A Night at the Oscars

A Night at the Oscars

Alfred Newman (1901-1970)
Selznick Studios fanfare)
Max Steiner (1888-1971)
Gone With the Wind

Jonny Greenwood (b. 1971)
Three Scenes from There Will Be Blood
(Open Spaces - Future Markets - Proven Lands)

George Gershwin (1898-1937), orchestrated Ferde Grofé (1892-1972)
Rhapsody in Blue

Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012)
Waltz from “Murder on the Orient Express”

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)
On the Waterfront: Symphonic Suite

Alfred Newman (1901-1970)
20th Century Fox Fanfare
John Williams (b. 1932)
Star Wars Suite
(Main Title - Princess Leia’s Theme- The Imperial March - Yoda’s theme - Throne Room & End Title)

Like most new industries, the early years of cinema were something of a free for all; a combination of technical innovation, artistic boundary pushing, hucksterism and exploitation.  As the Hollywood studio system matured, its leading figures increasingly wished to present a more respectable image, and also develop a more professional approach to negotiating with an increasingly organised workforce. To this end, Louis B. Meyer, legendary head of MGM Studios, founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927.

Any professional body will inevitably wish to celebrate itself in the form of an awards ceremony, and the Academy was no different. The first Academy Awards were duly given in May 1929.  MGM's art director Cedric Gibbons designed a statuette for the awards - a knight in Art Deco style standing with a sword on a film reel with five spokes.  This represented the five branches of the academy - Producers, Directors, Writers, Actors and technicians.  The director Emilio Fernández was persuaded to model for the statuette, which was then sculpted by George Stanley.  

Quite how and when the figure became known as an "Oscar" is unclear. One story has it that Bette Davis named it for her first husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson, while another has MGM's executive secretary Margaret Herrick declare upon first seeing it in 1931 that it looked like her Uncle Oscar. At any rate, Walt Disney is on record in 1932 thanking the Academy for his "Oscar", and by 1939 the nickname was officially adopted.

Music was not among the aspects of film included in the original award categories. While experiments in recording sound with film had been taking place since the 1890s, it was only with the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927 that the "talkies" were established as a serious proposition. Composing for film developed rapidly thereafter, and in 1934 this was recognised when the Oscars for Best Original Score and Best Original Song were first awarded.  Many of the composers who worked in Hollywood from the 20s onwards were European, often Austrian immigrants, which accounts for the fact that the classic Hollywood film sound has a distinctly Viennese accent.  One of the earliest composers to come to Hollywood, regarded by many as the father of film composition, was Max Steiner (1888-1971).  Born in Austria and taught by Brahms, Steiner was working in England when the FirstWorld War broke out, and was interned.  Fortunately he had a well connected fan, the Duke of Westminster, who arranged passage for him to the United States.  He initially worked as an orchestrator and composer on Broadway, where he worked on musicals by Jerome Kern and George Gershwin amongst others.  

In 1927 he found himself courted by RKO Pictures. RKO were planning to film a musical by Harry Tierney, Rio Rita, and Tierney himself requested that the studio hire Steiner to work on it.  Thus in 1929 Steiner moved to Hollywood, where he rapidly made his mark.  He was nominated for the first Original Score Oscar in 1934, and although he did not win that one, he went on to receive 24 nominations and three Oscars.  Surprisingly, the score for which he is best remembered did not win: Gone With the Wind was not short of awards though, collecting 10 Oscars in 1939, a haul that would remain unsurpassed for two decades until Ben Hur in 1961.  Producer David O. Selznick would consider no composer but Steiner for the film. He went to considerable expense to borrow him from Warner Brothers, to whom Steiner was contracted. Curiously, Selznick was then reluctant to allow Steiner to compose original music, asking rather for a score consisting mostly of existing classical music.  Steiner however insisted that the lavish epic would only be properly served by an original score. He duly produced it in only three months, resorting to Benzedrine to compose through the night.  At over three hours the score was the longest ever composed for a film, a record that would also only be beaten by Miklos Rósza's for Ben Hur 20 years later.  

In the 80s and 90s lush orchestral soundtracks became unfashionable, as film makers increasingly preferred compiling playlists of current and cult pop hits. These sometimes seemed more interested in producing a lucrative soundtrack album and showcasing the coolness of the director's record collection than highlighting the drama and emotion of the film.  More recent years have seen a revival of the orchestral score, led this time not by art composers but often by pop musicians expanding their palette. Danny Elfman and David Arnold are two of the most notable names leading this trend, and to that list can now be added Jonny Greenwood (b. 1971). Greenwood made his name as guitarist with Radiohead but has in recent years also gained a considerable reputation as a composer of music for both the classical concert hall and film. Greenwood had already completed one film score, Bodysong, in 2003. However, what spurred Paul Thomas Anderson to ask Greenwood to score There Will Be Blood was not that, but the string orchestra piece Popcorn Superhet Receiver which Greenwood had written for the BBC Concert Orchestra.  

Greenwood’s score is based in part on the earlier piece and elements from the music for Bodysong, a fact which rendered it ineligible for the Best Original Score award, although the film received eight nominations altogether.  The film is set in the early 20th century during the South Californian oil boom, but Greenwood’s score eschews any pastiche of period music styles. The music is instead hallucinatory and unsettling, taking its cue from composers such as Bartók, Messiaen and Penderecki. Anderson was evidently pleased with the result: Greenwood has since provided the music for his latest film, The Master.

