Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Music, Movies, and Me

I chanced upon an essay by Jeff Britting, "Romantic Music: Dead or Alive?" on the American Renaissance weblog and was slightly astounded to learn that it was written in the same year as my Social Critic essay, "Why the Music Died," penned in the summer of 1997, and republished on Rule of Reason in 2006. Part of my astonishment was that Britting, whom I do not know and did not know in 1997, had reached the same independent conclusions I had, one of which is that our culture is not conducive to inspiring the composition of what is commonly referred to as "classical" or "Romantic" music, except occasionally as film scores.

And because our culture is in the process of being "deconstructed," that is why such music, if it is being composed, will remain on the far fringes of contemporary culture, unknown, unacknowledged, and derogated or banished from an irrational culture by its bizarre "philosopher-king-guardians" in especially academia.

The home I grew up in throughout the 1950's and early 1960's was not friendly towards "classical" or "Romantic" music (in fact, was wholly ignorant of it), and if music was to be heard, it was popular music. My only introduction to Romantic music was in the TV programs I watched. The theme or incidental music of these programs contributed in no little way to the formation of my musical esthetics, while the programs themselves helped me to form my literary esthetics. I feel fortunate that I grew up in that period, because children today do not have that advantage. As Ayn Rand has remarked, the possibilities of conveying Romanticism in television (and in movies) were developed in the twilight of Romanticism. I do not envy today's children; in fact, I pity them.

Britting writes:

The chief reason Romantic music can persist and even thrive in today’s context is the fact of storytelling.

It is the storytelling element that is crucial here, because I am primarily a novelist, and while the TV programs did not teach me how to write, they imparted an appreciation for plotted stories of suspense, adventure, and heroism, and I began to associate the best of those programs with the best of the music they were connected to. Music, after all, can evoke an image of some thing, it can help to objectify an idea or an emotion, even if it differs from what inspired a composer.

In terms of my writing career, music has played as crucial role as a point of inspiration as have stories and novels for which there is no musical connection. Early on, as a child, I associated my favorite movies and TV programs with their scores or theme music. Even today, I cannot hear Emil Řezníček's  "Donna Diana" without thinking of "Sergeant Preston of the Yukon," or  Gioachino Antonio Rossini's "William Tell Overture" without thinking of "The Lone Ranger."

Not all memorable Romantic music, however, was written in the 19th century. Representative of the theme and incidental scores for programs I watched as a child are Albert Glasser's theme for "The Cisco Kid," Walter Schumann's attention-getting intro for "Dragnet," and Leon Klatzkin's "Superman" theme. I could cite a dozen more, including Fred Steiner's intro to "Perry Mason," and the intro to "Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion" (whose orchestration of "Le Boudin" gave me a taste for martial music, as well). Later, the opening credits and incidental music, written by Ron Grainer, Robert Farnon, and Albert Elms for "The Prisoner" will always be thrilling, no matter how often I hear it (Ron Grainer's name, however, is I think the only one that appears in the credits). I would regret ending this partial list of my favorite programs without mentioning Laurie Johnson's score for "The Avengers" (and my first movie star crush, Diana Rigg, as Mrs. Emma Peel).

Westerns? Of course. There was "Paladin," sung by Johnny Western, and Zorro's theme, written by William Lava. There were a score of other Westerns, but these mentions will suffice. I will mention that I was not a fan of Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy.  

"Music Appreciation Course 202" for me occurred when I graduated from television to the "big screen."  The first movies I saw in a movie palace were of my own choice, to hear Russell Garcia's score to George Pal's "The Time Machine" and Bernard Hermann's wild, sometimes discordant fandango for Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest." Later, I was enthralled by Maurice Jarre's score for "Lawrence of Arabia," and learned how to wed a score and spoken narrative in the opening of one of the last great memorable epics to be shot by Hollywood, "Khartoum," the music by Frank Cordell and narrated by Leo Genn.

Britting makes a very important point about the importance of the integration of film music with its subject:

Whether narrative or documentary, film utilizes dramatic development, conflict and resolution. When music rises to the level of a successful Romantic film, and vice versa, the result is not only a seamlessly integrated work of art but also a score that frequently can stand alone and be appreciated for its own Romantic quality….

Technically, the challenge to the film composer is to underscore and suggest an emotional subtext, whatever it may be, rather than striking false or melodramatic notes out of balance with the action. The music must be adapted to the film; it must be functional, and only secondarily can it be considered as art in its own right. However, the element of greatest interest to listeners and the most intriguing possibility in film composition is what composers refer to as “the big tune.” Certain films allow and even demand the use of long, very defined musical lines….

