This newest addition to our Collective Listening Project is this playlist "Film Scores: From Screen to Stage," curated by Chris Collier, Executive Director of the Princeton Garden Theatre. Chris attended Dartmouth, where he was an active leader in all aspects of musical life. He later graduated from the University of Oxford in musicology, writing a thesis reflecting his passion for music in film.
By Chris Collier
Executive Director, Princeton Garden Theatre
One challenge of listening to film scores on their own is that the musical cues were written to be heard while paired to an image. Oftentimes these cues are very specific in their role complimenting the action or emotion of their respective film, which can become repetitious or without structure when listened to as stand-alone musical works.
This playlist is a collection of film music cues that have been adapted, most times by their composers, to achieve life within the concert hall or on their own. Each one takes a different approach to adapting work to a “performance piece.” I structured this list to be in the shape of a concert, starting with an overture and ending with “end credits” with a variety of styles and moods to lead us through. There is also a bonus piece at the end, if you want to listen further.
This playlist in no way represents the full range of film music and barely scratches the surface of all of the novel and interesting ways composers have used music to imbue movies with emotion, action, pacing, and storytelling. I just selected these titles as a way to start the conversation about film music and how it has been adapted to live outside of the films they were written for.
ELMER BERNSTEIN "Theme" from The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Really no better way to kick off a playlist than with an overture and one as memorable as this Western classic. Bernstein’s music has shades of Copland Americana and sets the stage for this tale of gunslingers and bandits (adapted from Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai). This cue plays over the opening credits of the film and is already a stand-alone work. It does the job of setting the locale and tone—and getting the blood flowing.
MIKLÓS RÓZSA "Love Theme" from Ben Hur (1959)
Rózsa’s Ben Hur score is probably best known for the climatic ramming speed sequence or the “Parade of the Charioteers,” but this "Love Theme," a cue from the action early in the film, was adapted as a concert work to stand on its own. It showcases some beautiful writing to establish a romantic tone in this sprawling biblical epic. (Plus, we needed to move to something a little more andante after The Magnificent Seven.)
BERNARD HERRMANN Suite for Strings from Psycho (1960)
The Psycho score is a marvel. Herrmann’s gift for orchestration is on full display, utilizing only a string orchestra to complement the black and white textures of the film. This “suite” was created by taking a number of cues from the film and linking them together to make a full stand-alone work. Taken as a whole, you get the whole shape of the film in just under 10 minutes. The stand out moment is, of course, the shower sequence, but pay close attention and you will hear lots of playful use of the string effects (muting, harmonics, etc.) throughout. Additionally, there is a wonderful fugue that comes in about halfway through that hints at the possible multiple personalities haunting Norman Bates.
DAVID RAKSIN/JOHNNY MERCER "Laura"
This 1950 recording of the theme from the 1944 film Laura was not found in the film itself, but I have included it to showcase another way in which film music has been adapted from the films itself. The tune, composed by David Raksin, is heard frequently in the movie. (The film's director, Otto Preminger, had originally wanted to use Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" as the theme, but Raksin was not convinced that it was suitable.) The theme plays an important role within the film, standing in not as the music for the character of Laura but instead as the idealized version of her held by each of the three male leads. Watch the film and note when the theme plays, paying particular attention to when Laura herself makes a reappearance and the conspicuous absence of the titular music when she enters the screen. After the release of the film, the theme became a jazz standard and has been covered by many artists. I particularly like the Charlie Parker interpretation.
HENRY MANCINI "Moon River" from Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)
This song plays multiple times throughout the film and is featured when sung in full by Audrey Hepburn. It was also part of a fad in films in the late 50s and early 60s to feature pop songs that would sell records and sheet music. One starts to see a shift in scoring to include more pop songs and music that will sell as a key ingredient in how scores are written—most producers demanded it of their composers. This track is a wonderful tune and a turning point as film scoring shifts from the big, late romantic orchestra style to something more commercial. (Until John Williams returns to make the lush orchestra style popular again, but more on that in a little bit.)
JOHN CORIGLIANO Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra from The Red Violin (1997)
This is the most interesting piece in this whole program, in my opinion. Corigliano was asked to write the score for The Red Violin, which tells the story of a violin over three centuries. Many scenes in the film require music while the violin is being played, so Corigliano wrote a theme (a 7-interval progression representing the 7 distinct times from the film) and a number of variations for each specific time period to be included in the film. Then while the film was being shot, he wrote the Chaconne as a separate concert work to explore the musical world he had created. It is based on the baroque structure—a composition in a series of varying sections in slow triple time, typically over a short repeated bass theme (the harmonic 7-interval progression). This was written solely as a virtuoso concert work for a fully-orchestrated ensemble. After the film was shot, Corigliano then wrote a separate strings-only score for the film, inspired by the work he had done on the Chaconne.
JOHN CORIGLIANO Violin Concerto No. 1 (1999)
BONUS: I have included one additional piece as a bonus at the end, which is Corigliano’s return to this theme. He found that the Chaconne was too short to be regularly programmed as a concert work, so he made it the first movement of a concerto and wrote an additional three movements to flesh out a longer, more complex work. These are so many interlocking and distinct pieces to the life of this score and concert work. And it is stunning music.
JOHN WILLIAMS "Finale" from The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
I had to include music by John Williams as he is one of the most iconic and recognizable film composers of all time. His score for the Star Wars epics (he has done all nine main films) is notable for his use of Wagnerian leitmotif—themes that not only represent characters and ideas but are interconnected to show the relationship between various characters. Williams was also the conductor of the Boston Pops and had a very savvy sense to find ways to adapt his own scores into Pops pieces, giving them wide recognition outside of the films. Each Star Wars film ends with a “Finale,” that starts with Luke’s theme and then recaps all of the main themes that had been introduced over the newest installment of the series. Empire Strikes Back features the memorable “Imperial March” (which many know as Vader’s theme) as well as the “Han and Leia” love theme and “Yoda’s Theme.” If you want to go down the leitmotif wormhole—listen to the similarities between the “Force Theme” (introduced with Obi Wan in A New Hope) how it is corrupted to the “Imperial March” in Empire and reappears wide-eyed in “Rey’s Theme” in The Force Awakens.
JOHN WILLIAMS "Hymn to the Fallen" from Saving Private Ryan (1998)
It is so easy to double up on Williams as there is so much to pick from, but this piece in particular is distinctive of William’s genius for writing for film and having the music appear in other media. This hymn is the closing credits to the Spielberg WWII film saga Saving Private Ryan and does a wonderful job of closing out the film and a remembrance of D-Day and American sacrifice. It also stands as a stand-alone patriotic hymn that can be used in many different scenarios separate from the film. Williams has also written the “Mission Theme” for NBC News as well as a couple of iconic Olympic marches and themes. He, like Elmer Bernstein’s Magnificent Seven that started this playlist, is tapped into the sound of Americana (by way of Copland) and has found his sound become the soundtrack of large American events, taking music that started in film or on TV and making it live outside of the screen.
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