Friday, 23 November 2007

The very best composer for films ...

Imagining films without music to drive them emotionally is like imagining pasta without sauce, cheese without wine -- or Helen Clark without Judith Tizard around to carry her handbag.

So given the crucial importance in film of communicating intense emotion through music, which composer do you think has been most used in film soundtracks?

John Williams??

I've already given you a clue. What film directors are after is intense emotion. As Auckland Wagnerian Chris Brodrick discovered through extensive research, which I'm told involved consumption of life-threatening quantities of popcorn and extensive pillaging of the IMDb database, it's Wagner's music that's far and away the most used to deliver that emotion. As Chris said at the conclusion of his death-defying resarch, it's astonishing "how much Wagner has been pillaged over eighty years of film soundrack, and how absolutely fundamental he has been for the way modern film composers try to make music work on film."

Wagner's music makes an appearance in films an astonishing four-hundred times -- and in films of all genres -- followed far behind (and in descending order) by Mendelssohn, Mozart, JS Bach, Rossini and Beethoven. (Distressingly, the most used is his 'Wedding Music' from 'Lohengrin,' which everyone knows who's ever attended such a function.)

On reflection however it's hardly astonishing at all. It wasn't just the intense emotion in Wagner's music that directors look for and contemporary composers continue to pillage (Brodrick points out for example the presence of Wagner's "nature" motif in the 'Lord of the Rings' films). It was Wagner who first showed how to use music as a "psychological tool" in dramas, a lesson well used by John Williams with his 'Jaws' theme which "instantly warns of danger by implying the shark's presence," and in "the famous shower scene in Hitchcock's 'Psycho' that is underscored by Bernard Hermann's truly terrifying music."

In the way he composed music for his monumental music-dramas, Wagner in almost every way but inventing the celluloid itself was responsible for inventing movie music. Composer Max Steiner, a pupil of both Brahms and Mahler, a godson of Richard Strauss, and the composer of the soundtrack for the film of 'The Fountainhead' is the chap usually credited for inventing movie music. "Nonsense," says Steiner. "The idea originated with Richard Wagner. If Wagner had lived in this century, he would have been the Number One film composer. "

I can't say I know all the films in which he's been used, but here's just three examples from YouTube of how Wagner's been used in some film classics. As those three examples show, however, I can't say that all the uses have been appropriate to the music, or that they've been great films . . .

The Rheingold prelude in Werner Herzog's 'Nosferatu'
'Siegfried's Funeral Music' in 'Excalibur'
Tannhauser's xxx Overture and Bacchanale in 'Meeting Venus' [scroll through for a few clues how it's used]
And of course, the infamous use of Wagner's 'Ride of the Valkyries' in Francis Ford Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now' -- music intended to sanctify dead heroes used instead to accompany mindless slaughter.

[NB: Chris Brodrick's articles on Wagner and the Movies can be found in these two Wagner Society newsletters. Both links are to PDF forms of the newsletters.]


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