Film Composer’s Spotlight Week 4: Bernard Herrmann

This week I bring my film composer’s spotlight to a close. I know there are still many more to cover. I plan on revisiting this topic. But I digress. I am wrapping this month’s spotlight with the most prolific of all film composers: Bernard Herrmann.

During week one of this spotlight I discussed the incredible film collaborative team of John Williams and Steven Spielberg. Before them was the dynamic duo of Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock.Herrmann and Hitchock worked together on so many masterpieces. But the best for my money is Herrmann’s chilling score for Psycho.

The music for the shower scene is,in my humble opinion,the most terrifying in all of cinema. Every time I hear it I get the chills. But even the prelude music is incredible. It builds the tension right away during the credits. The music is chaotic and thrilling,a perfect way to set-up the movie. Aside from the shower scene and prelude music,pay attention to the way Herrmann reuses the main theme to signal the audience that something bad is about to happen. A great example is the scene of Martin Balsam going up the stairs. There’s this really calm,jaunty music,and then you hear those shrieking violins. Horrifying! Herrmann knows how to make an already scarier moment even scarier. The whole score is a work of genius.

Another of my favorite Herrmann scores is his iconic score for the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still.

It has an otherworldly vibe that’s just perfect for the story. If you listen to the score you’ll lots of Theremin. This was one of the first films to feature a largely electronic score. The way Herrmann got the creepy,atmospheric sound was to use two Theremins: one pitched higher and one pitched lower. The effect is music straight out of The Twilight Zone. Random fun fact: this score inspired Danny Elfman to become a composer. Who wouldn’t be inspired by such incredible music?

Changing gears completely,I’d like to bring to your attention Bernard Herrmann’s amazing work on Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Taxi Driver. This one is a favorite of mine largely due to the wonderfully moody saxophone part.

It has a groovy jazz feel. But what makes it all the more effective is when you hear it played as the main character (the taxi driver of the title) drives through the rough,and sometimes lonely,streets of New York. This is especially true at night. It accentuates the beautiful night cinematography just perfectly. The score for Taxi Driver really gives us a feeling of longing and sometimes emptiness. That goes right to the core of the struggles of Travis Bickle,the film’s protagonist. It’s a great blend of smooth jazz and symphonic film music

To wrap this up,I’d like to touch on his haunting,romantic score to one of my favorite classic film discoveries of the past year: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

There’s the beautiful romantic theme for Mrs. Muir (Gene Tierney) and Captain Daniel (Rex Harrison). The music also does an amazing job of capturing the spirit of a person who is struggling to find her way in the world (the Gene Tierney character,a widow). And of course the sweeping yet simple score really gives you the feeling of living near the vast and beautiful sea. It’s a score that is haunting,romantic,playful and adventurous. I won’t reveal the ending to those who haven’t seen it. But,suffice it to say,Herrmann’s score elevates it to something truly moving. You won’t forget it anytime soon.

Bernard Herrmann’s resume also includes: Citizen Kane,Vertigo,Jason and the Argonauts,North By Northwest,Jane Eyre,etc. His contribution to film cannot be overstated. Many classic films wouldn’t be classics without his musical genius. Imagine Psycho without those piercing violins. It loses a lot of its power. The same can be said of almost all of his scores. Bernard Herrmann is fittingly recognized as a film composing legend today. If you’ve seen a great classic film,chances are his name appeared in the credits.

That wraps things up for film composer month! Join me in April when I highlight the legendary Hayao Miyazaki.

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Film Composer’s Spotlight Week 3: Ennio Morricone

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For week three of my film composer’s spotlight,I have chosen Ennio Morricone. This year he finally won an Oscar! It was for his score for The Hateful Eight. But if you look at his resume, you’ll wonder why he doesn’t have multiple Oscars.

Morricone is perhaps best known for his frequent collaborations with director Sergio Leone,including the Dollars trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars,For a Few Dollars More,and The Good,the Bad,and the Ugly). It’s hard to pick one piece from those films,but I think my favorite is Ecstasy of Gold from The Good,the Bad,and the Ugly.

The score really has a great sense of majesty. It starts with this great western road music,giving us a sense of the desperation of the characters. Then there are those vocals. Just gorgeous and haunting. It wonderfully builds the tension all the way to the end.One of the trademarks of the series is all the dramatic close-ups. The music gives them more weight. All of this together is a powerful anthem for the rousing final film in Leone’s masterful spaghetti western trilogy.

