Talk on Classic Film Music, 14 March 2023

Keith, one of our members, began with what he called his ‘setting up music’, and asked us to ‘name that tune’. It was more than one tune; rather, the tsunami of sumptuous melodies of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. Some of us recognised the piece, rather fewer could answer Keith’s second question, ‘to what film was it used as the sound-track.’ That was ‘Brief Encounter’ of 1945, which remains perhaps the greatest match of screen and score in film history – a master-stroke from director David Lean.

Keith stressed that he would be dealing with great music from films rather than classical music. In a short historical account, he described how the early silent films were accompanied by music, at first on piano or organ, and in bigger cinemas by an orchestra. But he pointed out that film composers drew heavily on classical traditions and techniques.

By the 1930’s the ‘talkies’ had arrived, and technology had advanced to allow a music track to be literally part of the film. Excerpts from outstanding film scores were played, beginning with Max Steiner’s music for ‘Gone with the Wind’ from 1939.  The previous year Errol Flynn had starred in a very successful version of ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood.’ The music was by a very gifted Austrian composer Erich Korngold who had escaped the Nazis and settled in the USA. He described Robin Hood as having saved his life, and went on to contribute to many Hollywood films, as well as continuing to write serious classical orchestral music.

Keith then gave us a rich selection of outstanding film music, including ‘Quo Vadis’ by Miklos Rozsa, ‘The Mission’ by Ennio Morricone with its well-known theme ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’, ‘Dr Zhivago’ by Maurice Jarre, and ‘The Big Country’ by Jerome Moross. In introducing Bernard Herrmann’s score for Hitchcock’s thriller ‘North by North West’, featuring Cary Grant, Keith remarked on how the star had become a role model, a cult figure even; everyone wanted to be Cary Grant. He was recorded as saying ‘even I want to be Cary Grant’.

One outstanding film was ‘Chariots of Fire’ (1981), depicting a historic duel between two British runners at the Paris Olympics of 1924. The score was by the Greek composer Vangelis, for which he received an Oscar. It was also noteworthy, Keith told us, as an early example of electronic instruments being used in a film score. Traditionally Hollywood composers and producers had favoured the rich and versatile palette of the full symphony orchestra. Another exception was the music for the James Bond film ‘Dr No,’ in which the composer uses a full-blooded ‘big band’ sound.

Keith packed up his impressive collection of film CDs and DVDs leaving us all with resounding recollections of just how much music had contributed to our enjoyment of visits to the cinema over the years.

Edward Canning

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