“Classical” Film Scores: Inspiring the “Wild and Wanton Herd"


In Act V of The Merchant of Venice, the two lovers Lorenzo and Jessica are listening to music on a moonlit night.  Though Jessica is uneasy about the music—and possibly Lorenzo’s faithfulness—Lorenzo proclaims the power of love through music:

For do but note a wild and wanton herd
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing, and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood;
If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turned to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music...The man that has no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, strategems, and spoils...Let no such man be trusted (V.1.). 

In Hollywood, it’s generally assumed that there are few such men—or women—in the audience.  Indeed, the “wild and wanton herd” is always ready to be manipulated by the blood and guts power of music, which is arguably the key component to movie magic.  To test this, mute a particularly action-packed or emotional scene and compare it to the original.  More than the dialogue is missing: a crucial element of the atmosphere dissipates, leaving a kind of shadow play on screen, recognizable only to those who have seen the original.  Oftentimes scores can be needlessly obtrusive or sentimental, and for this reason can get in the way of the story and the actors.  At their best, however, music accentuates the drama and makes us feel things ‘between the lines’ of a film which no amount of acting or dialogue can possibly create.  Bette Davis famously complained that Erich Korngold’s surging, Romantic scores all too often upstaged her, which can be well imagined when listening to the soundtrack to Elizabeth and Essex or Captain Blood.  So what is the proper role of a movie soundtrack: background support or lead actor in its own right? 


Many film composers have weighed in, suggesting that the ideal score shouldn’t stand apart from the movie.  However, an equal number of composers have drawn suites from their film scores, fearful that some of their best work will get buried in the film and forgotten.  Either way, the truth is that composers have always been inspired by visual/literary stimuli, whether Mendelssohn’ s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead (based on Bocklin’s painting).  Film takes this inspiration a step further, since composers literally become part of the story, employing Wagner’s famous leitmotif (or lead motif) to depict and signal specific characters or themes.  Additionally, composers can indulge in colorful tone painting to make us discern the invisible emotions that otherwise only the characters would know.   

Since the beginning of film, music has played a key role—all the more so in the silent era, where it both painted the scene and ‘spoke’ the dialogue.  Not coincidentally, film emerged at a time in classical music when composers were becoming ever more expressive and visual in their aesthetic.  In 1910,  Alexander Scriabin wrote the tone poem Prometheus for a large orchestra and a “color organ,” which would display vague shapes on the screen which corresponded to the emotion of the music.  Richard Strauss had written elaborate symphonic poems featuring the blow-by-blow adventures of Don Juan and Don Quixote, as well as the eccentric Sinfonia Domestica, which depicts his daily life at home, arguments with his wife, the crying of his infant, etc.  Even the rise of serial and atonal music in the teens and twenties was an attempt to depict the inner being of man, the one not seen but felt, without the constrictions of tonality or sonata form.  We can see even in the most radical Modernist scores, such as Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, a cutting-edge modern thriller, depicting the inner turmoil of the main character—or the breakdown of modern society (perfect for a dystopian flick!).  To see how this works, check out Kubrick’s classic 2001, which shows the soundtrack potential of earlier classical music: the atonal “Lux aeterna” by Gyorgy Ligeti (which creates an eerie, alien effect) rubs shoulders with Strauss’ famous Blue Danube Waltz and Richard Strauss’ celebrated opening to Thus Spake Zarathurstra (itself a kind of film score to Nietzsche’s book).   In short, classical music provides the ideal canvas upon which to paint the larger-than-life emotions of film.  For this reason most films still employ a symphonic soundtrack, particularly historical or science fiction films, since they give the film a necessary believability or humanity which the subject might otherwise lack.  Note Star Wars’s late Romantic-sounding score, which Lucas wanted to give it a ‘warm’ feeling audiences could connect to. 

In some ways, every film score is a throwback to the grand tradition of music-making, since that is what we all ‘hear’ when we imagine love, death, war, and victory.  The strains of Tchiakovsky’s 5th or Holst’s The Planets boom through our psyche even if we’ve never heard the pieces themselves.  Take a film score like Zimmer’s Gladiator, which self-consciously evokes with Holst’s Mars in the famous clash of Romans against the Germanic tribes (Zimmer called it the “Gladiator waltz” since it has a strained waltz rhythm beneath the barbaric yelps).  Or John Horner’s scores to Star Trek II and III, which borrow loosely from Prokofiev, especially his ballet Romeo and Juliet, which is quoted almost note-for-note when the Enterprise crashes into the planet (Horner slyly uses a theme from Juliet’s tomb, when Romeo discovers what he assumes is her dead body).  However, we often forget that many of the great composers of the past wrote film music themselves, and indeed, set the standard that all subsequent composers follow.  Below is a list of some famous composers and their great scores, many of which far transcend the movie they were written for.  Luckily, you don’t need to see the film or know the story: the music alone creates its own drama, and part of the fun is guessing what the music is trying to say, and what kind of genre the music inhabits.  9 times out of 10, a good film score spells it all out, begging the question, what do we need actors or scripts for? 