However, concert suites of film music, often to the accompaniment of actual film footage, are heard with increasing frequency. Such arrangements tend to be from pictures with a grand scale sense of the heroic or the tragic—further evidence of Romanticism’s ongoing appeal.

"Lawrence" and "Khartoum" are grand scale movies that demanded grand scale scores. They are not the only ones I could cite, but they are in the forefront of films I would recommend watching and listening to. (The fact that they are fictionalized dramatizations of actual historic persons, and come under the genre of Naturalism, is irrelevant. Their scores are virtually stand-alone opuses.)

The two Western movies whose scores made a deep impression on me were "Shane" and "High Noon." Victor Young wrote the score for "Shane" and it is entirely orchestral. "High Noon," however, features a theme written by Dimitri Tiomkin, and sung by Tex Ritter (and it's the only song sung by Ritter that I can enjoy).

William Walton's score for the Olivier "Henry the Fifth" is another example of a seamless integration of music with its subject matter.

Then there is that penultimate British Western, "Zulu," whose score was written by the inimitable and prolific John Barry. In this link Barry explains how he came to write the score. The mass tribal wedding scene in the beginning of the film always reminds me of a totalitarian society reduced to a non-technological state. This is where environmentalists want us to go.

I have written seventeen novels (including the six-title Sparrowhawk series), and music is either mentioned in them or plays a key role. For example, in The Head of Athena, a detective novel set in San Francisco in 1929, the hero detective attends a concert featuring a ballet that incorporates the rondo from Frederick Delius's "Florida Suite" to dramatize the rescue of Proserpine from Hell and Pluto's clutches by Mercury. I don't particularly like Delius's opus, but that portion of it suited my purposes because of the theme and plot of the novel.

Like me, all my heroes favor "classical" or Romantic music over contemporary popular music. This is not snobbishness on their part. They are all of a certain "elevated" level of thinking and acting. The Beatles and Frankie Avalon just wouldn't match their epistemology and metaphysics. I did not much like the popular music favored my foster parents, and that was when I could understand the lyrics. I was not a fan of the Beatles, even though they wrote hummable melodies and repeatable lyrics (at least, early on they did). Today, I have little truck with what passes for pop music. "Rap" is not music, but a return to pre-music primitivism with its in-your-face malevolence. Perhaps that is why younger Islamic jihadists are drawn to it. The genre is nihilistic.

As for popular music, I cannot stand Country and Western, or any kind of "achy-breaky" music,  but there is one exception. This is Iris Dement's soulful allegory on the retreat of the West, "Our Town." I do not know if Dement intended it as an allegory, but that is what I hear in her lyrics. I listen to it only when I am in a severely pessimistic mood, and that is not very often. Another exception is Enya's "Orinoco Flow," or "Sail Away," which I remember for purely sentimental reasons. While crisscrossing the country over the years in grim determination to write and finish Sparrowhawk, virtually every time I stopped at a gas station, that was the piped music being played. It haunted me for reasons I could not fathom.

Another film score that ran through my head in those desperate years, while behind the wheel, speeding east and west across the country, wondering how long it would last under Bill Clinton, was a portion of Vangelis's music for "Last of the Mohicans." The movie was awful – it turned the story and characters upside-down for no good reason, but some of the scenes and music were memorable. Listen to it here, beginning at minute 1:45 and ending at 6:46.

When I began researching and writing my magnum opus, Sparrowhawk, in late 1992, it entailed immersing myself in 18th century culture and politics, and this caused me to develop a taste for much but not all of its music, all of it pre-Romantic.

The first instance of music that inspired me was Dave Roylance and Bob Galvin's "Tall Ships Suite," which I first heard on a Norfolk, Virginia classical station. I recorded it and played it often to get back into my "Sparrowhawk" writing mood after a droll day at the office. I would also fantasize that someday it would become the score for a film version of the series. The score is not on YouTube, and this is the best link I could muster.

There is so much music in Sparrowhawk that I can only highlight a few examples here. The first major number is from Handel's "Judas Maccabaeus," which Jack Frake, the young hero, hears for the one and only time during a concert in a London theater in the mid-1740's, "See, the conquering hero comes." It isn't the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which is what I heard for the first time, and what Jack heard may have been wanting in power. 

