The Birth Of Movie Music From A-Z

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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.

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.

I is for Intertitles
This was the bit of silent films that, in Murnau, Chaplin or Wiene's films, made audiences privy to an important snippet of dialogue. In less skilled hands, they explained what in the name of Jehoshaphat's auntie was actually happening on screen. Either way, they needed musical accompaniment. After all, if people wanted to sit and read in silence they'd probably have gone to the library. Friedrich Murnau's Sunrise has some of the most memorable intertitles – check out the 0:24 mark here – but the work of the director and his composer, Hugo Riesenfeld, was substantially assisted by new sound-on-film technology of Fox's Movietone system. This was the first film to utilise a new technology that would make matching music and image a cinch.

J is for Juilliard and Bernard Herrmann
The musical schooling of Bernard Herrmann, like that of his fellow movie composer Alex North, took place at New York's arty hothouse. It was a springboard for work with Orson Welles (there was an Oscar-winning debut gig on Citizen Kane) and an acrimonious battle with RKO over its hatchet job on The Magnificent Ambersons. But it's his partnership with Alfred Hitchcock, beginning with The Trouble With Harry in 1955, for which he's most famous. Their relationship, sometimes testy, was definitive (there's even been a play written about it), with B-Hermz's mastery of tone, mood and musical texture contributing hugely to classics like Vertigo and North By Northwest. Just watch his rollicking, baroque-influenced opening track on the latter and you know what's in store: thrills, spills, and, who knows, maybe even a bit with a cropduster, a bus and a suave dude in a suit.

K is for Korngold
Erich Wolfgang Korngold Not just the coolest name in soundtracks, Erich Wolfgang Korngold was one of the founding fathers of movie music. Like his peer Max Steiner (see: 'S'), he hailed from Vienna and was a musical protégé who caught the eye of the great Gustav Mahler. Anchluss and Hitler's Jewish pogroms drove him west to Hollywood where Warner Bros. put him to work filling their films with his distinct character leitmotifs. His great work on The Adventures Of Robin Hood has endured with the film, but The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex and The Sea Hawk were classics of their kind too. As Korngold expert Brendan G. Carroll points out, "His style has exerted a profound influence on modern film music". In your face, Adolf.

L is for Lift To The Scaffold
Miles Davis' moody score for Louis Malle's sparse 1958 thriller was cinema's birth of the cool: a crossing of the two hip streams, the French New Wave and American bebop, into something so new and edgy, you couldn't even listen to it without sunglasses on.

M is for Modern Times
"The three giants of 20th century art are, for me, Picasso, Stravinsky and Chaplin," the great conductor Carl Davis told The Guardian. The tribute to Charlie Chaplin's was testament to his amazing self-taught musical skills as much as his filmmaking and physical comedy. He picked up a myriad of influences in his music hall days and used them to score his films with music that was much more nuanced than the improvised pianos and classic pieces prevalent in the silent era. There was a big place for classical music in his film too, like Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight Of The Bumble Bee (The Gold Rush) and the Hungarian Dance by Johannes Brahms (The Great Dictator), and the ballet of Modern Times. Something for everyone in other words, even those fluent in gobbledygook.

N is for North
Proof that you didn't have to be from Vienna to be a movie music great in the early 20th century (although it helped). Alex North was Juilliard educated, studied modern composer Aaron Copland and called on jazzier influences than his European brethren like the classically-informed Korngold and Steiner. Essentially the coolest cat in '50s movie music, he cut his teeth working with jazz band leader Benny Goodman and penned theatrical music for Elia Kazan's Death Of A Salesman, before following Kazan to LA for A Streetcar Named Desire. The first jazz soundtrack, Streetcar was followed by an edgy, modernist piece (Viva Zapata!) and a score that saw Ancient Rome get its groove on to the super-funky ondioline (Spartacus) – a true pioneer, in other words. That said, he also wrote Unchained Melody, so you can blame him for Robson & Jerome.

O is for Oklahoma!
If they'd written a musical called 'Kerrr-ching!", Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's impact on the coffers of '50s Hollywood could not have been much clearer. The pair were golden boys whose Broadway musicals were transformed, one after another, into big-screen hits with the inevitability of a Michael Bay blockbuster, albeit with fewer bum shots. Show Boat, The King & I, South Pacific, Carmen Jones, Carousel, State Fair, The Sound Of Music… their work crossed the Broadway-to-Tinseltown divide with freakish regularity and success, with a little help from Alfred Newman and others. Ghoulishly, the pair sit still second on Forbes' list of highest-earning dead celebs.

P is for Piano
PianoBack in cinema's earliest days, musical accompaniment was provided exclusively by a man (or woman) tinkling the ivories and often just used to cover up the whirl of the projector. When, in 1896, Auguste and Louis Lumière's train steamed into Ciotat station to a chorus of terrified gasps, the accompaniment was an incongruously jaunty piano melody. In modern-day terms, this is a bit like Chas and Dave playing along to Unstoppable at the IMAX.

