Many of the greatest composers of the 20th century wrote music for movies: Sergei Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky, Aaron Copland's The Red Pony, Ralph Vaughan Williams' Sinfonia Antarctica, and William Walton's Henry V all began life as film scores and have become staples of concert hall performance.
And many of today's most distinguished composers‹among them John Corigliano (The Red Violin), Elliot Goldenthal (Frida), Philip Glass (Kundun), Tan Dun (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)‹consider film work as part of an overall career embracing many different outlets for composition.
Movie music, like ballet or opera or incidental music for a play, is created as part of a collaborative artistic effort. It is not initially designed to be heard apart from its original context. But the best film music can often stand alone, and some of the most compelling orchestral work of the past 30 years was, in fact, conceived for the most popular entertainment medium of our time.
For six concerts in January, the National Symphony Orchestra will devote its energies to movie music. Soundtracks: Music and Film is a two-week festival devoted to the exploration of the film score. NSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin and five-time Academy Award winner John Williams are serving as co-artistic directors of the festival.
Both are steeped in the language of motion pictures as well as in the vocabulary of music. Slatkin's parents, violinist Felix Slatkin and cellist Eleanor Aller, were among the most distinguished of Hollywood musicians and founders of the legendary Hollywood String Quartet. Williams is a former studio pianist who rose gradually through the ranks of television composers to become one of the world's best known composers of film music.
Together, Slatkin and Williams have developed a most unusual concert series: six nights of film music from around the world and from many different circumstances. They include one evening devoted entirely to a classic "silent" film, with live orchestral accompaniment; another one devoted to the film music of composers better known for their work in the concert hall; and, perhaps most unique, an evening in which Slatkin and Williams demonstrate the intricacies of creating music for motion pictures.
As Williams has pointed out many times in various venues‹particularly during his 13-year stint as music director of the Boston Pops‹writing film music is not for every composer. In some ways it's far more difficult than simply writing a piece for the concert hall, where composers can let their imaginations roam freely.
First and foremost, film music must serve the film. That means performing one or more of a variety of functions: suggesting the period or locale, creating a specific mood or enhancing the atmosphere, linking disparate scenes, or, most important, providing the necessary emotion that may or may not already be present in the scene. That is, to help the audience feel what the filmmaker needs them to feel at that moment: joy, sorrow, romance, excitement, tension, horror. It's something that music can do better than any other component of the filmmaking arts, and something that is all too often taken for granted (even by filmmakers).
Because movie music often contains this emotional element, it has become a favorite at pops concerts around the world. Henry Mancini and John Williams became household names as a result of concerts that showcased their music for films and TV. Record buyers by the millions have purchased soundtrack albums of films ranging from Star Wars to Titanic, not just because they liked the films but also because for days after seeing a film, they were haunted by its themes and underscore.
Soundtracks: Music and Film will offer a kaleidoscopic view of movie music through the years. The first and last concerts in the series (January 23 and February 1) will offer "A Portrait of John Williams," including both his film music (excerpts from Jaws, Schindler's List, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and others) and his concert music (including his bassoon concerto, with soloist Sue Heineman, NSO principal bassoon). The composer himself will conduct the first concert on January 23. Leonard Slatkin will conduct the other on February 1.
The second event (January 24), subtitled "Made in Hollywood, U.S.A.," will feature works by well-known composers who sometimes worked in movies (Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein) and those who did so most of the time (Max Steiner, Alfred Newman, Elmer Bernstein, David Raksin, Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith), with both Williams and Slatkin conducting. The third (January 25), subtitled "In Synch: How Do They Do It?," will combine film clips, live music, and discussion by both Williams and Slatkin.
"The European Aesthetic" (January 30) will feature a potpourri of European film music by such composers as Saint-Saëns, Honegger, Walton, and Shostakovich; while the fifth concert (January 31) will involve an abbreviated screening of Fritz Lang's 1926 classic Metropolis with Slatkin conducting the score live with the NSO in excerpts of classical music specifically chosen for the film by producer John Goberman.
Soundtracks: Music and Film promises to be an extraordinary event in the NSO season‹one that will provide concertgoers with a fresh appreciation of music composed for motion pictures.
Jon Burlingame writes about film music for Daily Variety and The Los Angeles Times. He is the author of Sound and Vision: 60 Years of Motion Picture Soundtracks.