The link between Classical Music and Film Music: Part 1

One of the things that we need to do as film composers is to very quickly learn about different styles. In any given film score you may only have one or two weeks in which you need to research and learn the materials and techniques used within a certain genre. Additionally you will need to make dramatic sense of these materials and devices, and translate them into the artistic vision of the film. So it’s going to become very important for you to have a wide palette of musical knowledge, and to distill from that knowledge the perfect music for that specific moment in the film. I encourage you to listen first with an open mind, and secondly, to take an analytical approach to many different styles of music. My intent with this blog post is to give you tools and starting points (points of departure) for you to explore 20th-century music. I will be looking at concert music from a film composer’s point of view. Perhaps some of you are like me, in that you approach classical music with film composition in mind. I always wanted to know how did they created that “certain sound” in a film (often large orchestral sound). Therefore when I was listening to a classical composition I started to develop what I’ll call my composer’s cookbook. For example when I heard the opening of the Firebird suite I thought, “wow that’s really foreboding and would make for a great opening title”. In this way I always approached classical music backwards.
Drawing from my own experience of approaching classical music this way, I believe in the distinction between what I’ll call a musical wall and a bridge. Some things do work very well in the film scoring world that do not work so well in the concert music world. Vice versa some things that work really well in the concert music world don’t work so well in the film scoring.

Early film composition was like a close cousin to the classical concert model. When we get to the classic film era we are able to see that some of the some early film composers were directly influenced aesthetically and technically by the concert composers of the day. One of my theories is that World War II kills romanticism. And when that happens concert music goes in one direction and film music doesn’t really follow. It never really could, and instead keeps a romantic sensibility alive.
One of the common things talked about with the 20th century is the decline of functional harmony. Romanticism had already been exploring this notion of chromatic harmony while still retaining a tonal language. When the 12 tone technique takes a hold we on longer have any central key or even individual note higharchies. One of the developments of the 20th Century (again this is just my opinion) is we have the decline of the linear narrative of the classical cannon. What I mean by linear narrative is that when it was predominantly a European art form of a small group of composers it is very easy to map out a transition from period to period. We have baroque composers who personified and exemplified the artistic high-points of the period in their craft. We have some transitional figures such as CPE Bach, one Bach’s sons, or Scarlatti, or Haydn who move us from the baroque era out into a classical sensibility, and there is a very clear idea that this is where the aesthetic is shifting, that everyone has this new artistic goal and it’s called classicism. We get the same sort of story when moving from the classical era to romanticism. Beethoven typically is seen as the Godfather of the romantic shift. Expanding the harmonic and formal possibilities of both the orchestra and the sonata. This torch was carried on by the great Romantic composers and the height of which culminates in composers like Brahms and Wagner.(Wagner’s lieft motive technique was adopted by film composers) Chromatic harmony was taken finally taken to its logical conclusion by a composer called Arnold Shernberg. Schonberg in 1908 published a small set of piano works, which introduce fully chromatic harmony. No central key. One note did not have greater weight or importance than other. Typically at this point of junction is where 20th-century literature studies picks up and follows down this road of the decline of functional harmony. However not everyone goes down this road, you certainly still have major composers few are almost out of place in their time. They are the late-late romantics (my term) still composing very much a romantic or expanded tonal style while the new Viennese school is going on. It is these composers that I believe the most influence the film composers. It was this expansion of tonality with the combination of using modernist techniques but still pulling back into a tonal language. So these are the composers we shall look at in our unit, along with the Impressionists. So these late Romantic composers are composers like Rachmaninoff, particularly Richard Strauss, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Gustav Holst (the later William Walton) Prokofiev, Debussy, Ravel. All the while you have other schools of composition going in a different direction. These major composers such as Schaumburg, Berg, Webern using the 12 tones in their dodecaphonic technique, and in a class of his own really is Igor Stravinsky who doesn’t really fit in nicely anywhere in on either the romantic for the 12 tone technique although he incorporated both. (He, in my opinion, is ahead of his time and is a postmodernist rather than being connected with any movements of the time.) He is a film scorer in spirit meaning that he draws on different genres to synthesize and create new works. He has a famous quote “ good artists don’t borrow they steal.” He used this mixing of genres to create his own unique voice and we will look at his work quiet closely.
So let’s take a look at a very influential piece with a very filmic sensibility- “Mars” from “The Planets” by Gustav Holst. I find it fascinating to think that when this was first performed that a warning was included in the program that this will be very dissonant music that you’re about to hear. To my ears it sounds accessible. But we will first listen not to the orchestral version but the way it was originally composed which is for 2 pianos and then when you listen to the Orchestra version and hear the difference between the two versions. I do this simply because I think it can help you a lot to work to get comfortable working both will you both ways of writing short scores and in orchestrating and then beyond to write using orchestra thinking orchestral using orchestral devices.

Have a listen to “Mars” performed on 2 pianos by clicking on the link below. I will pick up from here next time

Holst Piano

Posted on February 1, 2012 in Music Composition

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About the Author

An award-winning composer, accomplished musician and sonic storyteller, Douglas Gibson resides in New York City, where he composes and gives music composition lessons locally and online worldwide.
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