Q is for Que Será, Será
Chirpier than a tree full of sparrows, Doris Day's rendition of 'Que Será, Será (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)' in The Man Who Knew Too Much was penned by one of movie music's great double-acts. Composer Jay Livingston and lyricist Ray Evans have been proclaimed "the last great songwriters in Hollywood", and while Hal David and Burt Bacharach and others might argue, three Best Song Oscars take some bettering. Rather than a trillsome piece of cross-promotion, Hitchcock made their song integral to the narrative. Day's character sings it to let her son know that she and hubbie Jimmy Stewart are about to get all Bryan Mills on his kidnappers.

R is for Rainbow, Over The
The movie soundtrack was still in its infancy when Judy Garland’s signature song kicked off a burst of Toto serenading in The Wizard Of Oz. It wasn’t until 1956, when MGM released the whole album, that the general public could lay their hands on the movie version of the ditty. The AFI’s Song of the Century, it joined Bing Crosby’s White Christmas in helping boost the morale of the troops in Europe in their fight against the Wicked Führer of the West. Hollywood’s most hummable tunes even had the power to help the war effort.

Max SteinerS is for Steiner
Godson of Richard Strauss, Vienna-born Max 'Casablanca' Steiner's incredible range makes him possibly the greatest of all pre-war scorers. He did Broadway, RKO melodramas, silents, Technicolor hits – heck, he would have knocked out an episode of Glee, given the chance. He helped make King Kong great – "a symphony accompanied by a movie" is how a fellow musician put it – and applied his rule that "every character should have a theme" to a series of Warner Bros. hits. Surely his greatest achievement, though, is Gone With The Wind, at least in terms of its scale and producer David Selznick's repeated attempts to kill him with his terrifying deadlines. Twenty hour, Benzedrine-fuelled days were needed to get the three-hour score completed in time.

T is for Tiomkin

High Noon... Duel In The Sun... Red River. Some of America's most distinctive Western vistas came soundtracked by a Russian. Fittingly, Dimitri Tiomkin was, himself, a pioneer. He was a shameless self-promoter with a keen business sense that served him pretty darn well in the trenches of silver screen-era Hollywood where he scored five Capra movies, as well as a fistful of horse operas. His famous High Noon ditty, Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling, was especially groundbreaking in spearhead the movie's promotion. "The picture was released after the record and packed theatres," he remembered. Simpson and Bruckheimer might have learnt a thing or two from that.

U is for Underscoring

  • Arriving in Hollywood when the silent era was not far in the rear-view mirror, composers like Max Steiner and Erich Korngold had their work cut out persuading movie moguls that a piece of music could be played under dialogue without either, (a) puzzling the audience, or (b) melting the sound editor's brain. Where is the music supposed to be coming from, wondered skeptical suits. Surely viewers would scour the screen for a radio or gramophone producing the sound? In their worst case scenario, they might bellow "WHAT STRANGE MUSICAL DEITY IS PLAYING THIS??" at the proscenium. Gradually, those dogmatic attitudes evolved. "They began to add a little music here and there", recalled Steiner, "designed to support love scenes or silent sequences". Thanks to him and his peers, not to mention key advances in sound and editing, these baby steps slowly freed film scorers to underscore dialogue scenes to their hearts' content.

    V is for Vienna
    Childhood home of Max Steiner and Erich Korngold, the Austrian capital has a movie music pedigree like no other city. Apart from Los Angeles.

Gioachino RossiniW is for William Tell
Long, long before Han Zimmer's Dark Knight score inspired a generation of musical cues, Gioachino Rossini's William Tell was cinema's go-to music for action sequences. Had a horse-drawn carriage that needed flipping? Rossini was your man. For silent filmmakers, the gallopy-gallopy finale to his opera was like a giant nob marked 'DRAMA' cranked up to 11. Stanley Kubrick used it in a slightly different way in A Clockwork Orange.

X is for Xylophone

Cousin of the marimba.

Y is for Yuletide
At 50m copies shifted since 1942, Bing Crosby's White Christmas, theme to the musical Holiday Inn, remains the biggest selling single ever. Amazingly, Irving Berlin-penned festival fave didn't even spearhead Holiday Inn's musical offerings. 'Be Careful, It's My Heart' initially overshadowed it, but Crosby's charms shone through and helped earn Berlin an Oscar for Best Song. Since then, the chart-topping movie theme has been a key tool in the studio armoury. See also: Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head (Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid), My Heart Will Go On (Titanic) and (Everything I Do) I Do It For You (Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves).

Z is for Zither
There's only one school that will teach you to play the zither, Carol Reed's Noir Academy of Dodgy Criminals and Bombed-out Cityscapes, and to get in you'll need a GSCE in blackmarketeering and a knockoff stash of penicillin. Anton Karas, a gifted musician from childhood, learned to play it under his own steam after finding one in the attic as a boy. Together, he, Reed and that humble zither forged a movie motif that established The Third Man's sense of place and helped elevate it to the status of classic. Oh, and it earned them 12 weeks at the top of the US Billboard chart too.

The Greatest Movie Soundtracks - Empire's Music Celebration