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10 Great Movie Composers

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Music is as important a part of the movie experience as the popcorn. The right music will complement and comment on the visual story and dialogue, taking the film to higher levels of emotion and excitement. Sometimes movie music is familiar — well-known pop, jazz, or classical melodies. More often the music is composed specifically for the film. While modern audiences take a musical background for granted, it was once a novelty. Watch classic early sound movies like the original Dracula (1931) or Frankenstein (1933), and you'll be struck by the lack of music behind the on-screen action.

King Kong (1933) changed that. Max Steiner's music was an integral part of the film, supporting the action and lending suspense. The success of the film and his score ensured that the sound of movies would never be the same. Since that time many fine composers have contributed some great music to the movies. Film composers don't have an easy job — they must meld their ideas to fit the action and flow of the movie, often rearranging and cutting material as the film is edited. Usually the composer is working under a strict deadline, and there is little time for rewrites or revisions. While the best movie composers are in great demand, they're not "ivory-tower" artists — they're hard-working musical craftsmen who know how to make the music complement the film without overshadowing it.

Let's look at 10 composers whose work represents some of the best in movie music. For each composer I've picked a soundtrack album or a compilation album to introduce their work. If you've never explored the music of the movies, I hope this list gives you a good starting point. Give them a listen!

John Barry
Thunderball
Original motion picture soundtrack (remastered)
(Capitol 72435-80589-2-5)

John Barry's long and prolific career as a film composer now spans five decades, highlighted by three Academy Awards. He's best known to most moviegoers as the man who defined the musical style for the many James Bond films. Thunderball (1965) is one of his best scores, combining the bold, brassy, and percussive action themes you expect in a Bond film with haunting motifs that complement the movie's many underwater scenes. The 2003 remastering of the original soundtrack album includes almost 45 minutes of excellent music left off of the original release. The recording sounds great — crisp stereo separation, with a nice warm tones in the low, undulating flute and string melodies, contrasted by brilliant brass that is powerful, precise, but never "tinny." The score's many sudden changes in volume provide an excellent test of your system's amplifier.

To experience the excitement of Barry's action scoring, check out the 11th track, "007," a taut reworking of a percussive theme Barry originally composed for 1963's From Russia with Love. Then listen to "Bond Below Disco Volante," for an interesting development of several of the themes employed in the movie. While Thunderball isn't my favorite Bond movie (I'll stick with Goldfinger), this installment has some of the most memorable music.

Barry trivia: John Barry has been nominated for an Academy Award nomination in four different decades — the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Bernard Herrmann
The Film Scores
Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen
(Sony Classical SK 62700)

Bernard Hermann's film scoring runs the gamut, beginning with Orson Welles' 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane to his final film score, for Martin Scorsese's dark and disturbing Taxi Driver (1976). Perhaps Herrmann's best work came in his collaborations with director Alfred Hitchcock. Herrmann composed the music for some of Hitch's greatest works, notably Psycho (1960), Vertigo (1958), and North by Northwest (1959). It's fitting that this 1996 recording includes music from six of his collaborations with Hitchcock, as well as selections from Francois Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and Taxi Driver.

Hermann departed from the lush melodic style of most of his contemporaries, emphasizing short rhythmic motifs to propel the action forward. The resulting musical tension is palpable in "The Rainstorm," from Psycho, where the tense music emphasizes the nervousness of Janet Leigh's character. In the energetic "North by Northwest: Overture" note how Herrmann utilizes repeated rhythms to create a bright, sharp-edged tension. This recording is a real treat for Herrmann fans — the L.A. Philharmonic sounds robust and bold, and conductor Salonen isn't afraid to let the orchestra run at full stride. The stereo CD disc is encoded with Dolby Pro Logic for a more enveloping experience if you've got a surround sound system, and is also available as a 2-channel SACD disc. If you want a good test of your system's low-frequency performance, go to "The Man Who Knew Too Much: Prelude" and see how well your speakers handle the explosive opening bars.

