In June, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra brings an array of acts for its Live at Powell Hall series: from R&B artist Ledisi to banjo legend Béla Fleck, from a celebration of iconic female singers to an evening of the music of Nat and Natalie Cole.
But two events caught my eye: the screenings of two classic films, Psycho (June 22) and Casablanca (June 23), with scores performed live by the SLSO. To dig a little deeper into the worlds of these scores and their composers, I spoke with Todd Decker, Professor and Chair of Music at Washington University in St. Louis, a noted film music scholar who is author of several books including Hymns for the Fallen: Combat Movie Music and Sound after Vietnam, and Who Should Sing “Ol’ Man River”?: The Lives of an American Song.
Tim Munro: What is special about the art of film scoring?
Todd Decker: There’s one school of thought that says that we don’t hear movie music, that we don’t register it. In fact, a famous film scholar calls film music “unheard melodies.” I don’t agree with that. When you listen to a symphony, you create your own sense of a musical narrative. Symphonic film music uses that language and attaches it to a story, to characters. It brings the expressive resources of the orchestra into this other experience. Hearing live scores with classic films amplifies this powerful experience, it brings the collective instrument of the orchestra into a direct connection with an immersive story.
TM: Can you talk about the early generation of Hollywood film composers, like Max Steiner [composer of the score for Casablanca]?
TD: Almost all of them were émigrés from Europe who moved to America in the 1920s or the ‘30s. Some made a passage through New York City, writing or conducting musical theater on Broadway. They came to Hollywood in the 1930s, when the movie studios became a center for orchestral music. All the major studios had their own staff orchestras, and this created tremendous pressure to use orchestras in every film. If you’re paying these guys, you’re going to use an orchestra. The golden age of orchestral movie music for orchestra is the 1930s and ‘40s, when Los Angeles was filled with these European-trained composers. They knew the 19th century concert repertoire backwards and forwards. And they had this body of terrific professional musicians who could play anything put in front of them.
TM: How would the scoring process work?
TD: Steiner did not score his 300-plus films alone. A friend of mine is a Max Steiner scholar, and he talks about “Max Steiner and Company.” It’s like a Renaissance painter’s studio: Steiner was responsible for the vision, but he was the head of Warner Brothers’ large music department, with a group of very skilled musicians, arrangers, and copyists. Typically, Max Steiner would watch the final, edited film and would then work with his staff of musical assistants. And they had to work very quickly. Within a few weeks—or even days!—they could score an entire film: compose the themes, write and orchestrate the musical cues, and record to the edited film. Every studio had their own recording studios, where they would go in and record the cues while a print of the film was being projected. Usually Max Steiner would be on the podium. One of the cool things about seeing a film like Casablanca live with an orchestra is that you are in a sense recreating the moment when the score was being recorded.
TM: Can you talk about Steiner’s musical style?
TD: Steiner’s not subtle. If you watch a Steiner film, when you see the Statue of Liberty you’re likely to hear a bit of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” When a character in a Steiner film falls into the water, inevitably you hear the sound of a harp glissando. But he writes melody after melody that is memorable and moving. Not so much in Casablanca, where he was given the tune “As Time Goes By” to work with. The song was part of the original play that Casablanca was based on. The tune was part of the script.
TM: Bernard Herrmann was only a generation younger than Steiner, but his score for Psycho sounds completely different from Casablanca.
TD: Herrmann didn’t have the same rootedness in a Hollywood studio [as Steiner]. By the time you get to Psycho, the orchestras attached to the studios had been dissolved. And Herrmann didn’t score 300 films the way Steiner did; Herrmann was both a film composer and a concert composer, and tried to keep these worlds separate. Herrmann’s music has a distinctive quality to it that is particularly evident in a score like Psycho. There’s more of a “modernist” quality; it’s less Romantic. It’s more angular, and not nearly as tune-based; it tends to be more repetitive and obsessive. In Steiner’s era the default was to write for a full orchestra. But the score to Psycho is only strings. In Herrmann there’s a sense that each film has its own sound. That’s an innovative approach to film scoring for the time. He ended up being very fortunate, working with major directors whose films have lasted: Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock [director of Psycho]. Being identified with these major directors has made Herrmann a figure of tremendous stature in Hollywood history.
TM: How does the work of these older composers resonate in film music today?
TD: Steiner was there when synchronized, pre-recorded movie scores were invented at the very beginning of the 1930s. He had to solve that problem: how do we attach a film score to the film in this set way, where the score becomes part of the sound of the film, just like the dialogue, just like the sound effects. So anytime an orchestra is playing in a film, there is some debt to Steiner and those early guys.
Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho will be performed by the SLSO with the film on June 22, 7 PM. Max Steiner’s score for Casablanca will be performed by the SLSO with the film on June 23, 3 PM. Go to slso.org for tickets and more information.