Music to the Eyes

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff

Hollywood composers who changed the sound of film

by James Faix and Ricco Siasoco
Producers were once afraid that "background" music would appear odd to audiences and interfere with the dialogue.

Related Links

Remember the debates over the "young" and the "old" Elvis stamps? Seven years have passed since the U.S. Postal Service began its Legends of American Music series with Elvis Presley, and recently the U.S.P.S. issued the last of the series: a tribute to Hollywood composers. But how did these six composers rise to the forefront? And when did music first join the Silver Screen?

Silent Movies Were Never Silent

Movies have always had music. In fact, "silent" movies were never silent; there was always music whether it was an upright piano, Wurlitzer organ or symphony orchestra.

With the introduction of sound, the amount of live music accompanying movies decreased (though songs and production numbers in films were still evident). Producers were afraid that "background" music would appear odd to audiences and would interfere with their ability to hear the dialogue. The 1931 Dracula, for instance, has virtually no music. (Though modern composer Philip Glass recently wrote a new score available on the forthcoming DVD release).

Austrian Influence

Max Steiner was the first composer to use orchestral music to enhance the effect of films, most notably in King Kong (1933). Trained in his native Vienna, Steiner was a prodigious writer of film music. Audiences will be most familiar with Steiner for his "Tara" theme from Gone With the Wind (1939).

Another of the Hollywood composers, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, hailed from Vienna and was lured to Hollywood by Warner Brothers studios to add class to their historical epics. Korngold gradually grew tired of California and planned to return to Vienna, but changed his mind upon the news of the Nazi occupation of Austria. He remained in Hollywood to compose the score to The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939).

Capricious Beginnings

Like Korngold, Franz Waxman left Europe to escape Hitler. In Hollywood he met James Whale (the British film director recently popularized in 1998's Gods and Monsters) at a Christmas party and was offered the job of scoring The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) on the spot.

The fourth foreign-born film composer, Dimitri Tiomkin, came to America from St. Petersburg to escape the Russian revolution a decade earlier. He and his wife (an Austrian ballet dancer) were successful arrangers of ballet sequences for Hollywood films when director Frank Capra offered Tiomkin the opportunity to score his 1937 film version of Lost Horizon.

Born in the U.S.A.

Several of the composers were born in America. Concert pianist Alfred Newman was a successful musical director on Broadway. Called to Hollywood in 1930 by Irving Berlin to assist with a musical film, he caught the ear of Samuel Goldwyn?one of Hollywood's most creative producers. His early attempts were well received (they included the familiar drum-roll theme for 20th-Century-Fox), and Newman eventually became the head of the music department at that studio.

Another of the great composers, Bernard Herrmann, was a conductor for radio before arriving in Hollywood to score Orson Welles' classic Citizen Kane in 1941. But it is his collaboration with director Alfred Hitchcock that most people are familiar with. He composed the music for such films as Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960). Herrmann wrote in many genres and his music is considered some of the most intense and unique.

Modern Movie Soundtracks

Today's movie soundtracks are no longer single artist endeavors. In 1997, number one on the top pop albums was the soundtrack to Titanic. Although pop music compilation albums are part of the marketing strategy for many films (especially those aimed at young moviegoers), the Titanic soundtrack was a phenomenon. Similarly, the soundtrack to Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace rocketed to top of the charts.

The actors are undoubtedly the "stars" of movies. To most audiences, the others involved in the production of a motion picture fall away. To today's film composers, however, this is the goal: to produce music that, like their predecessors, floats to the audience unnoticed.

See also: