Posted in Movie Reviews, Music

Korngold At Last

Erich Korngold

He was the dean of Hollywood film composers in the 1930’s and 40’s. Years before the Nazi dictatorship that forced him and so many of his contemporaries to flee Europe, he had made his reputation as a child prodigy, a modern-day Mozart. Yet his classical compositions, his operas and his ballet scores would be eclipsed for decades by the music he composed for Warner Brothers. But his reputation would ultimately rebound, to the point where his work would find a place once again on the concert stage, and his amazing Violin Concerto would become standard repertoire.

I’m speaking of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, of course.

Born in Moravia, Korngold grew up in Vienna. He was something of a child genius at composition, and his earliest works were performed by major orchestras while he was still a teenager. His operas featured the leading artists of his time—“Die Tote Stadt” premiered at the Met in 1921 and starred Maria Jeritza, the legendary soprano who was the first to heighten Tosca’s drama by beginning “Vissi d’arte” while lying face down at Scarpia’s feet.

Korngold came to Hollywood in 1934 and signed an exclusive contract with Warner Brothers the following year. He  practically became synonymous with Errol Flynn movies–“Captain Blood”, “The Sea Hawk”, and “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, for which he won an Oscar—and other costume dramas like “Anthony Adverse” (his first Oscar) and “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex”. He did do “modern dress”–famously, “Kings Row” (“Where’s the rest of me?”) “Between Two Worlds” (more about that later) and, his last score for Warner Brothers, that Bette Davis camp classic, “Deception,” featuring what later became his Op. 37, the Cello Concerto in C. After World War II and the end of his film contract, Korngold devoted his energies exclusively to composing concert works. He died in 1957 at the age of 60 after several years of ill-health.

Korngold’s name started to return to prominence in the 1970’s. The New York City Opera revived “Die Tote Stadt” and Charles Gerhardt began his Classic Film Scores series with “The Sea Hawk”, followed by “Elizabeth and Essex”, bringing Korngold’s wildly romantic yet exhilarating sound front and center. Taken together, these recordings showcase a wide range of Korngold’s talent. I’m particularly fond of the selections from “The Sea Hawk”, which puts us on the bounding main with sweeping strings and majestic brass. Korngold’s music is intensely lyrical, and this was never on better display than in “Nora’s Theme” from the non-Bette Davis “Of Human Bondage” (For collectors of trivia, this was the music that Dorothy Hamill skated to when she won Olympic Gold). There’s more than a little Richard Strauss in his music—the selection from “The Constant Nymph”, featuring a contralto solo, could have come straight from “Der Rosenkavalier”. But Korngold’s Cello Concerto, which figures so prominently in “Deception”, is all his, and somewhat more abstract than the rest of his scores. Perhaps it hints at the direction he would have taken in film music, had he chosen to continue in that medium.

Another of my favorite Korngold albums is the aptly titled “Between Two Worlds“, referring not only to his film score of the same name, but the fact that the disk contains two of his best concert works, the “Symphonic Serenade” and the “Theme and Variations.” Warner Brothers’ “Between Two Worlds” was a wartime remake of the moralistic “Outward Bound”, made lively by the presence of some great studio talent—John Garfield, Paul Henreid, Sydney Greenstreet and Eleanor Parker, with Faye Emerson as the fallen woman and George Coulouris as the villainous war profiteer. Korngold’s score features some of his most ravishing music, and while the film contains some huh? scenes (nowhere in any universe could Sara Allgood have been John Garfield’s mother), the score never ceases in its beauty.

But when all is said and done, my favorite Korngold work is his Violin Concerto. The piece just…..sings. Without any apology whatsoever (and as expressly permitted by his Warner Brothers contract), Korngold incorporated themes from at least three of his movies—“Another Dawn”, “Juarez” and most memorably, “The Prince and the Pauper”—into the work. Yet in doing so, he transformed them. This concerto has drive—it’s an independent statement, neither an illustration of action nor a mere commentary on another medium. Yes, it’s shamelessly rhapsodic, but there’s enough meat on its bones to be a welcome showcase for the soloist (Jascha Heifetz premiered the work in 1947). Among its many delights is the dialog in the last movement between soloist and concertmaster, when the two toss the theme back and forth in Q&A fashion. The music comes from Korngold’s score for “The Prince and the Pauper”, and it’s fascinating to compare its first, pompously majestic version on “The Sea Hawk” album to its witty appearance in the concerto. It’s a wonderful piece from start to finish, and I had the good fortune to hear it live just several days ago, performed with unabashed glee by violinist Leonidas Kavakos, accompanied by Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic. What a ride!

Nest time around: Max Steiner, the go-to composer for Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and the tallest and darkest leading man of all time….King Kong.

