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 Posted:   Nov 25, 2013 - 11:10 PM   
 By:   Regie   (Member)

The Cleveland Orchestra conductor Erich Leinsdorf launched a scathing attack of film music in The NY Times in 1945. Bernard Herrmann wrote this response one week later:

"In last Sunday's Times, Erich Leinsdorf indulged in a favourite sport current among many of our interpretive concert musicians - that of belittling film music. As one who is also a conductor of a symphony orchestra (CBS), besides being the composer of a considerable amount of film music, I would like to take issue with his criticisms.

In the first place, he seems upset by the fact that music in films must of necessity be incidental. He declares that music in any "subordinate" place is "odious" to a musician. I fail to see what he means by the word "subordinate". If film music is 'subordinate', so is music in the theatre and the opera house. Music in the films is a vital necessity, a living force. Had Mr. Leinsdorf ever seen a film in the projection room before the music was added, he would understand thoroughly how important the score is.

Music on the screen can seek out and intensify the inner thoughts of the characters. It can invest a scene with terror, grandeur, gaiety, or misery. It can propel narrative swiftly forward, or slow it down. It often lifts mere dialogue into the realm of poetry. Finally, it is the communicating link between the screen and the audience, reaching out and enveloping all into one single experience.

If this role is "subordinate and secondary", then so is the role of opera music, which, no matter how extended, is governed finally by the needs of the drama. so it is with the best film music. It identifies itself with the action, and becomes a living part of the whole. Obviously, few film scores could bear the scrutiny of the concert audience without being radically rewritten. But, similarly, even the Wagnerian excerpts which are performed by our symphony orchestras seem amputated when they are torn from the rightful places on the stage."

This is less than half the essay, but you get the idea!!

 
 
 Posted:   Nov 26, 2013 - 12:22 AM   
 By:   RonBurbella   (Member)

Regie, if one were to go to the public library and check the 1945 microfilm of the NY Times, what was the date on which this letter was published?

The film historian in me is curious.

I can't recall if this letter was included in Herrmann's biography, A Heart At Fire's Center by Steven Smith, or not.

Ron Burbella

 
 
 Posted:   Nov 26, 2013 - 3:40 AM   
 By:   Regie   (Member)

Hi Ron,

Yes, indeed, the letter is included in the book you mentioned by Steven C. Smith which I'm currently reading in my research about Benny Herrmann. On page 122.

The letter was much longer and I would have typed it all but my fingernails kept catching in the keyboard on the computer. I used to be able to touch-type at 80wpm but those skills have nearly gone these days.

 
 
 Posted:   Nov 26, 2013 - 4:32 AM   
 By:   geert custers   (Member)

Hi Regie

How interesting! What is your research about? Will there be a publication?

Keep us posted!

Geert

 
 
 Posted:   Nov 26, 2013 - 5:16 AM   
 By:   Tall Guy   (Member)

Obviously, few film scores could bear the scrutiny of the concert audience without being radically rewritten.

Interesting comment. Were there many film music concerts at that time, I wonder? I'd guess, very few, or at least nothing like the amount we're blessed with now. Of course, there's a lot more extant music to choose from almost seventy years later!

TG

 
 Posted:   Nov 26, 2013 - 6:12 AM   
 By:   Grecchus   (Member)

Would asking a musician (who is not a composer) with a foot in both camps do any good in elucidating a clear point of demarcation between them?

They are either equivalent or they are not. A form of precise classification needs to be established in whose detail the divergence can be determined. They converge, as far as I'm concerned. At least, superficially. In fact, this could be an interesting application in the mathematical discipline of group theory. Imagine that - having an inviolate proof that decides the matter one way or the other? wink

Whether he realised it or not, Benny seems to have been using acute mathematical ideas in his defensive argument. You know, the if A = B and B = C, then A = C type of argument. But, where does one begin? It seems he was citing dramas in which actors and music cohere in real time as opposed to pure concert works, in which a story unfolds against a continuous or largely uninterrupted body of music. In such a case, the skill of the composer is to make an unambigious case for specific moments on the commentary that can't be mistaken for other events embodied within, by relying on audience participation in temporal understanding of where the music has arrived at any given moment of the recital. Could this be reason enough for the pure concert chauvinism overshadowing film music?

 
 
 Posted:   Nov 26, 2013 - 12:43 PM   
 By:   Regie   (Member)

Hi Regie

How interesting! What is your research about? Will there be a publication?

Keep us posted!

Geert


I'm researching two 90-100 minute lectures next year for music appreciation for retirees - most of whom, in their working lives, were professionals of one type or another. Now, you might think that sounds like an 'easy' activity, but there are at least half a dozen retired and current music academics also involved in presenting lectures and the lectures are conducted at the Conservatorium. I want mine thoroughly researched, accessible but also shaped by a single 'argument' (just like an essay). I'm trying to develop that 'argument' as we speak!

My lectures will be about Bernard Herrmann: the first one looking at this background and compositional style, the radio programs, conducting and film scores and his relationship with Hitchcock. The second lecture is, as yet, still undecided but will involve other film music composers who were contemporaries of Herrmann and/or inlfuenced by him (a more difficult task).

 
 
 Posted:   Nov 26, 2013 - 2:50 PM   
 By:   jonathan_little   (Member)

Here's Herrmann's letter in the book: http://goo.gl/ExdSzl

 
 
 Posted:   Nov 26, 2013 - 3:33 PM   
 By:   Ludwig van   (Member)

Whether he realised it or not, Benny seems to have been using acute mathematical ideas in his defensive argument. You know, the if A = B and B = C, then A = C type of argument. But, where does one begin? It seems he was citing dramas in which actors and music cohere in real time as opposed to pure concert works, in which a story unfolds against a continuous or largely uninterrupted body of music. In such a case, the skill of the composer is to make an unambigious case for specific moments on the commentary that can't be mistaken for other events embodied within, by relying on audience participation in temporal understanding of where the music has arrived at any given moment of the recital. Could this be reason enough for the pure concert chauvinism overshadowing film music?

An interesting argument, Grecchus. By this reasoning then, Leinsdorf's qualms with film music would stem from its perceived inability to display "unambiguous" emotional qualities from a strictly musical point of view. In other words, if film music were taken on its own, it would not be able to express what it's "supposed" to based on the dramatic situation. And that would make it "inferior" music.

I rather believe things to be the other way around. To me, the best film music expresses its associated dramatic situation more unambiguously than the best operas because the composer usually remains tied to a fairly constrained style whereas film music, even in the era of Classical Hollywood, has more variety than the typical opera.

 
 Posted:   Nov 26, 2013 - 3:46 PM   
 By:   ToneRow   (Member)

In other words, if film music were taken on its own, it would not be able to express what it's "supposed" to based on the dramatic situation. And that would make it "inferior" music.


Many people seem to subscribe to the notion that film music taken on its own is not sufficiently satisfying as a stand-alone work because it is discontinuous in nature.
Film music permits dialogue, silence, sound effects, etc. to co-communicate the onscreen content.

Absolute/abstract concert music relies upon a form to delineate its overall structure.
Concert music, then, is not discontinuous as is film music away from the visuals; concert music is complete on its own - it is continuous (even when silences are part of the sonic architecture).

 
 
 Posted:   Nov 26, 2013 - 5:27 PM   
 By:   Regie   (Member)

Would asking a musician (who is not a composer) with a foot in both camps do any good in elucidating a clear point of demarcation between them?

They are either equivalent or they are not. A form of precise classification needs to be established in whose detail the divergence can be determined. They converge, as far as I'm concerned. At least, superficially. In fact, this could be an interesting application in the mathematical discipline of group theory. Imagine that - having an inviolate proof that decides the matter one way or the other? wink

Whether he realised it or not, Benny seems to have been using acute mathematical ideas in his defensive argument. You know, the if A = B and B = C, then A = C type of argument. But, where does one begin? It seems he was citing dramas in which actors and music cohere in real time as opposed to pure concert works, in which a story unfolds against a continuous or largely uninterrupted body of music. In such a case, the skill of the composer is to make an unambigious case for specific moments on the commentary that can't be mistaken for other events embodied within, by relying on audience participation in temporal understanding of where the music has arrived at any given moment of the recital. Could this be reason enough for the pure concert chauvinism overshadowing film music?


I always thought A = B and B = C, then A = C is actually a false syllogism.

And I'm unsure why there is an 'either/or' argument about film music - one which Liensdorf in 1945 found himself wanting to promulgate. The 'language' of film music is principally based on the foundations of western classical music, minus FORM. One does not subvert the other; film music is what it is and concert hall music is what it is. We may take a piece like "Ein Heldenleben" by Strauss, which is totally 'programmatic' and a "tone poem". The single difference between this and music written for film (and I speak about high quality film music here) is the FORM. Music for film is linked to film's 'FORM' and there are ample essays on the concept of film 'form' to show how the leitmotiv (significantly used by Wagner) was an ideal device for film. In that sense, film music DOES have form. It just doesn't have FORM in the same way that a concert hall piece has because it has a symbiotic relationship with a film text. Take a work like Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique". There's a piece of early film music if ever there was one - and it seems to lack FORM, at least superficially.

IMO, Herrmann would have won his argument in support of film music if he had used the language of western classical music to turn the whole issue around. I note in the footnotes of the Steven Smith biography (p.123) in response to Herrmann's letter of 1945 - an extract from a letter from Herrmann's friend, Davidson Taylor, is quoted:

"I read your temperate piece in the Times with great respect. Who cut out all the vituperation for you? I think you should have blistered the pants off your adversary"(29/7/45).



 
 
 Posted:   Nov 26, 2013 - 6:23 PM   
 By:   Ludwig van   (Member)

Many people seem to subscribe to the notion that film music taken on its own is not sufficiently satisfying as a stand-alone work because it is discontinuous in nature.
Film music permits dialogue, silence, sound effects, etc. to co-communicate the onscreen content.

Absolute/abstract concert music relies upon a form to delineate its overall structure.
Concert music, then, is not discontinuous as is film music away from the visuals; concert music is complete on its own - it is continuous (even when silences are part of the sonic architecture).


I would agree with this. Essentially critics (especially those from the classical world) who use concert music as the yard stick with which to size up film music apply an inappropriate comparison since film music has very different purposes, and has the kinds of requirements you point out. But it never ceases to amaze me how often this kind of appraisal is made nonetheless.

 
 Posted:   Nov 27, 2013 - 1:18 PM   
 By:   Grecchus   (Member)

Well, this is most interesting. Bearing in mind I'm strictly just a lay person expressing my personal thoughts here on this forum, here are some supplemental lay thoughts.

I have frequently wondered if those critics of film music who express their lowly opinions of it do so from a highly biased platform based on a sense of superior intellectual ability bourne from a classical and historical background preceeding the era in which music became allied to film. It is essentially adulterated to such adherents. This is something that Threepio would encapsulate as a 'sense of grandeur.' This comes out emotionally as indignity being heaped upon the hitherto stainlesss reputation of music for which concert works had always been written, and for which composers had climbed to the highest heights of their intellectual ability in order to produce those very same great and pure works of musical art. For these grand old stoics, to saddle music with a secondary medium is to tarnish it and rob it of it's own merit and integrity. This is just a perception of my own and, dare I say it, is biased!

The whole issue is plagued with further complication. By this, I would bring in Prokofiev's Peter And The Wolf, in which the composer eventually collaborated with Disney for the production of that studio's own film version of the symphony a year or so after the letter above was printed. In this case you have an animated film which has been deliberately constrained to fit the music. And this by a (presumably) classically trained composer. Imagine if Prokofiev actually read Benny's argument? Peter And The Wolf has become legendary through the multitude of portrayals in this media and that media.

So it seems inevitable that segregated groups with differing opinions on what is right and what is wrong will erupt into being to wrangle over what is order and what is chaos.

Finally, the score to Star Wars is grand operatic music at it's best. To me it is a complete symphonic whole comprised of individual movements. It has it all: mythology, grand heroics of the good versus the bad in the spirit of adventure. Just what would Prokofiev have made of it?

I wonder smile

 
 
 Posted:   Nov 27, 2013 - 4:57 PM   
 By:   Regie   (Member)

I think Prokofiev would have absolutely agreed with Benny Herrmann's arguments because Prokofiev wrote film music in Russia in the 1930's - and very good music it is too. And, of course, lots of other 'concert hall' composers like Aaron Copland, Ralph Vaughan-Williams, Virgil Thomson - well, LOTS of others, including Bernstein - all dipped their toes into the new medium of film (as it was then). Today Philip Glass writes scores for films and does it very well. Shostakovich also wrote film music, just thinking of another Russian.

I say again, film has form and by virtue of that music has form (when it is connected to the film). I'll let Bordwell and Thompson do the talking:

"A film is not simply a random batch of elements. Like all artworks, a film has form. By film form, in its broadest sense, we mean the total system that the viewer perceives in the film. Form is the overall SYSTEM OF RELATIONS that we can perceive among the elements in the whole film...

In The Wizard of Oz the viewer can notice many particular elements. There is, most obviously, a set of narrative elements. These comprise the film's story. Dorothy dreams that a tornado blows her to Oz, where she encounters certain characters. The narrative continues to the point when Dorothy awakens from her dream to find herself home in Kansas. We can also perceive a set of stylistic elements; the way the camera moves, the patterns of colour in the frame, the use of music, and other devices. Stylistic elements derive from the various film techniques...... Because The Wizard of Oz is a system and not a hodgepodge, the viewer actively relates the elements within each set to one another. We line and compare narrative elements. We see the tornado as causing Dorothy's trip to Oz; we identify the characters in Oz as similar to characters in Dorothy's Kansas life. The stylistic elements can also be connected. For instance, we recognize the "We're Off to See the Wizard" tune whenever Dorothy picks up a new companion. We attribute unity to the film by positing two subsystems: a narrative one and a stylistic one - within the larger system of the total film". ("An Introduction to Film Art", 4th ed., Bordwell & Thompson, 1993).

In the same way that the visual elements of film have FORM so also do the musical elements. Benny Herrmann knew this well and developed the use of leitmotiv for scoring film. When he wanted to 'transition' this same music to the concert hall he 'arranged' the music from some of his films into a "Suite", thereby giving it kunstmusik form. But IT IS STILL FILM MUSIC.

 
 
 Posted:   Nov 27, 2013 - 7:00 PM   
 By:   Rozsaphile   (Member)

If film music is 'subordinate', so is music in the theatre and the opera house.

Interesting that H. would describe himself as the composer of "a considerable amount of film music." In 1945 he was completing only his fifth movie score (HANGOVER SQUARE). I wonder if he had any idea then that he would work on many dozens more in the coming decades.

Odious as the Leinsdorf comments seem to be, and justified as Herrmann's response remains, I would take issue with the one sentence quoted above. In opera the composer is almost always the dominant creator, and the music is inevitably paramount. Many (though certainly not all) opera libretti are little more than skeletons upon which musical muscle and flesh and garments are arrayed. Rarely is that true of a movie.

 
 
 Posted:   Nov 27, 2013 - 7:35 PM   
 By:   Regie   (Member)

Though Benny hadn't completed a lot of film music by 1945, what he had completed was substantial. And he worked at CBS for many years as a conductor and the composer for radio dramas before writing film music, so he'd had a lot of experience using music to accompany dramatic texts - he really knew what he was talking about.

 
 
 Posted:   Nov 27, 2013 - 10:51 PM   
 By:   TerraEpon   (Member)

If film music is 'subordinate', so is music in the theatre and the opera house.

Interesting that H. would describe himself as the composer of "a considerable amount of film music." In 1945 he was completing only his fifth movie score (HANGOVER SQUARE). I wonder if he had any idea then that he would work on many dozens more in the coming decades.


Of course he'd also written a lot of radio music as well, so perhaps he was including that?

 
 Posted:   Nov 28, 2013 - 8:49 AM   
 By:   Basil Wrathbone   (Member)

Herrmann would be a more severe critic of today's film music than Leinsdorf ever was.

 
 
 Posted:   Nov 28, 2013 - 10:24 AM   
 By:   Ludwig van   (Member)

The idea of concert music being better than film music always brings to mind Irwin Bazelon's book Knowing the Score: Notes on Film Music. The things he says are heavily biased and confirm Regie's point about form in film and Grecchus' point about the perceived intellectual superiority of concert music. Needless to say, Bazelon was a concert composer and seemed to be bitter about Hollywood not being more receptive to concert-style music. Here are some snippets to give you the flavor of the book:

(p. 8) "It may come as a distinct surprise to many, including film directors and producers, but after years of listening to motion-picture scores, it is my firm conviction that you don't have to be a composer to write film music."

Clearly he means a classically-trained composer. To me, anyone who creates music is a composer regardless of their training. But this is one of Bazelon's central criticisms of film music that he returns to throughout the book, even to the extent of asking many established film composers in interviews whether one has to be a composer to write film music.

(p. 9) "The film composer is not required to act on his ideas, only to initiate them. The need for progression and a broad musical perspective is nil. He tends to fall back on repetition and restatement, cribbing from what he has previously invented, or borrowing liberally from others. Functioning as a composer in the sense of putting a piece together is never called upon."

Two things about this. First, he obviously has a problem with the lack of "development" in film scores, or in other words it's lack of autonomous form. But as Regie said in a post above, film music's form is the form of the film. Moreover, I think Bazelon misses much of the nuance in film music with, among other things, thematic transformation. Sure, there are films where themes are repeated, but more often they are re-shaped into new forms to match the narrative situation onscreen.

Second, there is the criticism that a composition ought not repeat itself, that somehow it speaks of a lack of imagination to do so. This is Grecchus' point about the perceived intellectual superiority of concert music seeping through here.

(p. 10) He gives a brief invented example of how a scene of sneaking up on the enemy in a war scene would be scored in films of the day (1970s). After berating it, he then says:

"In this same scene, a composer of superior imagination would not hesitate to expand the musical concept. ... In this instance, by utilizing especially pungent music, he could accentuate the physical and emotional stress of the combatants over and above mere surface suspense."

Again, the concert composer is perceived to be intellectually superior to the film composer.

These are perhaps the ultimate examples of comparing apples and oranges, and being upset when one's orange doesn't taste like an apple.

 
 
 Posted:   Nov 28, 2013 - 10:35 AM   
 By:   Thor   (Member)

This type of prejudice was a fairly common attitude back in the day. The ultimate example is of course the famous book by Adorno & Eisler from 1947 (although that was less against film music per se as it was an attempt to reinvent musical application in films).

Fortunately, the scene is very different today, with a flowering abundance of film music literature -- approaching the artform from all possible angles. The prejudice is still around, but to a far less extent, whether it's academia or popular culture.

But interesting 'curiosa' with the Herrmann letter there. Nice to see one of the big ones involved in a public exchange of opinions on the artform.

 
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