No discussion of Morricone’s genius is complete without a mention of his work on The Mission. It’s an incredibly powerful film to say the least! And one track in particular is among the most haunting and beautiful ever composed for a film. It’s Gabriel’s Oboe.

The film,about 18th century Spanish Jesuits try to protect a remote South American Indian tribe in danger of falling under the rule of pro-slavery Portugal,is moving from beginning to end. Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) playing the piece in the film is one of its many moving moments. What’s great is that not only is the oboe part gorgeous,but so are the horn,percussion,and vocal parts. As with Ecstasy of Gold,Morricone shows again that he can masterful work in choral parts. I’ve performed this piece with concert bands a few times now. There’s rarely a dry eye in the house.

Morricone has also proven he can compose beautiful love themes. A case and point is the glorious Cinema Paradiso

Cinema Paradiso is a wonderful love letter to the movie-going experience. It’s about a filmmaker who,during his childhood,fell in love with the movies and formed a close bond with the theater’s projectionist. There’s a great sense of nostalgia and whimsy,as well as romance in the main theme. It captures the beauty of Italy and the coming-of-age of the filmmaker. In the movie’s iconic kiss scene in the rain,it makes an already great scene even greater. Whether you hear this score on piano or violin,it is absolutely gorgeous! It’s one reason why Cinema Paradiso remains a favorite of mine.

Another of my many favorite Morricone scores is the work he did for the The Untouchables.

The music over the opening credits beautifully sets up the intensity of the superb action film. As most probably know by now,it’s about Eliot Ness and his quest to take down Al Capone. The action music is pitch-perfect. But then there’s also the theme for Ness’ crew,the “untouchables” of the title that is beautiful and heroic. When it plays over the closing credits,it’s an incredibly satisfying moment. The Untouchables is a film I can watch again and again,and the soundtrack is one of the many reasons why it rocks.

Like the other composer’s I’ve covered so far,Morricone has a resume that anyone would dream of. He has 527 composing credits on Internet Movie Database. He rarely takes days off. What’s astonishing is not only the number of composing credits he has to his name,but the range of his film compositions. Love themes,action music,beautiful scores that translate perfectly as concert pieces…the man’s talent is truly remarkable. He’s 87 and proving that age is just a number.

To wrap things up,I’ll leave you with the gorgeous Deborah’s theme from Once Upon a Time in America. Enjoy!

Film Composers Spotlight Week 2: Jerry Goldsmith

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Greetings,readers! This week my month-long spotlight on great film composers continues with Jerry Goldsmith. By the time Goldsmith left us he had won an Oscar,been nominated 37 times,and had left an impact on the world of film like few others. Like John Williams last week,it’s hard to pick just a few of his great works. Goldsmith was prolific to say the least!

I’d like to begin with the score that won him his one Oscar for original score. That would be his chilling and atmospheric score for the horror film classic The Omen. It perfectly uses creepy,satanic chorals with a score that kicks off with ominous sounds on a piano. When all of it comes together,an already terrifying film experience becomes even scarier.

What’s great about the score for The Omen is that the main theme is layered upon so beautifully so that it’s a truly amazing symphonic score even if it had been just composed as a concert piece. Even just hearing the first few notes of the main theme gives me the chills! I remember watching The Omen at a friend’s house once and driving home in the dark through the country afterwards. It was not a relaxing drive home.

The next Jerry Goldsmith score I want to highlight is his inspiring score for Hoosiers. One of the greatest of all sports movies and one of the best underdog stories ever told,the music is as exhilarating as the film itself.

I don’t normally go for synthesizers,especially in film scores. But there are a few exceptions: Blade Runner,Chariots of Fire,and Hoosiers. In his score for Hoosiers,Goldsmith proved there was a place for electronic scores in films that weren’t necessarily in the science fiction. Goldsmith performs the entire score himself. And he beautifully captures the Midwestern spirit of Indiana. Another reason the score is outstanding is that it captures the small moments as well as the big ones. Yes,there’s a rousing victory theme. But there’s also a beautiful,yet subtle score that plays during a bus ride through small town Indiana. It’s one of the greatest sports scores in movie history.

Another genre that Goldsmith returned to a lot was film noir. The one I’d like to highlight is the score he composed for Chinatown.