Below are 5 notable composers who also dabbled in film—and in the case of Korngold, largely made his career from it.  Not an exhaustive list, but a good place to start:




Sergei Prokofiev, Lieutenant Kije (1934), Alexander Nevsky (1938), Ivan the Terrible (1942-45): these scores are classics in every way, and have been much copied well into the 21st century.  Lieutenant Kije is colorful, folk-like music to accompany a farce, and features a tender Romance (for bass soloist—or in concert versions, the double bass) and the spiky “Troika,” which also featured a bass in the film.  Woody Allen memorably used this score in his spoof of Russian novels, Love and DeathAlexander Nevsky is his most famous score, which he reworked into a 7-movement cantata for the concert hall.  It is stirring, hair-raising music, of which the highlight is the visceral “Battle on the Ice,” depicting the battle between the Russians and the Germans as the ice of the Neva River breaks beneath them.  Finally, we come to the music he wrote for Ivan the Terrible, meant to be a film in 3 parts, but scrapped after part 2 thanks to Stalin’s censorship (Ivan was starting to look a lot like Stalin himself!).  The score is an embarrassment of riches, and Prokofiev was wise enough to use the music elsewhere when the film fell into disfavor.  Dramatic battle scenes against the Tartars are a highlight, as well as the psychological music of Ivan’s sickness, and the boyars’ evil plots. 

Dimitri Shostakovich, Hamlet (1964): Shostakovich wrote tons of film music—film was the accepted form of Soviet propaganda, after all—much of it inspiring and tuneful.  Yet his masterpiece is his score for Hamlet, which he had previously written stage music to in the 30’s.  The music is stark, eerie, yet robust.  You can both tap your feet to it and get the chills.  The film opens on the bleak Danish coast in black and white, and Shostakovich’s score captures it beautifully, with a dark-hued lament punctuated by staccato orchestral tuttis.  Other highlights include the ghost’s music, which is truly frightening, the tender, haunting music for Ophelia, and the final duel, which is conjures up the ferocious muse of the Tenth, Eleventh, and Thirteenth Symphonies.


Aaron Copland, The Red Pony (1938), Our Town (1940): having become the iconic composer of ‘American’ music, it’s not surprising that Copland became the voice behind such classic American adaptations as Mice and Men, Our Town, The Red Pony, and The Heiress (James’ Washington Square).  He also wrote music for numerous documentaries and short features, all bearing his unique trademark style.  Two favorites include the innocent, wide-open lyricism of Our Town, which beautifully captures the pastoral mood of small town America circa 1900.  In the same vein, but somewhat more boisterous is The Red Pony, after Steinbeck’s novel.  Beautiful, nostalgic ‘country’ melodies are followed by raucous circus music and a general sense of merriment. 

Ralph Vaughan-Williams, Scott of the Antarctic (or) Sinfonia Antarctica (Symphony No.7), (1949-1952): Vaughan-Williams wrote a number of film scores, particularly around WWII on patriotic themes.  However, perhaps his greatest score was for the movie Scott of the Antarctic, which he eventually adapted into a full-fledged symphony, his Seventh.  The music beautifully conjures up the stark isolation of the South Pole, as well as the heroic resolve of the men who set out to conquer it.  The highlight of the symphony is the eerie third movement, which gradually builds up to a tremendous climax ushered in by the organ. 

Erich Korngold, Captain Blood, The Prince and the Pauper, Elizabeth and Essex, The Adventures of Robin Hood, etc. (1938-1955): Korngold was a prodigy from Vienna who wrote and published his first works as a child, becoming world-renowned in his teens.  The Nazi regime forced him to flee to Hollywood, where he quickly found work arranging scores and composing his own.  Almost single-handedly, Korngold invented the adventure soundtrack, composing bold, memorable scores form swashbucklers and historical romances.  One of his greatest is The Adventures of Robin Hood, which conjures up the entire film from cue to cue (and indeed, it is hard to imagine the film without it).  Interestingly, Korngold used bits from a much earlier piece, Sursum Corda, to create some of the themes, just as he later used music from several films, including The Prince and the Pauper, to create his famous Violin Concerto.  As a masterful orchestrator and a melodist just south of Rachmaninov, Korngold’s scores stand the test of time and influence everything that followed. 


Other notable classical composers who have gone on to great Hollywood success:

  • John Williams, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Wars, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List, Harry Potter (Holds Nos.1, 6, and 14 in AFI’s Top 25 Greatest Film Scores)
  • Bernard Hermann, Psycho, North by Northwest, Vertigo (Holds Nos. 4 and 12 in AFI’s list)
  • Miklos Rosza, Ben-Hur, The Thief of Baghdad, Quo Vadis (No. 21 in AFI’s list)
  • Jerry Goldsmith, Chinatown, The Planet of the Apes, Star Trek I, IV, V, Rambo: First Blood, The Secret of Nihm, The Mummy (Nos.9 and 18 on AFI’s list)
  • Max Steiner, Gone With the Wind, King Kong, Casablanca, Little Women (Nos.2 and 13 on AFI’s list)
  • Franz Waxman, Rebecca, Sunset Boulevard, Rear Window, The Bride of Frankenstein (No. 16 in AFI’s list)
  • Nino Rota, The Godfather, La Strada, Romeo and Juliet (No.5 in AFI’s list)
  • Ennio Morricone, The Mission, The Untouchables, Once Upon a Time in the West, Cinema Paradiso, The Legend of 1900 (No.23 on AFI’s list) 

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