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The Guardian (05/Sep/2002) - Getting the score wrong

(c) The Guardian (05/Sep/2002)

Getting the score wrong

The music for Lord of the Rings has been voted the top film score of all time in a survey conducted by Classic FM. "I am as thrilled as I can be," enthused Howard Shore, its composer. He shouldn't be. This was just one of a series of soppy surveys which helped get newspapers through the drab days of August. Even above those on the 100 greatest Britons and the world's greatest events, it told you more about the selectorate's limited horizons than it did about the subject under review.

The next three most popular scores after Shore's in Classic FM's top 30 were all by John Williams - Star Wars, Schindler's List and The Empire Strikes Back. Others to make the list included Elmer Bernstein (The Magnificent Seven), Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia, Dr Zhivago), Max Steiner (Gone with the Wind), William Walton (Henry V) and Rachmaninov (Brief Encounter). But there was no Nino Rota (Fellini's collaborator), no Korngold, no Miklós Rózsa, no Georges Auric, no Alfred Newman (and no Randy Newman either). And, most grievous of all, not one note of the great Bernard Herrmann.

All these surveys tend to inflate what happened recently, and Herrmann's last score (for Scorsese's Taxi Driver) was written more than 25 years ago. Yet assessments of the world's greatest films still come up time and again with Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, both made in the 1940s, and both scored by Herrmann, with whom Orson Welles had first worked in radio. The Magnificent Ambersons was the end of that collaboration: when the studio vandalised Welles's film it also removed so much of the music that Herrmann had his name struck off the credits.

But that opened the way to an even more fertile partnership - with Alfred Hitchcock, most famously in Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960). Vertigo, especially, is the work of a man at the very top of his trade. Sample, for instance, the early scene in which James Stewart first sets eyes on Kim Novak in Ernie's Restaurant, or the one where he follows her into the McKitterick Hotel. Note too the economy with which the music is used. Hitchcock and Herrmann knew when to keep silent. The love theme, the one bit of the Vertigo score which you might come out of the cinema whistling, is really no more than a repeated five-note motif: he only works it up into the full Rachmaninov as the story approaches its tragic end. This is not a score you could market as it stands on CD: it only makes sense in the context for which it was written. The music never forgets that it's the servant of the story.

Herrmann and Hitchcock finally quarrelled over the score for Torn Curtain, which Hitchcock rejected. There's a long and distinguished history of film music by greater composers supplanted by scores from lesser ones. Laurence Olivier generously said that Walton's music for Henry V "made" the film, a verdict with which Walton agreed: without his music, he told his friend, the film was dreadfully dull. But the music he wrote for Olivier's Battle of Britain was ditched by the studio in favour of a score by Ron Goodwin, though some of it was reinstated when Olivier said he would take his name off the credits if that was not done. The spurned Herrmann thereafter took his talents elsewhere, scoring a couple of films for Hitchcock's besotted admirer François Truffaut - whose more regular collaborator, Georges Delerue, doesn't make the Classic FM chart either, not even for Jules et Jim.

One appreciates Herrmann's reticence all the more in the face of the aural assault launched on audiences by some of today's practitioners. Herrmann would not have swamped a movie in music, as if audiences needed their films served in a honey coating. He would not have bullied the audience with music that says: "This bit is moving. Get feeling emotional, dammit!" (The English Patient was a notable offender here.)

That is also the reason why music specifically tailored to fit a film is often a safer bet than the importation of the music of great composers. The snatches of Schubert which Louis Malle uses in Au Revoir Les Enfants, a film I hugely admire, run the risk of making you think for a moment of Schubert rather than what you are seeing. It's great that an audience should meet Rachmaninov through Brief Encounter or Richard Strauss through 2001 or Schubert through Louis Malle, but I do sometimes wince when, even 35 years on, Mozart's 21st piano concerto is billed as the Elvira Madigan, after Bo Widerberg's movie. Elvira does not figure in Classic FM's top 30, so can we now hope for an end to this practice?