge one of the city’s great cultural legacies.
Music from the City of Angels spans seven decades of film music assembled, conducted, and, in some cases, composed by, a living legend of the medium, John Williams. The program’s first half consists of the music of Williams’ predecessors, from Golden Age luminary Erich Wolfgang Korngold to Williams’ mentor Bernard Herrmann, to his distinguished contemporary Jerry Goldsmith. The second half presents two renowned scores composed by Williams himself: a suite from his recent multi-award-winning score for Memoirs of a Geisha and “Adventures on Earth,” drawn from his Oscar-winning score for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.
Beginning the program is Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). Born in Czechoslovakia in 1897, Korngold was among the many artists who fled the turmoil of war-torn Europe and found open arms in Hollywood’s thriving film industry. Elizabeth and Essex tells the story of the rocky love affair between Queen Elizabeth I (Bette Davis) and Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn). Although the score has plenty of heroic fanfares like those Korngold composed for Flynn’s previous action pics Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1937), Elizabeth and Essex is, at its core, a love story with appropriately sumptuous, lyrical themes. The music’s tone can be summarized by Elizabeth’s line: “The same lovely, dreadful thing that draws us together hurts us and blinds us until we strike at one another.”
Born in 1910, American composer Alex North started his film career relatively late – at age 40 – after establishing a reputation in New York with theater and dance scores for, among others, the pioneering choreographer Martha Graham. North’s road to Hollywood was rocky, but by the time he came to score Spartacus (1960) for the young director Stanley Kubrick, he had a respectable list of film credits, including Elia Kazan’s film version of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). The title character, Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), is drafted from slavery into a school for gladiators. He falls in love with Varinia (Jean Simmons) and goes on to lead an ill-fated slave rebellion. “Forest Meeting” centers around the love theme North composed for the couple. It is now one of the more recognizable and recorded themes in the film music canon, with a noted version by legendary jazz pianist Bill Evans. “March” is percussive music that portrays the heroic title character.
“Scène d’Amour” from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) is one of the famously irascible Bernard Herrmann’s most tender and emotive works. Born in 1911, Herrmann, another New Yorker, was brought to Hollywood by Orson Welles to score his hailed feature film debut Citizen Kane (1942). In 1955 he was paired with Hitchcock for The Trouble With Harry and one of the great cinematic collaborations was born. Vertigo is widely regarded as among the very finest examples of the wedding of music and film. The “Scène d’Amour” is excerpted from a scene in which Scottie Ferguson’s (James Stewart) obsessive passion for Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) climaxes in a kiss on the shores of the Northern California coast. Herrmann’s recurring use of short melodic cells that spin out almost endlessly over harmonies that never quite resolve hearken to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and contribute greatly to Vertigo’s enigmatic pathos.
The three scores Williams selected for “L.A. Triptych” present different musical perspectives on a concept indelible to Los Angeles mythology: noir. The term “film noir”(French for “black film”) combines a stark black-and-white visual style with the kind of gritty urban crime-drama stories popular in Depression-era American fiction. Central to the noir vibe is the German Expressionist film style, a technique Berlin native Billy Wilder deftly brought to the direction of Sunset Blvd.(1950) and Double Indemnity (1944). Another European, the Polish director Roman Polanski, brought his own unique noir sensibility to the next generation of Hollywood with his 1974 film Chinatown. All three pics take place in 1940s-era L.A. and all three scores contain the noir traits of moral ambiguity, romantic tension, and tragic portent.
Sunset Blvd., featuring music by German-born composer Franz Waxman, is the story of down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) whose inappropriate romance with an aged, has-been starlet, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), leads to tragedy against the backdrop of the fleeting Hollywood spotlight. The score climaxes in a grandiose bolero as Desmond imagines herself in the title role of a grand remake of Salome. Sunset Blvd. won the Academy Award for best score of 1950. Waxman won the Award again the following year for A Place in the Sun.
It’s hard to believe that native Angeleno Jerry Goldsmith’s revered score for Chinatown was completed in a mere ten days, replacing another composer’s work at the last minute. Goldsmith’s unique sound features a sultry trumpet solo, played on the original recording by studio legend Uan Ramsey. To characterize the doomed love affair between detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) and a city water-maven’s wife, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), Goldsmith’s orchestrator Arthur Morton cheekily asked Ramsey to play the solo “sexy…but like it’s not good sex.” (Those familiar with Mulwray’s disturbing revelation at the end of the film will know why this metaphor is apt.) Chinatown brought Goldsmith his seventh of 17 Academy Award nominations. He would win two years later for The Omen (1976).
