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Music in the Movies

by Kurt Weill

Source: Harper’s Bazaar, vol. 80, no. 9 (September 1946), pp. 257, 398, 400
Reprinted in Lewis Jacobs, ed. The Movies as Medium (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1970), pp. 289-296.

The American movie audience is getting music-conscious. Scores of successful pictures are being discussed at cocktail parties almost in the same way that ballet scores were discussed in the salons of Paris in the twenties. The recording firms release albums of music from outstanding pictures; composers write orchestral suites based on their picture scores; symphonic arrangements of themes from their scores are played over the radio. In the street I heard a young man whistling the theme that indicates D.T.’s moving in on poor Ray Milland; and somebody told me about a lady who closes her eyes as soon as she has taken her seat in the movie theatre, so that she can listen to the music undisturbed by the pictures which are shown with it. Can it be that the movies, after having given a terrific boost to the art of popular songwriting, are now beginning to popularize the work of contemporary composers?

It would not be the first time in the history of music that a powerful institution became a sponsor for musical creation. The great polyphonic masters of the sixteenth century worked in the service of the Catholic Church; Bach had to write a cantata for the Sunday service in his church every week–and the early symphonic and operatic works of the eighteenth century were commissioned by European princes and aristocratic landowners for the entertainment of their guests. Today, in a more democratic world, music has become a powerful medium in the hands of those who provide entertainment for the masses. The men who make our movies are well aware of this. In their projection rooms they have seen many pictures without music, and they know how much the score helps to “warm up” the action of the picture, to heighten the emotional impact, to cover up weaknesses in the plot development or in the acting of certain scenes, and to hold together episodes which would seem quite disconnected without a musical bridge. They know that a scene which is slow and dragging can be made exciting with the proper musical treatment. They know that a good melody will move an audience when the words or the acting don’t succeed.

As a clear indication of the importance which they attach to music, the Hollywood studios have built up large and very efficient musical departments. There are staffs of first-rate conductors, vocal coaches, arrangers and orchestrators, sound experts and technicians, with choral groups who have been specially trained for microphone singing, and orchestra musicians who can read anything at sight. I have been very much impressed in Hollywood with the amount of work, the craftsmanship, which goes into the recording of a score. I think that nowhere in the world is music rehearsed and prepared with such care, with such minute study of the musical problem at hand, as in the Hollywood sound-recording studios. The method that is being used here is the same one they use in every phase of the making of a picture, in the preparation of the script, in the actual [page 398] shooting and in the cutting. It is the method of detail. A picture is a mosaic of numerous small sequences, sometimes not longer than ten seconds, rarely more than two minutes. Each of these sequences is treated as a unit in itself and is prepared with the utmost care. The same is true for the musical treatment. A small piece of music is rehearsed at length until the orchestra is ready for a perfect rendition. The conductor has long discussions with the producer, the director, the sound man, the cutter, sometimes even with the composer, to determine what effect is needed and then the best way to achieve it. And many times there are changes, rewriting, re-recording.

From the standpoint of the composer, this urgent demand for music in the motion-picture industry means, of course, a great deal. There are not many markets for contemporary music, apart from so-called “popular music,” in this country. There is practically no outlet for the American composer’s operatic ambition unless we succeed in creating such an outlet away from the opera houses. The radio offers very limited opportunities for original musical creation. The few available markets (concert, ballet, schools, theatre) have too small a capacity to take care of an abundance of creative talent in this country. It is no wonder that many composers look to the movies as a possible solution of their problems. There is hardly any doubt that some day the motion picture will take its place beside the musical theatre as a free, unrestricted outlet for a composer’s imagination. This will be possible only when a formula for a truly musical picture will be found and developed. But even today, in the limited field of background music for pictures, a considerable number of good composers find a welcome opportunity to write music (sometimes a great deal of it), to improve their technique by hearing their own music, to have large audiences become familiar with their style–and to make a good living. The position of music in general and of the contemporary composer in particular is rather encouraging if we consider the fact that the whole development of music in the movies is only about forty years old and that the whole field of “musical pictures” has been hardly scratched.

