Simanaitis Says

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IS MOVIE MUSIC merely innocuous background or does it actively further the plot? My answer, briefly, is “it depends.” Here, in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow, are tidbits on legitimate movie music as well as cinema ear candy, gleaned from several learned sources, Internet sleuthing, and my movie recollections. Perhaps you’d like to add your favorites.

Nick Slonimsky’s Views. My favorite musicologist Nick Slonimsky has much to say in his Lectionary of Music. “During the early days of motion pictures,” he wrote, “a theater owner would engage a pianist or an organist to provide appropriate music for the moving images on the screen.” Among themes, Slonimsky cited, “Danger and tragedy were depicted by chromatic runs harmonized by the diminished-seventh chord, the accorde di stupefazione.

“The most successful movie composers in Hollywood,” Slonimsky said, “were not always the most talented or the most imaginative. Of these, the names of Max Steiner [Gone with the Wind] and Alfred Newman [nine Oscar winners, among them The King and I and Camelot.] are outstanding….”

Gone with the Wind, 1938. Music by Max Steiner

Slonimsky shares a good story: “When Stravinsky came to America, an admirer tried to arrange for him to write a movie score. He submitted the offer to a movie mogul. ‘Stravinsky?’ the mogul granted. ‘Yes, I’ve heard of him. How much will he charge?’ ‘Well, twenty thousand dollars,’ suggested the go-between.”

Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky, 1882–1971. Slonimsky wrote, “great Russian-born French, later American composer, one of the supreme masters of 20th-century music.”

“ ‘Twenty-thousand dollars?!’ exclaimed the magnate. ‘For five thousand more I can get Max Steiner!’ ”

A Vienna/Hollywood Transplant. Viennese composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, 1897–1957, commuted to Hollywood during the 1930s and, being Jewish, decided not to return to Austria. His memorable film scores include Captain Blood, 1935; Anthony Adverse, 1936; The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938; The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, 1939; The Sea Wolf, 1941; and Kings Row, 1942.

The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938. Music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

Slonimsky said of Korngold’s film work, “His scores retain their purely musical significance even when detached from their visual counterpart.”

This, I suggest, is a good test of movie music versus ear candy: How detachable is it? Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll discuss mostly movie music with only a passing bit of ear candy. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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