In Book Five: Revolution of Sparrowhawk, I depict a concert given in a private plantation home. Reverdy Brune, a lost romantic interest who has come back into Hugh Kenrick's life, serenades him with what sounds like a song of love. The words are in Italian, which he does not understand, but Hugh has a different response to it.

As he listened to Reverdy sing in a flawless soprano voice, Hugh was suddenly overcome with the sense that the music was about him. He could not understand the Italian words that his wife sang, but they seemed nevertheless to beckon him to accept the aria as his own, and to continue his enthralling, guiltless journey through life. The words were irrelevant, he thought, yet words were necessary to accompany the music to convey a joyous, untroubled serenity. The foreign, unknown words seemed to invite him to substitute his own, yet he knew not what words to put in their place. Those words celebrated his every conscious thought and action, his own existence and that of the world. They had the sense of a debut and an end at the same time, and evoked a vista that stretched behind him – the one traveled – and another before him, yet to be traveled. It was an anthem, he thought, one he wished he could somehow project and express. It was as sacred and joyous as any great hymn he had heard in the cathedrals of his past, yet it was somehow addressed to him, and to him alone. He wondered if Reverdy knew this, if she understood him enough to have chosen this cantata for that reason.

This link to the performance, beginning at minute 9:40 to the end, nearly recreates such a private concert in colonial times, with a small ensemble, as big a group as a small town could gather. For a full orchestral version, listen to this link, beginning at minute 7:45 to the end.

"Folk" music also is employed in the Sparrowhawk series. "Brian Boru's March," by anonymous, is played here on her harp by Carol Thompson. During this aforementioned concert, Etáin on her harp redubs it "The March to Caxton Pier," when the townsmen of Caxton on the York River marched to stop the hated tax stamps.
I hope it is understood that my examples here of film and other music are only the tip of my particular iceberg. Someday I may write a book on this subject, and this short essay will be the basis of it.

I will let Jeff Britting end this column with his advice and recommendations:

Despite its enormous popularity, unless a voice is raised in its defense, the Romantic style may well fade from film in the same way it disappeared from live performances. On the other hand, with a return to the philosophy that made Romanticism possible in the first place, the musical establishment might one day rediscover emotional range, drama, melodic depth, and intellectual seriousness—values readily available to us all over popcorn at the Saturday matinee.

Well, now that we can watch virtually any movie on the Internet, and have our Saturday matinees any day of the week, we will not need to listen to someone else's munching popcorn and sipped sodas. Civilization, noted Ayn Rand, is progress towards privacy.


revereridesagain said...

I don't know how anyone gets through life without Romantic music. When I was a kid we would go to the Boston Pops concerts several times a year. The first half was "classical music" while the second was show tunes, movie scores, and pop. That was my first exposure to Romantic music. (To a 10-year-old Rimsky-Korsakov's "Capriccio Espagnole" is just awesome.) But I doubt most kids now have access on a regular basis to anything like that.

Pete said...

This is a most intriguing column. Thank you, Ed. I had never noticed that so many of my own favorites in the art of music have been recruited from the art of motion pictures (going all the way back to my days of philosophical disorientation, when champions of nihilism such as Stanley Kubrick occupied my list of favorites in art). In spite of its irredeemable plot, I found a new window into the 18th century with the O.S.T of "Barry Lyndon". The fife and drums of "The British Grenadiers" and "Lilliburlero" radiate an outgoing, can-do enthusiasm that has accompanied me on countless occasions when walking (or marching) to work.

The British Grenadiers:


From there I added "Yankee Doodle" (fife and drums) and "The Star-Spangled Banner" (by Merrill Miller, which is the best-sung version I've been able to find to this day).

The Star-Spangled Banner:

I was glad to find more tunes that reflect the great tradition of English Liberty in the mediocre and low-budget movie adaptations of the "Sharpe" book-series.

Hearts of Oak:

Rule Britannia:

Kubrick’s infamous horror show "A Clockwork Orange" turned into an invaluable introduction to the immortal Ludwig van Beethoven, who remains my favorite of all in music to this day.

I recruited the most beautiful flute & harp piece from the movie Amadeus (loved your review of that one, Ed), which I recommend to complement with the beautiful paintings of Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema.

Mozart Flute & Harp:

Lawrence Alma Tadema:


More recently I have enjoyed listening to Gene Krupa’s Drum Boogie (thanks to this Blog’s recommendation of Ball of Fire), as well as Maria Callas’ Habanera.

Drum Boogie:

Carmen Overture, Maria Callas:

I apologize for the lack of proper hyperlink formatting.