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Recordings

Max Steiner: King Kong
26 Aug 2005

Marco Polo Film Classics, Part I

Between the 1930s and the 1950s, Hollywood composers pumped out tens of thousands of scores for what we now call "classical Hollywood films." These films often contained an hour or more of music, but few viewers would have realized this. Certainly, many of these scores included themes that became very well known--Casablanca and Gone with the Wind come immediately to mind; however, much of the music was played quietly and inconspicuously. In classical Hollywood films, music is subservient to the narrative, and generally played two main roles. First, it served the film's central narrative by heightening the emotional content of important scenes (e.g., ominous music when characters approach an abandoned castle) and revealing characters' hidden feelings (e.g., love music while two characters are fighting). Second, music gave the film a greater sense of continuity by smoothing over cuts and moving slower scenes along.

  • Max Steiner: King Kong
    Moscow Symphony Orchestra, William Stromberg, conductor
    Marco Polo 8.223763 [CD]
  • Bernard Herrmann / Alfred Newman: The Egyptian
    Moscow Symphony Orchestra, William Stromberg, conductor
    Marco Polo 8.225078 [CD]

 

Over the past decade, the innovative Marco Polo label has put out approximately 40 new recordings of orchestral film scores. This year, Marco Polo's partner, Naxos, has begun to re-release these recordings at budget prices. So far, 13 discs are available, and eight of them feature classical Hollywood film scores. Overall, this is an eclectic collection. While three of the Hollywood CDs contain some of the best known scores in the history of Hollywood (Max Steiner's King Kong, Franz Waxman's Objective, Burma! and Dmitri Tiomkin's Red River), three others contain lesser-known scores by some of the giants of Hollywood composition (Steiner's The Adventures of Mark Twain, Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Newman's The Egyptian, and a compilation disc containing scores of Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Victor Young and Miklos Rozsa). Finally, there are two discs devoted to scores by less renowned composers: Frank Skinner, Hans J. Salter, and Adolph Deutsch.

Making new recordings of classical Hollywood film scores is a curious and problematic affair. Specifically, any potential producer is forced to face two sets of problems. One is philological in nature. When classical Hollywood film scores were written, few imagined that the original scores and parts might one day be of value. As a result, thousands of manuscripts were partially or completely lost or discarded over the years. More often than not, a person who desires to make a new recording needs to do a significant amount of restoration and reconstruction from a combination of (not always accurate) piano reductions, the film itself, and--if he or she is lucky--partial full scores and an incomplete set of parts. To make this process even more complicated, one needs to consider the almost inevitable discrepancies between the score and the film. These can result from last-minute visual edits, passages that are originally scored too heavily or too lightly to fit the sound effects and the dialogue, cues that are just a second too long or too short, or a host of other factors. In such situations, the person who is reconstructing the score must decide whether to record the version that made it onto the film or the version that is on the manuscript.

The second set of problems that a potential producer faces is more aesthetic in nature. Undoubtedly, classical Hollywood film scores contain some of the best music ever written, and any potential producer can find a vast amount from these scores that works very well by itself--that is, music that is wonderful to listen to without the visuals. That said, if one were going to record a film score, one needs to ask the following questions: what are we going to do with the cues that peter out in the film and therefore sound incomplete? Should the transitional cues that last no more than ten seconds be recorded? Are we going to record extended passages that fall flat without the visuals?

For their recordings of classical Hollywood film scores, Marco Polo/Naxos has astutely hired John Morgan to do the reconstruction and to make the aesthetic decisions. As an orchestrator for such eminent film composers as Fred Steiner, Bruce Broughton and Alex North in the late 1970s, Morgan learned the language of Hollywood film scoring early in his career. In recent decades, he has concentrated his energies on reconstructing classical Hollywood film scores and composing his own scores.

In the two CDs under review, Morgan's primary goal is not to present the scores as they actually appeared in King Kong and The Egyptian. Rather, he wants to recreate the music that the "silent" movies originally inspired. In the excellent booklet that accompanies the King Kong CD, he writes, "This recording then is not a recreation of the 1933 music tracks, but a musical performance of the complete score as Steiner's original sketches dictated" (p. 7). Similarly, he writes the following in the booklet that accompanies The Egyptian CD, "For this recording, I have gone back to the primary source materials to present this music as it was originally composed for the film" (p. 7).

Max Steiner's (1888-1971) score for the 1933 hit, King Kong, has long been recognized as a milestone in the history of film music. In the early years of sound cinema (ca. 1927-33), filmmakers struggled to find a suitable role for music in films. According to many, this struggle ended with King Kong. By adapting the Wagnerian Leitmotiv system for film scores, Steiner allowed music to become a narrative component in films. If one plays a short motif whenever a certain character appears (e.g., the chromatic descending three-note motif that is heard almost every time King Kong appears), viewers begin to associate the motif with the character. Once this association is made, the composer can use music to aid the film's narrative. For example, by making the aforementioned three-note motif sound menacing, Steiner was able to make Kong appear more threatening and ominous during his initial entrance (Track 9, 0:30 on the Naxos CD). At the end of the film, Steiner uses the same three-note motif in a slightly different way to make Kong into a tragic and somewhat sentimental figure (Track 22, 0:52).