Herrmann trivia: Herrmann appeared in front of the cameras, playing a conductor, in Hitchcock's 1956 film The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold
The Adventures of Robin Hood
Moscow Symphony Orchestra, William Stromberg
(Marco Polo 8.225268)

Among the great film composers of Hollywood's "Golden Era" — Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, and Alfred Newman, to name a few — the composer with perhaps the greatest long-term impact was Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Korngold set new standards for compositional and scoring excellence during his career, thanks to his memorable use of melodic themes and bold orchestrations. Listening to a Korngold score is more akin to listening to a complete symphonic tone poem than a simple collection of musical cues.

Korngold's Oscar-winning film score for 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood is a masterpiece of film composition. Korngold introduces distinct themes for all of the major characters, and then continually intertwines and develops these themes as the story develops. The strong musical narrative flows to match the story we're seeing on screen, one moment lush and romantic, the next suddenly bursting with energy, projecting a muscular vitality that matches the swashbuckling style of the movie. This excellent 2003 recording, on Marco Polo (a small label with a strong dedication to recreating classic film scores), benefits from William Stromberg's energetic conducting and the solid musicianship of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. The recording has a lively palate of orchestral colors, with a lush, full sound that presents the mid to low frequencies particularly well. If your surround sound system has a DVD-Audio player, Marco Polo has released a multi-channel version of this album on DVD-Audio as well. To listen to an excellent example of the verve and energy Korngold invested in the music, go straight to "The Battle — The Duel — The Victory," an exhilarating set piece with a strong, emotionally satisfying climax. My advice though, is to get out the excellent liner notes and listen to the disc straight through. You'll be glad you did!

Korngold trivia: In 1936, while an Austrian citizen, Korngold had his music banned by the Nazis as "decadent."


Henry Mancini
Touch of Evil
Original soundtrack
(Varese Sarabande VS 5414)

Henry Mancini could only be described as "astoundingly prolific" based on his lifetime of work. After beginning his career as a big-band arranger, he broke into film writing with a stint at Universal Studios in the 1950s. As a staff arranger, Mancini learned the ropes of film writing by taking on many small and uncredited assignments, including musical cues for newsreels.

Mancini's jazz background served him well when he took on the assignment for Orson Welles' Touch of Evil in 1958. The score complements the corrupt Mexican border town setting of the movie, incorporating latin-jazz, Afro-Cuban percussion, and instrumental blues, all with a definite rock and roll influence. It's an excellent complement to the dark film noir feel of this classic film. One interesting note is that all of the tracks were used as "source music" in the film — meaning that the music comes from a visible source such as a jukebox, radio, dance band, or piano player. Varese Sarabande's 1993 reissue of the original soundtrack will provide your system a good test with the numerous jazzy instrumentals. If you only know Henry Mancini from the "Pink Panther" tune, give this album a try!

Henry Mancini trivia: Henry Mancini was honored with a postage stamp, issued in April, 2004.

Randy Newman
Ragtime
Original soundtrack (remastered)
(Elektra/Rhino R2 78245)

Randy Newman made his reputation as a talented, if quirky, songwriter (remember "Short People?"). His score for 1981's Ragtime served notice that he was capable of more. Since this initial success, he has been an active film composer, perhaps best known for his scores and original songs for the Disney/Pixar productions Toy Story, Toy Story 2, and Monsters, Inc.

This 2002 release is the first time the soundtrack for Ragtime has appeared on CD. It's a welcome treat for Newman fans, many of whom have treasured their vinyl copies for years! In this case, the long wait was worth it. Rhino's CD transfer is very clean, with an excellent sense of space and fullness surrounding the often sparse instrumentation. While composing the score, Newman studied the music of early 20th-century America, and created music that fits the period beautifully. Simple melodies predominate, particularly "Main Title," "Ragtime," and the song "One More Hour." You'll discover peppy, period-inspired work in "Clef Club No. 2," "Atlantic City," and "Newsreel." It's a nice reminder that movie music doesn't have to be on an epic scale to be effective.