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Posted in Movie Reviews, Music, Television

That Hollywood Sound: Bernard Herrmann

I was geared up to continue with my discussion of the wonderful Charles Gerhardt series of classic Hollywood film scores, but I confess I hit a major bump. Next on tap would have been Erich Korngold, Bernard Herrmann and Max Steiner, but then it seemed Max belonged with the Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn albums, since all four were on Warner Brothers’ payroll for so long. My next thought was to shoehorn Alfred Newman in there instead, but as I started to assemble the material, I realized I needed to come clean once and for all:

Bernard Herrmann is my favorite film composer. He more than deserves a solo bow.

Herrmann is justly famous for his scores for Alfred Hitchcock movies, from “The Trouble With Harry” (featuring that quirky scherzo) through “Marnie,” and along the way composing the iconic soundtrack for “Vertigo,” the wild opening fandango for “North by Northwest” and the unforgettable musical horror show of “Psycho” (No. 4 on the American Film Institute’s list of Best American Film Scores). While director and composer severed their relationship over Herrmann’s rejected score for “Torn Curtain,” the length and quality of their collaboration is unmatched. There is so much to admire, but my favorite Herrmann selection from his Hitchcock years is the opening to “The Wrong Man”—that bouncy samba with the unexpected accents, flavored by a worried solo flute so emblematic of the looming fate of Henry Fonda’s Stork Club musician:

Herrmann’s range is enormous. Classically trained at Julliard with a solid background in orchestration and conducting, his music spans the eternal romanticism of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” through the futuristic theremin-laced “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Like Korngold (whom I swear I’ll be discussing soon), he composed a number of classical works—his Symphony No. 1, the opera “Wuthering Heights” and a cantata based on “Moby Dick.” Herrmann was a staff conductor at CBS radio when he came to the attention of Orson Welles, who tapped him to write the score for his infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast. Herrmann then went on to begin his Hollywood career alongside Welles with his score to “Citizen Kane.”

The centerpiece of Gerhardt’s Bernard Herrmann album is a suite from that film, introduced by a morbid bassoon/trombone combination depicting ghostly Xanadu. A host of flutes (including four bass) and vibraphone come to the fore—Herrmann did love his electronics—and after Kane’s death we get that marvelously scored transition to young Charlie in the snow. The “breakfast scene” montage is justly famous for Welles’s artistry in so economically depicting a decaying marriage, but Herrmann’s accompaniment, ranging from a lovely turn-of-the-century waltz to bickering woodwinds to hushed strings as the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Kane vanishes in thin air, geometrically increases the effect. Perhaps the highlight of this section is Herrmann’s take on grand opera, the exotic “Aria from ‘Salambo'”, sung by a young Kiri Te Kanawa. Dame Kiri, possessor of one of the most beautiful voices of the last hundred years, does her damnedest to sound Susan Alexander-awful, but fortunately doesn’t always succeed (though that last note can truly peel paint off the wall).  The final segment of the suite accompanies the ending of the film, and I have to confess I’ve always hated the sight and sound of Rosebud’s incineration, even though Herrmann’s music is apt.

Fortunately Gerhardt does a 180 with his next selection, a suite from “Beneath the 12-Mile Reef” which has enough swash and panache to last for days. Herrmann’s talent is so extensive that he has no need to borrow from “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” to depict the ocean, but if my ear is correct, the sea motifs from the two films are in the same key and share the same note values and rhythm—quite Wagnerian of him. I also like the “Concerto Macabre” from “Hangover Square,” but for me the real ear-catcher is the suite from “White Witch Doctor” with its exotic talking drums and Big Bwana sound. Herrmann’s skill as an orchestrator is nowhere more apparent than in his music depicting a deadly tarantula, scored for an ancient woodwind called a serpent, which is an utter bear to play in tune. Its swollen, menacing blatt is so utterly perfect you’ll laugh out loud.

In addition to his work with Hitchcock, Herrmann wrote extensively for sci-fi and fantasy films and TV shows. He did a great deal of work on the original “Twilight Zone” series, including an opening theme that unfortunately got bumped after a few episodes by the now-iconic Marius Constant music. Fans like myself can tell you that his achingly nostalgic score for the episode “Walking Distance” resulted in a perfect accompaniment to a perfect episode. Equally as famous were Herrmann’s scores for “Fahrenheit 451” and the series of Ray Harryhausen fantasy films. Of these my favorite by far is “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad” which I’m old enough to have seen in its first release (when evil Torin Thatcher turned the Princess’s waiting woman into a four-armed, green-faced serpent, I nearly dove under the movie seat). I can’t get enough of Herrmann’s Arabian Nights mode, and it’s a tribute to his talent that while he comesthisclose to ripping off “Scheherazade,” he never really does:

Herrmann died at the still-young age of 64, only hours after completing the recording of his score for Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” By all accounts he suffered no fools gladly, but did have the great fortune to work with those who appreciated his gifts. American film was never better served.

