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About this Piece

Over the past 100 years, movies have produced thousands of hours of original music—much of it admittedly forgettable, but some of it truly memorable and worthy of performance outside its original cinematic contexts.

John Williams has been around for nearly all of that time and, in his 65 years of compositions for movies and TV to date, has himself produced more than a handful of modern classics. He has surveyed the cinema landscape and curated tonight’s program, which spans the past century, of great music for the big screen. 

Hollywood films of the 1930s and ’40s were dominated by European composers, many of them fleeing the Nazi menace. Austrian Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957) was the first composer of stature to embrace this new form of entertainment. He thought of films as “operas without singing” and spent a decade at Warner Bros., penning soaring melodies and richly orchestrated music for films like the Errol Flynn swashbuckler Captain Blood (1935).

German-born Franz Waxman (1906–1967) was at Paramount when he scored Sunset Blvd. (1950), a particularly cynical view of Hollywood courtesy of director Billy Wilder. The Oscar-winning score includes a demented tango for an aging screen siren (Gloria Swanson) desperate for a comeback.

Throughout the 1950s, Hungarian composer Miklós Rózsa (1907–1995) earned praise for his music for MGM’s religious and historical epics, none greater than Ben-Hur (1959). Rózsa’s inspirational music for Charlton Heston, as a Jew whose friendship with a Roman nearly destroys his life and his family, won him one of the film’s 11 Academy Awards.

Among the American-born pioneers of film music was Alfred Newman (1900–1970), longtime head of the 20th Century-Fox music department, whose nine Oscars are a record for a composer. “Cathy’s Theme” from Wuthering Heights (1939), starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, remains one of his most exquisite romantic themes, here arranged for violin and orchestra.

New Yorker Bernard Herrmann (1911–1975) shifted from radio drama to films with Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, but he is best known for his decade-long collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock. Arguably the artistic high point of that work was Vertigo (1958), a psychological thriller with James Stewart and Kim Novak that was, in the words of Herrmann biographer Steven Smith, “Herrmann’s fullest realization of his favorite dramatic themes: romantic obsession, isolation, and the ultimate release of death.”

In 1986, Alex North (1910–1991) became the first composer to be awarded an honorary Academy Award for his entire body of work. And Spartacus (1960), Stanley Kubrick’s epic of a slave revolt in ancient Rome, was his magnum opus, a massive, aggressively modern work for orchestra that also had its warm and intimate moments for rebel leader Kirk Douglas and his love Jean Simmons.

Los Angeles–born Jerry Goldsmith (1929–2004) led the way with more progressive musical approaches in the 1960s and beyond. His landmark Planet of the Apes (1968) created an otherworldly soundscape rooted in such mid-20th-century musical concepts as serialism—until then rarely attempted in film music—while also delivering the kind of exciting adventure music in which he excelled.

The 1960s also saw a greater recognition of European composers active in film. Frenchman Maurice Jarre (1924–2009) won three Oscars for his music for David Lean–directed epics, beginning with Lawrence of Arabia (1962). A former percussionist and dedicated ethnomusicologist, he incorporated Middle Eastern sounds into his score for the enigmatic World War I hero T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole).

Prolific Italian composer Ennio Morricone (1928–2020) was initially known in America for his Western scores, especially those for the films of director Sergio Leone. His 1960s masterwork in that genre was Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Leone’s grand-scale story of the coming of the railroad to the American West (starring Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, and Claudia Cardinale).

Also from Italy, Nino Rota (1911–1979) was commissioned by filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola for a recognizably Sicilian sound for his organized-crime films The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), which collectively starred Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and Robert De Niro. Rota won the Oscar for the second installment, which reached operatic proportions both musically and cinematically.

The very same year that John Williams (b. 1932) won the Oscar for Star Wars (1977), he also composed a very different score for another science-fiction film: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, his third collaboration with director Steven Spielberg, equal parts romantic and avant-garde. In a far different mode is Williams’ lighthearted “Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra” for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), the third film in Spielberg’s adventure series starring Harrison Ford and also featuring film legend Sean Connery as Indy’s father.

In the 1980s, a new generation of composers, many of them from the pop music world, began contributing to film. Alan Silvestri (b. 1950), a drummer and guitarist with a jazz and rock background, scored Robert Zemeckis’ time-travel romp Back to the Future (1985) despite having written for orchestra only once before. Danny Elfman (b. 1953), formerly of the band Oingo Boingo, took a Gothic approach to Batman (1989) for Tim Burton’s reimagining of the Dark Knight legend. Both men have gone on to Oscar-nominated, Emmy- and Grammy-winning fame for their film work.

Thomas Newman (b. 1955), Alfred’s youngest son, has been acclaimed for many of his 90 film scores, including seven for director Sam Mendes, most recently 1917 (2019), a powerful World War I story. As the composer said at the time: “Music is there to help, but the way in which it helps must be fundamental and visceral as opposed to intellectual and reflective”—a philosophy espoused by many of today’s film composers. ―Jon Burlingame