Randy Newman trivia: Newman holds the all-time record for most Oscar nods without any wins with 16 nominations. He finally won in 2003 for Best Song ("If I Didn't Have You," from Monsters, Inc.).

Thomas Newman
The Shawshank Redemption
Original soundtrack
(epic soundtrax EK 66621)

I'll be the first to admit that this one of my favorite movies of the 1990s, and Thomas (cousin of Randy) Newman's great music is one of the reasons why. The innovative and evocative score for The Shawshank Redemption (1994) mixes electronics, piano, percussion, and orchestra to create a mysterious, moody, and dark soundscape — an excellent match for this prison drama.

Shawshank displays many of the elements that make Newman's music so distinctive. For a quick taste of this, go to the track "Shawshank Redemption." Listen carefully as eerie synthesized and sampled effects loom behind the dark, slow-moving melody, then allow yourself to be swept up as the music rises to a climax, only to fade away as enigmatically as it appeared. Although Newman's use of electronic effects and odd-sounding combinations of instruments is a hallmark of his work, he can also craft a fine melody. Listen to the affecting and sentimental "End Title" — a nice piece of "Americana" style composing. The album will provide an excellent test of your systems ability to reproduce quiet passages with depth and detail. To really experience the full effect of Newman's music, program your CD player to skip tracks 6, 12, and 16 — these tracks are non-original pieces of source music that are important to the story of the film, but seem out of place next to Newman's music. By the end, you'll feel you've completed a rewarding journey, guided by a talented composer.

Thomas Newman trivia: Prior to beginning his career as a composer, Newman assisted in the orchestration of the music for 1983's Return of the Jedi.


Miklos Rozsa
The Epic Film Music of Miklos Rozsa
City of Prague Philharmonic, Kenneth Alwyn
(Silva America, SSD 1056)

At a time when sharp distinctions were often drawn between film work and "serious" composing, Miklos Rozsa was a well-respected composer in both fields. From the time of his 1940 arrival in Hollywood, his services as a film composer were constantly in demand. Rozsa distinguished himself as a preeminent film noir composer in the 1940s, but the scale and scope of his works changed as different commissions began to come his way. By the 1950s Rozsa was the composer of choice for the great biblical and historical epics then in vogue, culminating in his Oscar-winning score for Ben Hur in 1959.

This 1996 collection of rerecorded material emphasizes Rozsa's "epic" scores. If you want an example of this big, epic sound, try the "Overture" from El Cid (1961), with its brilliant fanfare and driving, Spanish-influenced rhythms, or sit back and enjoy the majestically brassy "Parade of the Charioteers," from Ben Hur. The preponderance of massively-scaled compositions in this collection can leave the impression that Rozsa was something of a one-trick pony. For a different take, listen to the gentle "Love Scene," from El Cid, or the lushly romantic and energetic "Waltz," from Madame Bovary (1949). The Prague Philharmonic, conducted by Kenneth Alwyn, performs the selected works with verve, energy, and solid musicianship. Silva America's recording has an excellent sense of presence and will give you plenty of opportunities to test your system at high volume.

Miklos Rozsa trivia: Rozsa composed the theme music to the classic TV series Dragnet.

Howard Shore
Lord of the Rings — The Fellowship of the Ring
Original soundtrack
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Howard Shore
(Reprise, 9 48110-2)

Composers dream of getting a canvas as big as The Lord of The Rings to work with. Howard Shore has delivered a massive work in the romantic orchestral tradition that is every bit as evocative and moving as the glorious landscapes and massive battles of this history-making film trilogy. Throughout the entire trilogy Shore has crafted, intertwined, and reworked musical themes that carry forward the emotion and action of the story. Listeners love it, as the soundtracks for the LOTR movies have been regular visitors at the top of the classical music sales charts. There's little doubt that the music of these movies will be well studied (and often imitated) in years to come.