It all started with the pianist in the early movie theatres. He has become a part of history, often quoted, imitated, laughed at, and parodied. To most people of my age, the sound of the piano in the nickelodeons is a cherished childhood memory, and many times when we see one of those standard situations in a movie–the villain triumphing over his innocent victim; the daughter being expelled from her father’s house; the mother being separated from her child–we are longing to hear again that tinny old worn-out piano, playing “The March of the Gladiators,” “The Virgin’s Prayer,” or the William Tell overture. The fact remains that the silent movie needed music as a dry cereal needs cream.

In the years that followed, as the silent picture grew up into a full-fledged form of theatrical entertainment, its musical treatment became an important branch of the music industry. The large motion-picture theatres which sprang up in cities all over the world employed large orchestras, and wherever a good musician was in charge of these orchestras, he tried to arrange a clean, carefully worked-out musical continuity for the picture, using the entire repertory of symphonic and operatic music. The leading theatres in large cities had very good orchestras of symphonic size, and a staff of arrangers working overtime to have a complete score ready for each picture.

Men like Hugo Riesenfeld and Erno Rapee created a technique for the “underscoring” of a picture. They had the same basic esthetic problem which our modern film composers are faced with: Should the music follow the dramatic action or emphasize the emotional development of the picture? They chose a sort of middle-of-the-road solution with strong inclination toward the emotional development which is still, basically, the way the problem is solved in our musical departments. The larger studios provided the theatres with lists of suggested musical numbers for their pictures. They also prepared stock repertories of short musical pieces to be used for certain effects–train, thunderstorm, chase, revolution, etc. Some Hollywood studios sent out complete musical scores with their pictures. Chaplin was especially interested in his scores and spent a lot of time with his musical assistants to achieve a musical mood in complete conformity with the mood of the picture. (I will never forget the haunting, bittersweet melody at the end of The Circus when Chaplin disappears in the distance, a disillusioned man, ready to face life.) In some cases young composers wrote entire original scores for silent pictures. A score for the Russian picture Potemkin, by Meisel, created a sensation in Europe. The International Music Festival in Baden-Baden in 1928 was dedicated to film music.

But shortly after, the birth of the talking picture changed the situation entirely. It is significant that the first talkie of world reputation, The Jazz Singer, was a musical picture. Overnight, the popular song had become an important ingredient of picture-making. Hollywood studios bought entire song catalogues from music publishers. Song-writers, conductors, arrangers, dance directors moved from Broadway to Hollywood.

At the same time, the producers and directors of dramatic, non-musical pictures realized that a good underscoring job contributed a great deal to the success of a picture and that the right sound-track mixture of spoken dialogue, music and sound effects was an integral part of its production. This opened a new field for the composer, and soon the big movie centers of the world created a new species of musician, the motion-picture composer. A number of young composers who showed a special talent for this kind of work have developed, with great skill, a sort of standard technique for the underscoring of pictures. A man like Alfred Newman, who must have scored hundreds of pictures, is a master in his field. Other excellent craftsmen whose names are familiar to the movie audiences are Steiner, Korngold, Rosza [sic], Stothart, Young and Waxmann, to name only a few.

These men know, from years of experience, the requirements and the limitations of their work. They know that a good score, according to the producers, is one which you don’t hear, but which you would miss if it were not there. They know that there seems never to be enough time left for the scoring of a picture; that they never get more than four weeks, in most cases not more than two weeks, to do the job. They also know that their music will be mixed with dialogue and sound effects and that, since this proceeding is out of their control, many fine “effects” which they have worked on in their sleepless nights will be inaudible. Most of them write in the idiom of the early twentieth century, in the style of Richard Strauss, Debussy, Ravel and Scriabin–partly because that is the musical language they have been brought up in, partly because the producers have accepted it as the “safest” kind of music. All of them prefer pictures with a lot of silent scenes where their music is “in the [page 400] clear,” undisturbed by dialogue. Sometimes they take too great advantage of those moments of freedom–in these cases their overpowering, voluptuous sounds are out of proportion to the action of the film. There seems to be a general tendency toward over-orchestrating in Hollywood pictures, and at times it is very disturbing to try to hear a quiet dialogue between two people fighting against an orchestra of sixty, with the brass going full-blast over agitated figurations in the violins.