Apart from original music, Hollywood has a long tradition of pilfering from pre-existing music which stretches back right to the dawn of cinema. "Silent" films were of course no such thing. They were always presented with musical accompaniment, ranging from a solo pianist improvising to a full orchestra playing a specially composed score.  Fully original scores were rare.  More often the soundtrack would consist of adaptations of popular classics, old parlour songs and current hits - whatever the musicians performing had in their repertoire that seemed to suit the mood of the scene they were accompanying.  When the "talkies" arrived this tradition continued.  George Gershwin’s 1924 sensation Rhapsody In Blue found itself used as a soundtrack as early as 1929, when it appeared in the short St. Louis Blues, a film that won no oscars but is notable as the only existing footage of the great blues singer Bettie Smith.The following year the band leader Paul Whiteman included it in a revue film named for his own self-aggrandising nickname, The King of Jazz. It won an Oscar for Best Art Direction (and was the first feature-length musical filmed entirely in technicolor).

Whiteman had commissioned the Rhapsody for a concert he gave called “An Experiment in Modern Music” at the Aeolian Hall in New York, an early example of “crossover” programming.  Legend has it that Gershwin promptly forgot about the commission and was only reminded about it when he saw an article in the New York Tribune announcing that he was contributing a “jazz concerto” to the show; he then composed his contribution in a fortnight. Since then, Gershwin generally and the Rhapsody specifically has become a frequent standby in film to signify New York.  It even gave its title to a 1946 biopic of Gershwin, which received two nominations for its score and sound.  At the turn of the century it was the soundtrack to one of the most successful sequences in Disney's long awaited sequel to Fantasia.  However, surely the most memorable use of the Rhapsody in film is the opening sequence from Woody Allen's 1979 masterpiece Manhattan, where Allen's writer character struggles in the book he is writing to evoke New York, while Gershwin does so effortlessly.  Allen was nominated for Best Screenplay, and along with Annie Hall, Manhattan is still considered by many to be the peak of his work.

The death on Christmas Eve of Richard Rodney Bennett brought to a close one of the most remarkable and varied careers in British music since the war.  He composed music in a wide array of styles, as befits a man who studied with Boulez but was also a talented jazz pianist.  His film and television work ranged from Doctor Who to Four Weddings and a Funeral, and along the way he picked up three Oscar nominations, including his breezy score for the 1974 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express.

As an authentically American music, jazz has long cast its influence over Hollywood soundtracks.  Leonard Bernstein's varied career, as a musician trained in high classicism but happy to take on popular styles, might suggest him as a natural to compose film music. Surprisingly, he wrote only one original film score.  That one, however, is a masterpiece: his brooding, jazz-inflected score for Elia Kazan's classic 1954 crime drama On the Waterfront.  Bernstein found working on the film difficult, largely because of the inevitable cuts to his score that came as the film was edited.  After he made a plea to retain "a particularly beloved G flat", it was suggested that he compile a concert suite to make use of the music lost from the film.  The resulting concert piece combines music both used in and discarded from the film. While the piece more or less follows the chronology of the film, Bernstein’s biographer Humphrey Burton suggests that it “can be seen as a twentieth-century equivalent of Tchaikovsky’s fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet, with the film’s principal characters, Terry and Edie, as the star-crossed lovers.”

On the Waterfront gained 12 Oscar nominations and won eight. Bernstein's music was one of the nominees, but not one of the winners, losing out to Dmitri Tiomkin for Best Original Score.  Perhaps this, along with the difficulties of having to lose so much music that he was proud of, contributed to his not working on another film score.  He would receive recognition indirectly from the Academy in 1961, when the film of West Side Story took a total of 10 awards, the most ever won by a musical.  

Walt Disney's 59 Oscar nominations is a record that seems unlikely to be beaten, but the closest anyone has come is John Williams, who has recently received his 48th Oscar nomination, for Spielberg's Lincoln. The nomination is also his 43rd for Original Score, which equals Alfred Newman’s tally for that particular award, although Newman remains ahead in wins (nine in total to Williams’s five).  For a generation of cinemagoers, Newman’s iconic 20th Century Fox Fanfare (he also wrote the Selznick Studios Fanfare that precedes Gone With the Wind tonight) is the essential prelude to a latter day classic that has become a phenomenon: Williams’s unforgettable theme for Star Wars.  George Lucas’s sci-fi epic has become not so much a film as a subculture, spawning two sequels, three prequels and innumerable cartoons, books, comics and toys, and legions of devotees.  Some fans went as far as to declare their religion as “Jedi” in the 2011 census.  The recent announcement that the Walt Disney Corporation has taken control of the franchise means that the juggernaut will not stop any time soon, with three more films announced for release from 2015.

Star Wars is is on  the surface a tribute to the cinema serials of the 1930s in which heroes such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers battled alien threats.  Beyond this, however, it is a love letter to a previous age of film-making. Lucas homages many specific films and scenes directly (particularly Kuriosawa’s The Hidden Fortress), and the epic westerns of John Ford,  the swashbuckling of Errol Flynn and the classic war films of the 40s and 50s all leave their imprint.  In an early cut of the film, before the special effects had been completed, Lucas even used footage of Second World War fighter planes to stand in for the space battles.  John Williams’s score likewise evokes the spirit of Hollywood’s golden age, in a sweeping, romantic score that evokes the spirit of the great pioneers of film music.