With three excellent soundtracks to choose from it was difficult to decide which to include in this compilation. I chose 2001's Fellowship of the Ring since it is the starting point from which the music of all the films flows. In Fellowship, the style and scale of the music is firmly established and most of the main themes are presented. Of course, there's no reason you shouldn't listen to all three soundtracks! The London Philharmonic Orchestra, recorded at the famous Abbey Road Studio, tackles the music with real vigor, and the recordings invariably sound excellent, whether presenting light and delicate passages or delivering massive orchestral thunder strokes. To see how well your system can reproduce dense and extremely heavy passages, go to "The Bridge of Khazad Dum" and see if your subwoofer can keep up with the pounding percussion.

Howard Shore trivia: Howard Shore was the first musical director of the house band for Saturday Night Live, way back in 1975.

Carl Stalling
The Carl Stalling Project: Music from Warner Brothers Cartoons, 1936-1958
(Warner Bros. 2-26027)

Many of us grew up looking forward to Saturday morning cartoons, particularly the classic Warner Brothers animations. As much as anything else, the success of these short films lies in the frantic musical scores that back them up. The master behind these classic soundtracks was Carl Stalling. After getting his start writing music for the cartoons of fellow Kansas City native Walt Disney, Stalling moved to the Warner Brothers animation studio in 1930. Stalling developed a unique style, with bursts of manic music suddenly starting and stopping; musical moods shifting rapidly; and slyly interwoven musical themes matching the action and characters on the screen.

The Carl Stalling Project is a collection of original material rescued from the vaults of the Warner Brothers studio. You'll hear the limitations of the original recordings (mono playback, tape hiss, somewhat tinny highs), but if you're like me you'll be too busy enjoying the music to care. This 1991 release includes several complete cartoon scores, like the 1950 Bugs Bunny short Hillbilly Hare or 1956's Roadrunner cartoon There They Go Go Go. You can almost see the on-screen action in your mind's eye as you listen. These complete shorts are interspersed with thematic medleys, like "Anxiety Montage" and "Dinner Music for a Pack of Cannibals." Most interesting, perhaps, are short snippets taken from actual rehearsal sessions, like "Putty Tat Trouble, Part 6." Listening to conductor Milt Franklyn put the Warner Brothers Orchestra through their paces as they do multiple takes on a short, amazingly complex snippet of music puts a very human face on the process of creating movie music.

Carl Stalling trivia: Stalling did the voice of Mickey Mouse on several of Walt Disney's early cartoons.

John Williams
The Spielberg/Williams Collaboration
Boston Pops Orchestra, John Williams
(Sony Classical SK 45997)

If you asked most people to name one movie composer, they would probably pick John Williams. Perhaps no other composer is so well identified with his work, be it the theme from Star Wars, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, or any number of other blockbusters. Williams' long, productive, and rewarding career (five Academy Awards) can certainly stand on its own merits. Yet his success is tightly interwoven with the many fine films of director Steven Spielberg, no slouch himself in the awards department (three Academy Awards). This crisply-recorded collection of Williams' music from Spielberg films has a wide dynamic range and full presence, due to the excellent acoustics of Boston's Symphony Hall and an outstanding performance by the Boston Pops Orchestra, conducted by Williams himself.

There's a wide selection of music in this collection, ranging from an energetic rendition of "The Raider's March" from Raiders of the Lost Ark to the lush melodies of the "Theme" from Always, as well as the soaring "Adventures on Earth" from E.T. To get a crash course in the craft of this fine composer, go directly to "Out to Sea" and "The Shark Cage Fugue," from Jaws. Sit down and hold on tight as a light and airy nautical tune transforms itself into a dark and predatory fugal theme that swirls through the entire orchestra before resolving into a crashing climax.

If there is any problem with this recording, it's that it can't cover all of Williams' many fine scores, in particular his more recent works. Still, it's a great place to start!

John Williams trivia: During his early composing career Williams composed some of the music used on the TV show Gilligan's Island.
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