When Words Aren’t Enough: Music in Film
There is a story surrounding composer John Williams and the score for “Schindler’s List,” one of the most moving and memorable instances of music in film. As both director Steven Spielberg and Williams tell it, Spielberg showed Williams a draft of the film before asking Williams to compose its score. Williams, moved by the heartbreaking film that had unspooled before him, replied that he was unequal to the task, and that the film deserved a better composer.
Spielberg is said to have replied, “I know, but they’re all dead.”
“Schindler’s List” would have been a monumental achievement regardless of its score, but the haunting perfection of Williams’ music, performed by Itzhak Perlman, communicates the same keen yet restrained despair as a choked sob. Listening to the score on its own evokes the same feelings of grief, loss, and ultimately, hope as watching the film itself.
Where would Spielberg and Lucas be without the epic scope of John Williams’ scores? For that matter, where would any film be without the power of music? What would the world of Tim Burton be like without the darkly whimsical scores of frequent collaborator Danny Elfman? Would the famed “Shower Scene” in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” have had the same impact without the frenzied violins of Bernard Herrmann? Will any of us who grew up in the 1990s ever forgive James Horner for flooding our radios with “My Heart Will Go On,” from his score for “Titanic?”
While an entire entry could be dedicated to the bold-faced names of the composing industry (and if you’re not familiar with John Williams, arguably the grand-daddy of them all, might I suggest you start here?), there are so many more who deserve equal recognition for their contributions to film. While by no means a comprehensive list, these are some of the composers who have created indelible moments in film history without ever appearing on camera.
Ennio Morricone – Remembered for his partnership with director Sergio Leone, Morricone has also scored iconic films by directors like Brian DePalma (“The Untouchables”) and Giuseppe Tornatore (“Cinema Paradiso”). Morricone is one of the most prolific film composers of all time, with over 500 films to his credit.
Max Steiner – A child prodigy from Vienna who would produce some of the most memorable movie themes of all time. “Gone with the Wind,” “Casablanca,” “Top Hat,” “A Summer Place” – from Scarlett O’Hara to Sandra Dee, Steiner scored the greats.
Maurice Jarre – From the lush strains of the theme for “Lawrence of Arabia” to the haunting beauty of “Lara’s Theme” in “Dr. Zhivago,” Jarre composed music for over 160 films before his death in 2009.
Bernard Herrmann – Remembered best for his twelve collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock, Herrmann worked with the giants of film history. Herrmann was behind the thundering score for the Orson Welles opus “Citizen Kane”; his final accomplishment before his death in 1975 was the score for Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.”
Nino Rota – Zefferelli, Vischonti, Fellini, Coppola…beyond their Italian heritage and gift for making ground-breaking films, these greats of cinema all have the great composer Nino Rota in common. “The Godfather” waltzed to his music, Anita Ekberg heard his delicate notes under the waters of the Trevi fountain in “La Dolce Vita,” and Romeo and Juliet fell in love to his “What is a Youth?”
Sound off, Pencilheads! Who created some of your favorite film scores? Which director and composer make your favorite team? Make some noise in the comments below!
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