In reconstructing this score for the Marco Polo/Naxos CD, Morgan used primarily Steiner's annotated sketches, which includes one and a half cues that never made it onto the film, to reorchestrate the entire score. He explains why he was dissatisfied with the original orchestration in his liner notes, "It is clear that Steiner composed this music in the full Wagnerian orchestral tradition without a specific, predetermined orchestra layout being adhered to. It was therefore up to his orchestrator (Bernard Kaun) to orchestrate the music within the budgetary confines of the production (meaning the number of players), and to come up with [the necessary] compromises" (p. 5). Later on, he states:

bq. For this recording, our goal was to be as authentic to Steiner's original sketches and intentions as possible, but without the compromises necessitated by budget and sound limitations of the period...I reorchestrated the score from top to bottom in order to maintain a consistency of instrumentation with the somewhat audacious intention of doing it the way Steiner would have if he had the time to orchestrate the music himself, with a full symphonic orchestra and modern recording techniques at his disposal. (p. 7)

So, what are the results?

Overall, Morgan's orchestrations are quite dense. Although most cues are quite effective, I would have preferred to hear a greater variety of textures. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that--unlike the film, which includes passages without music and segments with relatively quiet music--I am listening to all twenty-two cues without a break. In terms of performance, the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, conducted with William Stromberg, copes with the numerous notes in the score quite well. There are occasional clunkers, and the woodwinds can play with more character, but overall the orchestra plays with passion and accuracy. I only wish that they had done one more take of the "Theater Sequence" (Track 17). For whatever reason, the players don't sound completely at ease here.

Unlike King Kong, The Egyptian (1954) is an ambitious but nearly forgotten epic. The CD booklet blames the film's lukewarm reception on the fact that 20th Century Fox was too cheap to hire Marlon Brando to play the lead. While I agree that Brando would have improved this film, I doubt that he could single-handedly have "saved" this diffuse production. In terms of music, The Egyptian is significant because the score was jointly composed by two of the greatest film music composers of all time: Bernard Herrmann (1911-75) and Alfred Newman (1901-70). Today, Herrmann is remembered primarily for his scores for such Hitchcock films as Vertigo and Psycho, but it should be noted that he also composed such wide-ranging scores as Citizen Kane and Taxi Driver. Newman, whose credits include Wuthering Heights, The Song of Bernadette, All About Eve and the 20th Century Fox fanfare, received 45 Academy Award nominations and won nine times.

In reconstructing this score for the Marco Polo/Naxos recording, Morgan's primary task was to cut the almost 100-minute score to something that can fit onto a single CD. He writes, "My criteria for choosing the music for this recording was based on what I felt worked best away from the film as a musical listening experience" (p. 7). Other than this, he had to reconstruct some of the orchestrations from parts and to come to terms with the recording requirements noted in the score. In his liner notes, Morgan offers some examples of the decisions that he had to make:

bq. "Her Name Was Merit" starts out with alto flute and oboe d'amore playing the melody in unison, but the alto flute is asked to sit 30 feet behind the oboist. We honored indications such as the former, as they were done expressly for musical purposes. However, in the cue "The Harp and Couch," Herrmann prerecorded the harp part to picture and later had the bass clarinets and violins play their parts while listening to the harp through headphones. Since this was done solely to synchronize the harp to picture, we recorded everyone together. (p. 8)

Compared to King Kong, The Egyptian is a score that requires a lot more finesse. Unfortunately, the Moscow Symphony Choir and Orchestra, again conducted by William Stromberg, are only partially up to the task. On the one hand, the instrumentalists still play with gusto, and the overall orchestral sound is quite good. The choir's contributions, although a bit loud, are also effective. On the other hand, the ensemble problems that are acceptable in the chase/fight scenes of King Kong really detract from the atmosphere of some of the slower cues, such as "Akhnaton--One Deity" (Track 8). Also, some of the entries and attacks are not as subtle as it should be. An example is the percussion entries in "The Nile & Temple" (Track 4). Finally, Stromberg seems to be very fearful of over-romanticization. While I understand that he does not want to turn all the slow cues into schmaltz, a bit more sentimentality would, I think, really have helped.

For someone who writes about film music, these two CDs are fascinating. I really enjoyed eavesdropping on Morgan's attempts to see what Steiner would have done if he had a full symphony orchestra. Also, listening to the score of The Egyptian apart from the rather dull film did lead me to appreciate Herrmann and Newman's score more. That said, I doubt that I will return to these discs very often. There just isn't enough variety in either score to sustain my interest for 72 minutes. Moreover, some cues, such as King Kong's "Fanfares 1, 2, 3" (Track 19), are just silly outside the context of the film.

At the beginning of the booklet of The Egyptian CD, an unnamed author writes, "Great film music--music composed for the only art form created in the 20th century--can stand alone as a great symphonic experience" (p. 2). There is certainly a lot of great music--great symphonic moments--in film music. I am not, however, convinced that simply listening to all the cues of a great film score in the correct order will produce a good symphonic experience. Film scores contain lots of fragmentary thoughts, repetitions, and musical ideas that wouldn't steal the spotlight during an important monologue. To make a great symphonic experience from this material, we need to be less "authentic"; we need to finish ideas, compose bridges that connect different cues, rearrange the order of the cues, develop some of the less used motifs, and so on.

I hope that, some day, someone would construct and record a really good suite or symphonic poem based on these film scores. This is the way, I believe, to generate a great symphonic experience from this wonderful material.

Eric Hung
Westminster Choir College of Rider University

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