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Masters of Movie Music

Composing in Technicolor

by James Leonard

From the November, 2003 issue

Let's not debate the merits of movie music. That argument was settled long ago by the only people whose opinion matters: the composers. Stravinsky wrote music for Orson Welles's Jane Eyre (although Twentieth Century Fox rejected it as insufficiently Romantic). Schoenberg offered to write music for MGM, but Louis B. Mayer declined his services after Schoenberg demanded that the movies be edited to fit his music. Shostakovich wrote music for more than twenty pictures, composing scores for everything from silent films to King Lear. These titans of musical modernism were willing to write movie music not only for the money but also because they realized that although film music is certainly a different medium from concert music, it is by no means intrinsically lesser music. The melodies, harmonies, colors, rhythms, and forms of movie music can be every bit as effective and affective as music for the concert hall. The quality of the music is determined by the composer and not by the medium.

On Saturday, November 15, Arie Lipsky and the Ann Arbor Symphony will offer ample proof of the aesthetic validity of movie music by performing an entire program of music composed for films. The list of composers is a who's who of international modernism - the American Aaron Copland, the Russian Sergey Prokofiev, and the Englishman William Walton - plus a couple of the great Hollywood film composers, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and John Williams, and one very wild wild card - Michael Daugherty, Ann Arbor composer and American postmodernist sui generis. The music on the program is technically no easier to perform than concert music; indeed, with its vivid, chromatic melodies, its evocative, sharp-edged harmonies, and brilliantly Technicoloresque orchestrations, the music on the program is every bit as demanding as the most difficult scores by Strauss or Mahler.

The works Lipsky has chosen are all instantly attractive and instantly memorable. Copland's tender music for The Red Pony (1949) illuminates what he called "the

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unexpressed feelings of daily living" in the movie based on John Steinbeck's coming-of-age story. Williams's haunting music for Schindler's List (1993) is as frightening and as darkly beautiful as the rest of Spielberg's Holocaust movie. Prokofiev's ironic music for Alexander Feinzimmer's Lieutenant Kijé (1933) has taken on an independent life as popular concert suite. Walton's martial music from Laurence Olivier's Richard III (1955) is as stirring as his music for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth two years earlier. And Korngold's rousing score for Errol Flynn's The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) defines music for action-adventure movies.

The joker in the deck is Daugherty's Once upon a Castle. Commissioned in part by the AASO, the work receives its world premiere at this concert. Once upon a Castle is the latest of Daugherty's postmodernist hymns to American popular culture, following his Metropolis Symphony and his opera Jackie O. Daugherty's score calls for a huge orchestra plus theater organ, so the Michigan should be the perfect spot for it.    (end of article)

[Originally published in November, 2003.]


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