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PACIFIC STANDARD TIME: The Hollywood Sound

Walt Disney Concert Hall

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About This Performance

One of L.A’s great contributions to the world is the film score, as you’ll hear in music by such giants as Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Bernard Herrmann, Alex North, Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams.

The Hollywood Sound is part of Pacific Standard Time. This unprecedented collaboration, initiated by the Getty, brings together more than sixty cultural institutions from across Southern California for six months beginning October 2011 to tell the story of the birth of the L.A. art scene.

Program Notes by Ross Care

The 1950s saw the gradual decline and eventual demise of the classical Hollywood studio system that had been solidly in place for several decades. Radical changes manifested themselves in every aspect of the industry, from administration and production to censorship and technical issues. Studio music departments were not immune to these shifts, and the European symphonic traditions of major composers such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, and Miklós Rózsa gradually gave way to a more contemporary jazz-pop-influenced sound developed by new Americans such as Alex North and Elmer Bernstein.

But these newcomers were also well versed in orchestral writing. They still utilized traditional techniques, but also expanded them to meet the demands of a changing film scene and to introduce some of the more advanced trends in concert music. Some of these once startling sounds have by now achieved their own classic status.

Kings Row Fanfare
Cello Concerto in C, Op. 37, from Deception

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957)

Korngold referred to his film scores as “operas without singing.” He had actually composed several successful operas as a young wunderkind in Europe, but in 1932 Max Reinhardt brought him to the United States to arrange the music for the Warner Bros. film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which was based on Reinhardt’s famous production of the play at the Hollywood Bowl). Along with Max Steiner (another European musical prodigy), Korngold would establish the lush Germanic Warner Bros. house sound in the 1930s and ’40s. Kings Row (1942) was the film version of a popular bestseller that explored the dark underside of an American small town. Korngold allegedly misconstrued the title and created this regally imperialistic introduction that eventually influenced John Williams’ Star Wars and Superman scores.

Deception (1946) was a full-tilt Bette Davis melodrama about a musical love triangle between a pianist, a cellist, and a composer. A key element in the goings-on is a concerto composed, to devious ends, for the cellist. It is effectively “performed” on-screen by actor Paul Henreid, to a prerecorded playback by Eleanor Aller (who had become first cellist at Warner Bros. in 1939 and was a member of the Hollywood String Quartet).

The Best Years of Our Lives Suite
Hugo Friedhofer (1902-1981)

A native Californian, Friedhofer was born in San Francisco and came to Hollywood at the dawn of the sound era in 1929. After playing cello for silent films he studied arranging and orchestration, two fields in which he would excel. For the next decade Friedhofer was the orchestrator of choice for A-list composers such as Korngold and Steiner.

His few early original scores included The Adventures of Marco Polo (1937) and The Lodger (1944) but his real breakthrough came with The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946. Its haunting main theme and atmospheric cues poignantly evoke the bittersweet emotionalism of William Wyler’s moving drama of veterans returning home from World War II. This Oscar-winning score is a pioneering example of the American sound that composers such as North and Bernstein, among others, would perfect in the 1950s. Friedhofer himself entered a prolific period for original work with his many scores for 20th Century-Fox in the CinemaScope/stereophonic sound era of the early 1950s.

A Streetcar Named Desire Suite
Alex North (1910-1991)

Aside from its technical innovations the 1950s also saw a gradual easing of the strict production codes of the 1940s. After much wrangling with censors, Elia Kazan finally brought Tennessee Williams’ critically lauded (and controversial) Broadway drama, A Streetcar Named Desire, to the screen in 1951. With Streetcar Kazan also launched the career of one of the greatest composers to work in Hollywood, Alex North.

North had previously established himself in concert, ballet, and theater music in New York, and brought to the film a highly charged fusion of sophisticated, sometimes dissonant orchestral scoring and authentically loose but precisely notated jazz. Often using a less-is-more approach that worked against the usually lush Warner Bros. sound, the character of Stanley is unforgettably introduced by a slithering clarinet solo with a dissonant piano vamp. Blanche’s more traditional theme is poignant and laced with melancholy romanticism. Throughout the drama the sensuous intensity of North’s music constantly draws the listener irresistibly into both the steamy New Orleans setting and the tempestuous, conflicted inner lives of the characters who live there.

North by Northwest Overture
Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975)

Like North, Bernard Herrmann also had a solid musical grounding in New York, and was brought to Hollywood by another prestigious director, Orson Welles, with whom the composer had worked on the Mercury Theatre on the Air radio productions. Welles chose Herrmann to score his first film, the legendary Citizen Kane.

One of Herrmann’s most celebrated scores is North by Northwest. The Overture is a driving toccata for symphony orchestra that provides a propulsive prelude to one of Hitchcock’s most virtuosic and entertaining films. The entire piece is scored in 6/8 but, like Leonard Bernstein’s “America” from West Side Story, the rhythm constantly alternates between measures of standard 6/8 (123-456) and 6/8 with a 3/4 (1&-2&-3&) pattern. This rhythmic alternation gives the entire piece an exciting, if slightly off-kilter feel appropriate to the constantly shifting “wrong man” machinations of the involved plot itself.

To Kill a Mockingbird Suite
Elmer Bernstein (1922-2004)

From Saturday’s Hero (1951) and Robot Monster (1953) to Scorsese’s elegant The Age of Innocence (1993), Elmer Bernstein – a native New Yorker and protégé of Aaron Copland – was one of the most versatile and prolific composers to emerge in the “new” Hollywood of the 1950s. Bernstein’s formative work alternated dramatic orchestral underscoring with elements of big band jazz, but the composer also possessed an appealing pop touch that resulted in several commercial hits and title tunes in the ’50s. He even composed a Broadway musical, How Now Dow Jones in 1967.

But in his prime Bernstein was, like North, often a composer of choice for high-toned literary adaptations, often for those with Southern backgrounds. A key example of this genre is his sensitive score for To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), which captures both the delicate nostalgia and heartfelt compassion of Harper Lee’s now-classic novel.

Charade
Henry Mancini (1924-1994)

Henry Mancini and Jerry Goldsmith were two of the last studio-era composers to benefit from the kind of invaluable working apprenticeship that is almost impossible to come by today. Mancini initially labored, often anonymously, in the assembly line music department of Universal-International, while Goldsmith received a similar background of eclectic experience with his early television work.

Director Blake Edwards recognized Mancini’s potential when he chose him to score Peter Gunn, a popular 1958-1961 television series. But it was Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) which certified Mancini’s status as one of the last great song composers to come out of Hollywood (“Moon River”) and the first score composer to create a hip new sound which would influence Hollywood scoring for the next two decades.

Charade (1963), a stylish Hitchcock homage, is just one in a series of great early ’60s Mancini scores. Like Tiffany’s it features a song which does double duty, in this case as a driving Main Title instrumental, and, with lyrics (like “Moon River”) by Johnny Mercer, also serves as a romantic ballad with a somewhat plaintive minor-mode Continental feel.

“The Hunt,” from Planet of the Apes
Chinatown Suite
Jerry Goldsmith (1929–2004)

Jerry Goldsmith was one of the few film composers actually born (in Pasadena) and raised in Los Angeles. His early TV work, particularly for shows such as The Twilight Zone and Thriller, allowed him to experiment with a variety of contemporary modes. But horror, fantasy, and particularly science fiction films have always allowed composers to venture into more outré stylistic modes. Planet of the Apes (1968) is one of Goldsmith’s key excursions into genre scoring with serial music techniques. “The Hunt,” for the scene in which the apes are first seen rounding up humans, is one of the most ferocious and terrifying action cues ever composed. Cited by Jon Burlingame in his book Sound and Vision as “one of only a handful of truly original movie scores,” the avant-garde effects for Planet were all achieved acoustically, i.e., without electronics.

Also in 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey introduced the atonal concert works of György Ligeti (1923-2006) to movie audiences. An eastern European modernist who refined the technique of tone clusters, the arranging of notes into dense chromatic chords that eschewed conventional melody, pitch, and rhythm, Ligeti referred to this new mode as micropolyphony. Another cinematically influential 20th-century modernist was Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1922), whose astringent Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima became well-known through many classical recordings (and reportedly was used to temp track parts of Close Encounters). In Off the Planet – Music, Sound, and Science Fiction Cinema, Neil Lerner describes this mode as “a certain kind of musical modernism that encodes that which is meant to be perceived as ‘alien’.”

However, the key element of Goldsmith’s concentrated score for Chinatown (1973) is a bittersweet (and tonal) love theme for a golden, somewhat world-weary trumpet. It’s set in a wash of strings that evokes both the doomed romance at the core of the film, and the luminous 20th Century-Fox strings under Alfred Newman. But ensuing cues induce alternating acrid and bittersweet visions of 1930s L.A. with wavering sonorities influenced by the Ligeti/Penderecki school, combined with a sultry sheen of Goldsmith’s characteristic percussion, suggesting the otherworldly exoticism of Planet of the Apes in a more hypnotic mood. Another element in these cues is Goldsmith’s use of multiple pianos, sometimes played in the experimental modes of American composers such as Henry Cowell and John Cage.

Concerning Chinatown Goldsmith once commented: “I grew up in Los Angeles and that’s amazingly the way it looked. I can remember the whole ambiance.”

Close Encounters of the Third Kind Suite
John Williams (b. 1932)

As “Johnny” Williams, John Williams also served a Hollywood apprenticeship as a pianist/conductor. But after much television work, original scoring for lighter fare such as Diamond Head and Gidget Goes to Rome (both 1963) and a disaster cycle including Earthquake and The Towering Inferno (both 1974), Williams became one of the most adulated and analyzed composers in Hollywood history with three major blockbusters: Jaws (1975), Star Wars, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (both 1977).

While Star Wars is well-known for its retro symphonic mode, Close Encounters posits a more complex musical structure. Music is presented as the key to the communication between humans and benign aliens. A five-note motif serves as this non-verbal link and appears in various guises throughout both plot and score. At times complex Ligeti/Penderecki-influenced sonorities represent the mysterious aspects of the visitors and underscore some of the more threatening moments (such as the eerie abduction of the child). But by the spectacular mothership finale the “alien” atonalities meld into (literally) uplifting lyricism that serves aptly as the climax of one of the most transcendent sequences encountered in films of any period.

Composer/author Ross Care has written on 1950s film music for the Library of Congress and has an essay on John Ford’s Wagon Master in Music in the Western: Notes from the Frontier, just published by Routledge Music and Screen Media books.

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