Posted in Movie Reviews, Music

That Hollywood Sound (Part I)

Before there was John Williams or Ennio Morricone or Danny Elfman, or for that matter, any of the other film composers working today, the movie studios had at their disposal an incredible pool of talent whose classic works remain a cut above the rest: Erich Korngold, Franz Waxman, Max Steiner, Miklos Rozsa, Dimitri Tiomkin—all European emigrés—along with the home-grown Bernard Herrmann, David Raksin and Alfred Newman (the leader of a musical dynasty whose brothers [Emil and Lionel], sons [David and Thomas] and nephew [Randy, of course] all composed for the movies).

Like the films they scored, the work these composers produced was considered somewhat ephemeral, merely an accompaniment to the stars whose faces adorned the screen. This seemed to be the general view until the early 1970’s when Charles Gerhardt, a music producer for RCA with a modest conducting background, began to record an extraordinary series of albums devoted to the compositions of these men and the actors whose films they wrote for. Initially released on LP, the albums reappeared on CD in the 1980’s, and last year were remastered and re-released. I’ve been listening to the most recent version, and I can’t believe the depth of sound. Quite an eye (ear?)-opener—I honestly don’t remember the music being this full or detailed even on vinyl.

Gerhardt’s reassembly of these scores involved some painstaking detective work, which is detailed in the program notes for the “Spectacular World of Classic Film Scores” album. Speaking of which, that album contains two important selections written by the composer whose work surprised me the most in this series—Dimitri Tiomkin, whose music until this point I had never really cared for. Despite his Russian origins, he wrote for a lot of Westerns, most prominently “High Noon” (“Do not forsake me/Oh my darlin’/On this our wedding day”), “The Alamo” and TV’s “Rawhide.” But Gerhardt’s Tiomkin album contains an extended suite from “Lost Horizon” which is pure genius, with the composer depicting Shangri-La and its people seemingly without meter, a sly pun, perhaps, on their eternal life. There’s also the love scene in the barn from “Friendly Persuasion,” which sounds almost Copland-esque, ultimately blooming into the familiar theme. Best of all, on “The Spectacular World of Classic Film Scores” you can hear a suite from “The Thing (From Another World),” one of the most unusual soundtracks ever written. In the interest of full disclosure, however, I must (sadly) tell you that Gerhardt opted to use an ondes Martenot and four countertenors in place of a theremin. The former instrument produces a rounder, more mellow sound than the wiry, put-your-teeth-on-edge theremin, but Tiomkin’s weird intervals, buzzing trumpets and trilling piccolos still bring “The Thing” to life in all its glory.

Gerhardt’s David Raksin album covers only three films, but two were instant classics (the third, “Forever Amber,” still hasn’t made it to DVD). Has there ever been a lovelier movie theme, before or since, than “Laura”? Gerhardt’s selection begins with the underscoring of the classic scene in which Detective McPherson, obsessed with Laura and her murder, falls asleep in her apartment, only to awaken to find her alive and standing over him. The suite from “The Bad and the Beautiful” makes you very aware that Raksin’s score is a virtual mini-symphony, with extensive and formal theme development.The same can be said for Miklos Rosza’s music for “The Red House,” though I enjoyed Gerhardt’s selections from “The Lost Weekend” and “Spellbound” far more—particularly the latter, which includes the music from the dream sequence that Gregory Peck’s character relates to Ingrid Bergman’s mentor. And while we’re on the subject of theremins, Rosza uses this instrument extensively in the scores of both films to depict Ray Milland’s DTs (the “bat and mouse” sequence has got to be one of the most revolting things ever put on film) and Gregory Peck’s zone-outs when he sees wavy lines. Gerhardt also includes some of Rosza’s outstanding work for the Kordas in England, the best of which is the sequence from “The Four Feathers” when Ralph Richardson loses his pith helmet and gets sunstroke.

Even though I’ll be discussing a number of other albums in the Gerhardt series in the weeks to come, I’m going to reveal my favorite now: the CD devoted to Franz Waxman’s music. The selections couldn’t be any better, featuring his back-to-back Oscar-winning scores for “Sunset Boulevard” and “A Place in the Sun,” the sparkling theme from “The Philadelphia Story” and the mysterious “Rebecca.” Talk about an embarrassment of riches. The overall impression, though, is one of the composer’s thoughtfulness in what he’s writing about—that brooding alto saxophone and later the lush strings that mark the love theme of “A Place in the Sun,” the ghostly Paramount theme during the scene on the back lot and the pseudo-Oriental accompaniment to Norma Desmond’s madness at the end of “Sunset Boulevard.” But best of all is the music that brings “The Bride of Frankenstein” to life, complete with that riot of a solo for ondes Martentot:

Next week: Korngold, Herrmann and Steiner!