In addition to these “professional” scoring experts, the picture industry is using from time to time, and not nearly enough, the services of outstanding contemporary composers. Just as an important playwright or novelist adds originality and a certain freshness of approach to a movie script, an “outside” composer who loves the medium and is willing to accept its limitations can make important contributions in the field of film music. The French industry of the prewar period, working for a small market, with a small budget, and therefore more inclined toward experiments, commissioned leading composers like Milhaud, Honegger, Auric. The result was an exceptionally high standard of music in French pictures and such outstanding scores as Honegger’s Mayerling, Auric’s A nous la liberté, Milhaud’s La Grande Illusion. The great contribution which these French composers made was the underscoring of a scene with a musical composition of clearly definable form. Their music had a rather objective attitude toward the action of the picture, and sometimes they created a sort of contrapuntal effect by writing music in a mood opposite to the mood of the scene.

Hollywood also has used outside composers to great advantage. Aaron Copland’s scores for Of Mice and Men and Our Town are perfect examples of creative music-writing for the movies. Other well-known composers who have had a stimulating influence on film music in Hollywood are George Antheil (The Scoundrel, Angels over Broadway, et cetera), Werner Janssen (The General Died at Dawn), Bernard Herrmann (All That Money Can Buy, Citizen Kane), Alexander Tansman (Flesh and Fantasy) and Ernst Toch (Peter Ibbetson).

Yet one cannot help feeling that all the enthusiasm, all the hard work, all the ingenuity that goes into the making of these film scores, is, from the standpoint of the creative musician, more or less wasted, as long as the composer’s task is not more than to provide a musical background for a picture which is completely finished at the time when he starts working. There cannot be any doubt that there are much more interesting, more ambitious, more genuinely creative opportunities awaiting the film composer. The motion picture is a perfect medium for an original musico-dramatic creation on the same level as the different forms of the musical theatre: musical comedy, operetta, musical play and opera. If we want to develop an art form (or a form of entertainment) in which music has an integral part, we have to allow the composer to collaborate with the writer and director to the same extent as he collaborates in the musical theatre.

There are three categories of motion pictures which already offer the composer a more active, more imaginative participation. The documentary films, which have been pioneers for new forms and techniques, have used music as an equal partner with picture and narration. They are in a position to do this because they are to a great extent silent pictures which leave room for music to express emotions, to set the tempo, to “speak.” They allow the composer to use his own musical language, to employ different orchestra combinations, to write with the same originality and integrity as if he were writing for the concert or the theatre. Louis Gruenberg’s score for The Fight for Life is a masterwork in this category, a completely integrated piece of film dramatic music. In the same class belong works by Copland (The City), Virgil Thompson (The River), Marc Blitzstein (Night Shift, Valley Town), Hanns Eisler (Forgotten Village), and some excellent scores by young American composers for the O.W.I. film division.

Another important stepping stone toward a truly musical film is the animated cartoon. Here the music is actually written first and the characters are “animated” to the rhythm and accent of the music. The cartoon is the “ballet” among the different forms of movie entertainment, and some of the scores written for Disney’s pictures are fine examples of popular ballet music.

Finally, in the field of the film-musical itself, which is generally identified with a sort of glorified amplification of the musical-comedy format, there have been quite a number of very successful attempts at interweaving music and action into a satisfying unity. In René Clair’s early pictures (A nous la liberté, Le Million), music and song grow out of the action to such an extent that we are never aware of a “number” starting or ending. Ernst Lubitsch followed a similar pattern in his early musicals, and Rouben Mamoulian, with the help of Rodgers and Hart, created in Love Me Tonight a really intelligent, uncompromising musical picture which has become a kind of classic of its genre. Many producers and directors realize today the enormous possibilities of a higher form of musical pictures, and the songwriters are becoming more and more instrumental in the conception and preparation of these pictures. I am trying myself, whenever I have a chance, to develop certain elements of this genre. In my Dreigroschenoper film, I tried to translate the form of the musical play into the medium of motion picture. In the Fritz Lang film You and Me, I tried out a new technique by using songs as a part of the background music, expressing the “inner voice” of the characters (Milestone used this technique lately in Walk in the Sun), and in the picture Where Do We Go from Here, Ira Gershwin and I wrote a regular little comic opera for the scene on Columbus’ ship. It is a pretty safe bet that eventually something like a “film-opera” will grow out of all this, and it is quite possible that the much-talked-about “American opera” will come out of the most popular American form of entertainment–the motion picture.

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