Rounding out the “L.A. Triptych” is perhaps the quintessential noir film, Double Indemnity (1944). Hungarian-born composer Miklós Rózsa’s score is a musical portrayal of the film’s femme fatale, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), as well as its emotionally-entangled leading man, insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), who is led by Dietrichson into a plot to murder her husband. Double Indemnity was nominated for a 1944 Academy Award for Best Original Score.
Another transplanted New Yorker, John Williams arrived in Los Angeles in 1948. After a stint in the Air Force and studies at Juilliard, he worked as a pianist and orchestrator for several of the composers from the program’s first half. Williams counted among his West Coast composition teachers the Italian émigré Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, who had a great influence on him and many of his colleagues, including Goldsmith and Henry Mancini.
Well before the announcement of the film version of Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), Williams sent cellist Yo-Yo Ma a copy of the popular novel by Arthur Golden and, according to a later interview with Ma, said: “Maybe, one day, we’ll put that to music.” Although the film’s originally-slated director, Steven Spielberg, left the project, his trusted collaborator remained on board to compose the score, working with Chicago director Rob Marshall. While Ma went on to perform the cello solos on the original soundtrack, cellist Johannes Moser joins Williams in these concerts to perform a six-movement suite of excerpts from the score.
The suite draws primarily on music from the early part of the film. It follows the childhood of Chiyo (Suzuka Ogho, as a child; Ziyi Zhang as an adult), who is sold to a geisha house in Kyoto, Japan, as a result of the imminent death of her parents. Upon becoming a geisha, Chiyo is given the name Sayuri and the suite’s opening movement “Sayuri’s Theme” is the primary musical element of the score. “There’s a beautiful conceptual idea that John [Williams] created,” notes Rob Marshall, “and that is that the cello is Sayuri. It is her voice in the film.” Of the suite’s third movement, “The Chairman’s Waltz” Williams said “Sayuri seems to be driven in life by a single act of kindness extended to her by the Chairman when she is a child. In that moment we have a violin solo…which is played in the manner of a valse triste, which is to say, a sad waltz, but one that is imbued with a loving feeling.” When another geisha, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), takes on Chiyo as a protégé, she proclaims: “We must transform you. And what takes years to learn, you must learn in months.” The suite’s final movement, “Becoming a Geisha,” accompanies that transformation. It is again Sayuri’s theme that is presented throughout – in a kind of fantasia – with portions overlapping and echoing throughout the orchestra, all accompanied by a persistent percussion ostinato. Memoirs of a Geisha won both the Golden Globe and BAFTA Awards for Best Score and brought Williams his 44th Academy Award nomination.
If one had to choose a single score that epitomizes the art of John Williams and the signature sound he has brought to film, it might well be E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Its tone of innocence and optimism and its soaring emotionality match perfectly director Steven Spielberg’s cinematic homage to childhood imagination. “Adventures on Earth” contains music drawn primarily from the final 15 minutes of the film when ten-year-old Elliott (Henry Thomas) and his bicycle-riding friends flee government agents and attempt to return E.T. to his departing space ship. The suite weaves several themes: the soaring main “flying” theme, a secondary theme Williams dubbed “Over the Moon,” the syncopated and mildly sinister theme characterizing the government agent “Keys,” and the short, curious motive for piccolo heard at the opening of the film. Bringing unity to the various melodies is the musical interval of an ascending perfect fifth, a musical cell featured in many of Williams’ memorable themes. As of 2009 the Spielberg-Williams collaboration is in its 35th year, rivaled only by the Hitchcock-Herrmann team as cinema’s most significant director-composer relationship. “Working with Steven is always an opportunity for musical storytelling,” says Williams. “His stories and his way of directing are very compatible with a sense of musical development.” E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial won the 1982 Academy Award for Best Original Score, one of five Williams has won to date.
Christopher Anderson-Bazzoli is a Los Angeles-based composer, orchestrator, conductor, and writer.
Programs, artists, dates, prices and availability subject to change.
Upbeat Live: pre-concert talks
- Friday, October 16, 2009 - 7:00pm
USC film music professor John Burlingame discusses the rich legacy of Hollywood film music.