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The Birth Of Movie Music From A-Z
The early history of soundtracks in 26 letters

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Movie music began way back in the era of kinetoscopes and nickelodeons, with a man tickling the ivories in a dusty corner of a theatre. Over the next century or so, it evolved, swelled and cranked up into the kind of Han Zimmer fanfares and Howard Shore symphonies that would probably blow that poor pianist clean off his stool. The road from Dmitri Shostakovich to Danny Elfman has been a long one, so to kick off Empire’s giant soundtrack celebration, we’ve assembled a handy guide to the medium’s first 60 years.

WORDS PHIL DE SEMLYEN
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A is for Alfred Newman
Dad of American Beauty and Skyfall scorer Thomas and uncle to Randy 'You've Got A Friend In Me' Newman, Alfred Newman's DNA was probably made of crochets and quavers. Along with Max Steiner and Dimitri Tiomkin, he was one of the "three godfathers" of movie music who dragged the movie score kicking and screaming towards its current, narrative-driven form. Moguls like Sam Goldwyn and Darryl Zanuck regularly hired him, he prepped Rodgers and Hammerstein's stage musicals for the big screen and won nine – NINE – Oscars during his 40-year, 200-film career. He also wrote this and we love him for that, too.

B is for Battleship Potemkin
Subsequently reworked by those Soviet-loving popsters the Pet Shop Boys, the original score for Sergei Eisenstein's great bolshe-flick was something entirely new at the time. Edmund Meisel, an Austrian composer, was given only 12 days to create a score for the film. Not only did he manage it, he also came up with an entirely new approach to film music, eschewing thumpingly overscored music in favour of cues that tied in closely to the action on screen. The result was enduring and, like the film, hugely influential. That said, it's been a while since 'The Men And The Maggots' got played at a wedding.

C is for Camille Saint-Saëns



The French classical composer is attributed with the first ever movie score. 1908 silent The Assassination Of The Duc Of Guise – basically The Day Of The Jackal in tights – is only 15 minutes long but remains more than a capersome curio thanks to a specially written score by the 73 year-old pianist. Early silents were often accompanied by glorious but (in the context) tub-thumping classical pieces like Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony or Rossini's William Tell Overture (see: 'W'). Here was a very early stab at meshing music and narrative in a more coherently filmy way. And, yes, the Duc does die at the end. SPOILER!

D is for Disney
When Victor Records released an LP full of the chirpy, heigh-ho'ing ditties of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs in January 1938, Hollywood had its first commercially distributed soundtrack. Judging by the exhaustive title of the record – Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (With The Same Characters And Sound Effects As In The Film Of That Title) – Disney felt there was quite a lot of explaining to be done. There might have been one or two teething problems with the marketing, too, judging by the entirely Snow White-free album sleeve.

E is for Expressionism


Not just there for the jaggedly out-of-kilter, shadowy, long-fingered things in life, German expressionist filmmakers like Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau were also trailblazers in the art of marrying original music with their scary visions of disrupted societies. Lang had Gottfried Huppertz score Metropolis and Die Nibelungen, while Hans Erdmann penned a new score for Murnau's Nosferatu; both offering orchestral pieces and leitmotifs. In Erdman's case, these were so full of dissonance and edginess, it's like Count Orlok himself had taken up residence in your earlobes.

F is for 42nd Street
Aged five, a time in life when Empire was still learning that cat litter isn't a snack, old Busby 'Buzz' Berkeley was already on stage and sowing the seeds for a stellar career on Broadway and Hollywood. A director, choreographer and flamboyant figure, whose grand vision for 42nd Street established him in Tinseltown, Berkeley was the Baz Luhrmann of his day. Expect to feel Berkeley's influence all over The Great Gatsby.

G is for Georges Méliès
Pioneering filmmaker and star of Hugo, Georges Méliès went one step further than most silent-era directors and played the piano himself at the premiere of his sci-fi flick Trip To The Moon. Which makes him James Cameron and Howard Shore all under one top hat.

H is for Hitchcock
The Master could pick a composer – in fact, he picked a fair few. Bernard Herrmann was the most regular collaborator (more on him later), but German émigré Franz Waxman had some stellar highlights working with Hitch, too. "A soundboard for the subconscious" is how Hitchcock soundtrack aficionado Jack Sullivan describes his work on Rebecca (1940), while Waxman's cues lent Rear Window (1954) both swooning romance and pot-boiling menace. By the latter, he was an Academy Award winner twice, thanks to his work on Sunset Boulevard and A Place In The Sun. Not too shabby for a kid earmarked for a career as a bank clerk.

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Your Comments

1 RE: Where is John Williams?
Here's John Williams: More

Posted by Hood_Man on Saturday April 20, 2013, 15:16

2 RE: Where is John Williams?
This is The Early History of Soundtracks. Apparently you've missed the "early". It's The Birth of Movie Music. John Williams will be along in about a hundred years. You fool. More

Posted by Osric on Saturday April 20, 2013, 11:18

3 Where is John Williams?
Frankly shocked to see the notable absence of John Williams from this list. One of the most iconic film composers of all time, the man has scored what can easily be described as the most famous film soundtracks ever (E.T, Jurassic Park, Star Wars, Schindler's List). His music is the soundtrack of mine, and millions of others', childhood. A massive contributor to the delicate, yet criminally undervalued, aspect of cinema that is the score. More

Posted by darragh793 on Saturday April 20, 2013, 03:39

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