Just in this one track from the soundtrack you get a taste of the greatness of Goldsmith’s score and the moody atmosphere of one of the best film noirs. The opening use of percussion is truly unsettling. It eventually sounds like a ticking clock. That raises the tension so beautifully in a crime story. And then there’s that great trumpet solo. It perfectly conveys musically the feeling of a lone hero. The score for Chinatown really gives us a sense of place. In the film it’s Los Angeles in the late 1930s. Jazz was a quintessential part of film noirs in the 40s and 50s. Goldsmith does a masterful job of incorporating it into a film that was released in 1974. It’s a beautiful and haunting piece of music. It captures the sense of seediness that permeates films in the noir genre. Goldsmith also scored L.A. Confidential and The Shadow. While the later is a comic book noir,it has just as effective of a genre feel as the other two.

I wouldn’t be a proper Star Trek fan if I didn’t acknowledge his contributions to the franchise. He scored Star Trek:the Motion Picture,composed the main theme for Star Trek: Voyager,and many other of the movies and series. But my favorite of all of them? His score for Star Trek: First Contact. In my opinion,it’s the best of the films with the Next Generation cast. That’s a testament to the  talented cast,the writing,and Goldsmith’s music.

There’s the wonderful Star Trek theme fanfare,but listen closely to the next part of the track. There’s an absolutely beautiful theme for the Vulcans. For the uninitiated,in the movie,the crew has to go back in time to stop the Borg from altering history to the point where Earth never made first contact with aliens. The race we first encounter are the Vulcans,who visit us when they see that we’ve achieved warp drive. But I digress. The theme is used not just to signal the arrival of aliens,but to note the friendship among the ship’s crew,particularly Data and Captain Picard. There are many reasons why First Contact is one of the best films in the series. Goldsmith deserves a big chunk of credit for that.

To wrap things up,I’d like to go in a completely different direction. Remember the Rambo movies? Jerry Goldsmith put his great musical touch on those too. Here is his great action score for First Blood.

The story is about a Vietnam War veteran who has trouble re-adjusting to civilian life and becomes a drifter. Goldsmith conveys such a sense of loneliness in the opening of the hero’s theme. We know right away from the music that this isn’t just going to be a mindless action picture,but about a hero who is very human and relatable. It’s no surprise that the main theme is titled It’s a Long Road. It’s the music that beautifully sets up the journey of Rambo in the first film. *Spoiler alert!* There were a few sequels. First Blood proved that Jerry Goldsmith could compose for action films as well as science fiction,sports,and horror ones.

I realize this is just the tip of the iceberg. Goldsmith had a long and magnificent career composing for film as well as television. He proved himself to be among the most versatile of anyone in the business. While he is no longer with us,his scores live on and are sure to delight film and music fans for generations to come.

Film Composers Spotlight Week 1: John Williams

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Greetings,readers! Last month I spotlighted my favorite on-screen couples. This month is devoted to film music. Each week I will examine contributions by significant film composers. There are so many great ones to choose from. I could probably devote a year to this topic. There will likely be a sequel to this spotlight. To start things off,I’m highlighting the film composing contributions of John Williams.

John Williams is so talented I could write about him every day for a year and still have material. At 84 years old he’s still with us and working his magic on movies. He recently received his 50th Academy Award nomination for Star Wars: the Force Awakens. He’s the second-most nominated person in the history of the Oscars and the most-nominated living person. But enough with his accolades. If I listed them all I would never get a chance to start talking about all his great music.

Where to begin with John Williams’ music? Well,Jaws is a great place to start. The film was a troubled production from the word go. But it would signify that there was a great new director in Hollywood: Steven Spielberg. He had directed for television for a bit,including a made-for-TV movie called Duel and had made his film-directing debut with The Sugarland Express. Williams scored Sugarland,and Spielberg got him onboard for Jaws. It was the start of the greatest actor-composer collaborative team since Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock. But I digress.

John Williams’ score for Jaws appears simple at first. It’s a two-note repetitive them akin to chopsticks. Dun-dun. Dun-dun. Dun-dun dun-dun dun-dun  Dun-dun. But that main theme works because Williams manages to build on it with great layers of musical texture. There’s a horn part in the opening title sequence of Jaws that is simply one of the most chilling and beautiful things ever played. What’s great too is that mixed in with the menacing theme of the shark there’s a fun adventure theme for Amity Island done largely with woodwinds. All of this combined to create one of the most memorable scores in movie history. It rightfully brought Williams an Oscar. Over the years,Spielberg has rightfully credited the score as a major reason for the film’s success. For a long time Williams and his orchestra were the shark because the mechanical one didn’t work. Here’s a taste of the wonderful Jaws score:

There’s no way to discuss the career of John Williams without mentioning Star Wars. Williams has composed for all of the now seven installments. Each time he has come back with fresh material to add to his original iconic themes. Let’s start with the opening fanfare that plays over the iconic crawl. The music is the first indication of what we can expect from the legendary space saga. Here’s the music:

The bombastic and elegant use of the brass from the very beginning is a signal we as an audience are in for something truly epic. Williams has a knack for opening movies with a bang. Another great example? The opening for Superman: the Movie. But back to Star Wars. The music for the film has not just a sense of epic bravado,but a real feel of fun. One of my favorite pieces on the soundtrack for the original film is the Cantina Band music. You probably remember the scene in the bar on Mos Eisley: lots of aliens having drinks and listening to space jazz. It’s quirky,but upbeat and fun. Then there’s the romantic and heroic theme for Princess Leia and the dramatic music from the Throne Room scene at the end,which is a return to the epic fanfare that opened the film. In between is the gorgeous Force theme that is sprinkled throughout Star Wars. My favorite use of it is when Luke is staring longingly at the binary sunset on his home planet. It’s one of the most moving moments in the saga and it gives us a great look at our hero. I’m just scratching the surface of all the reasons the Star Wars score is great. In my opinion,it’s the greatest achievement of Williams’ career. Even in the less than stellar prequels,Williams’ music was a reason to celebrate the cinematic return to a galaxy far,far,away.

Next up in my Williams highlights is the flying theme from E.T..

This was another collaboration between Williams and Spielberg. It would net Williams another Oscar. It doesn’t matter how old I get. E.T. always manages to bring out my inner child. A large reason for that is the music. In the most iconic scene in the movie,E.T. and Elliot fly over the moon on a bicycle. Take out the music and it doesn’t have the same emotional impact. We go over the moon on the strings of John Williams’ violins. At the end of the movie when *spoiler alert* E.T. goes home,there’s an operatic feel,especially in the use of brass instruments,that really makes us sad to see the lovable alien go home and say goodbye to Elliot. Again,play that scene without the music and it’s not the same. The sign of a great composer is when you can hear their music and automatically picture the story. But take their music out and the story loses its power. That’s the genius of John Williams.

The next Williams score is one of my favorites and it’s his most underrated score if you ask me. Not surprisingly,it’s from another Steven Spielberg film. Catch Me If You Can is a breezy,fun romp. Even the opening credits are fun.

All of Williams’ scores are unique,but I think Catch Me If You Can is one of his most original ones. It’s a great throwback to Williams’ roots as a jazz musician. And,as a saxophone player,learning the alto part for it is on my goal list. The light-hearted opening sets the tone for what is to come: a very entertaining game of cat and mouse between Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio. Aside from the great saxophone solo here is a wonderful use of percussion,especially marimba. And then there’s the finger snapping. That’s the icing on the cake. In addition to the main theme,there’s a beautiful yet melancholy theme for the relationship between Leonardo DiCaprio and his on-screen father Christopher Walken. I can’t figure out how Catch Me If You Can doesn’t routinely get mentioned as one of Williams’ greatest scores. Maybe it’s just because his body of work is so impressive and that makes it hard to narrow things down.

The last John Williams score I want to touch on is the one from Robert Altman’s psychological thriller Images.

Released in 1972,Images was a very daring and experimental film. John Williams considers the score one of his favorites. In fact,before Williams created the iconic score for Jaws,it’s the music Spielberg had playing over the film. Of note is this tidbit about the score:

The sounds in the film, such as the crystal chimes, were provided by avant-garde Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashta, utilising strings and percussion, to effect a unique series of exotic sounds, which complemented John Williams haunting music score.–Internet Movie Database

The use of percussion gives the whole score an unsettling feeling. That’s what you want in the score for a psychological thriller.It’s hard to put this score’s greatness into words. It’s so unique. Maybe that’s the best word for it. What’s interesting is that as experimental as it is,it’s somehow beautiful at the same time. It’s certainly one of the most provocative film scores I’ve ever heard. It was very daring,even for 1972,when counter culture was thriving and films were really pushing the envelope.

I realize this is less than a hundredth of Williams’ contributions to film. But when you’re as prolific of a talent as Williams,no single piece of writing can do your career justice. John Williams is my favorite film composer of all-time. He can compose for epics like Star Wars,horror films like Jaws,rollicking adventure such as Raiders of the Lost Ark,haunting Holocaust stories (Schindler’s List),magical children’s classics (Harry Potter),tales of the exotic (Memoirs of a Geisha)…the list goes on. John Williams has composed not just for film,but has also given us concert pieces and composed for television. John Williams is one of the most prolific talents to ever exist. We should consider ourselves fortunate to live in the era of his talent.