Music: Fourteen to Remember

Deal W. Hudson
May 1, 2003

Robert Reilly is on assignment overseas for the next few months. His column will resume upon his return. In the meantime, some of his friends will be filling in.

For my part, I would like to offer Crisis readers a personal list of the 14 best film scores according to two criteria: (1) Each score is by a different composer, and (2) each score can be enjoyed on its own merits without reference to the film. Admittedly, if I chose the 14 best without worrying about the composer, the list would be dominated by a few names: Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Miklos Rozsa, and Bernard Herrmann. Further, if I chose the scores according to the suitability of the music to the film, the choices would be slightly different, since strong film scores can sometimes overwhelm the films they accompany. The best example of this I know is the underappreciated score by Ennio Morricone, The Time of Destiny, one of his most beautiful.


Kings Row (1942)

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You may remember that this was the movie in which Ronald Reagan woke up without his legs. Korngold’s 18 film scores are all worth hearing, but Kings Row is surely one of the finest any composer has ever written. Unlike many contemporary scores that rely on one or two themes, Kings Row is chock full of memorable moments. But don’t miss The Sea Hawk, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Anthony Adverse, and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.


Spellbound (1945)

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This familiar Hitchcock film starring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck would have been a minor thriller without Rozsa’s music. The melody of its love theme, with the eerie sound of the accompanying theremin, has become one of the most familiar in film. For those who cannot find the original score, buy a rendition of the Spellbound Concerto for piano and orchestra. Other scores you should hear are Ben-Hur, El Cid, Young Bess, Julius Caesar, and Double Indemnity.


Vertigo (1958)

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Like Korngold and ROsza, it’s difficult to pick from among Herrmann’s works, which include Psycho, Citizen Kane, Fahrenheit 451, Marnie, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and North by Northwest. Vertigo, however, is eminently listenable on its own terms and is available in a stunning new recording conducted by Joel McNeely.


Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

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No, not The Mission or Cinema Paradiso. It may be that I’m just burned out from hearing the great themes from these films blaring away in elevators around the country. But neither of these scores can match the music from Sergio Leone’s epic of American gangsterism in Prohibition New York.


The Bride of Frankenstein (1936)

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Standing in the shadow of Korngold, Waxman often does not get the credit he deserves as a pioneer of film music. Listening to this music on CD, it hardly sounds like a horror film but more like a tragic love story, which, of course, the movie actually is. Waxman had an unusual gift for scoring memorable themes for massed strings, which can be heard in his other scores such as A Place in the Sun, Sunset Boulevard, and Peyton Place.


David Copperfield (1969)

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The major themes from this score are truly haunting. Arnold has yet to receive his due as one of the great composers of the last 50 years. The film itself, which stars the best English actors of the last generation, is clunky, but the music is inspired.


Romeo and Juliet (1968)

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Rota is best known for his many scores to Federico Fellini films, such as La Dolce Vita, but my favorite is Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. Although the main love theme became hackneyed due to the song “A Time for Us” sung by Johnny Mathis, this new recording by conductor Nic Raine and the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus proves that from beginning to end, this score is one of the best.


Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

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I find Jarre’s overall output somewhat hit and miss, although this opinion is disputed by many film music enthusiasts. In the music for Lawrence of Arabia, Jarre created a soundscape that most viewers of the film can remember long after they forget the movie. Like all great film scores, this one includes a plethora of themes and moods that keep the main theme from burning itself out.


King Kong (1933)

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This is the music that established film scoring as more than “background.” Some Steiner fans would argue that Gone With the Wind has more epic sweep or Now, Voyager greater romance or Treasure of the Sierra Madre more psychological complexity. Like Korngold, Rozsa, and Waxman, Steiner was an émigré who transplanted the middle European symphonic tradition into Hollywood films. Steiner once said that the idea for movie music originated with Richard Wagner: “If Wagner had lived in this century, he would have been the Number One film composer.”


Lady Caroline Lamb (1972)

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It’s hard to believe that the composer of this gorgeous music studied under the bete noire of beauty in music, Pierre Boulez. His name became better known to moviegoers as the composer for Four Weddings and a Funeral, but anyone who delights in a truly cosmopolitan mix of great melody, jazzy rhythms, and dance motifs should sample Murder on the Orient Express and Enchanted April. Along with Far from the Madding Crowd, Lady Caroline Lamb is Bennett at his most romantic, with a soaring viola part that has been rearranged into a viola concerto.


Somewhere in Time (1980)

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I can’t help it: I’ve always been a sucker for this score. Yes, it’s sentimental, and it piles on so many lush melodies that you fear tooth decay. But this rerecording proves to me that Somewhere in Time passes the test of time. Other great Barry scores include Out of Africa, The Lion in Winter, The Last Valley, Robin and Marian, Walkabout, and, of course, the Bond soundtracks.


To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

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Very few moments in music are lovelier than the first few minutes of Bernstein’s evocation of the South in the 1930s. Bernstein, whose career stretches back to 1951 and includes scores for more than 200 films, is the reigning king of film composers. To Kill a Mockingbird is the place to start to sample a composer of unfailing civility and elegance. After that try The Age of Innocence, Rambling Rose, True Grit, and The Magnificent Seven.


Born on the Fourth of July (1989)


Other Williams scores are more famous—Star Wars, Superman, Schindler’s List, and Jurassic Park—but none has the same punch as the score for Oliver Stone’s treatment of 1960s confusion on the south shore of Long Island. Williams’s music, which features an amazing showcase for a solo trumpet, adds the notes of nobility and heroism that are sometimes at odds with the agnosticism of Stone’s narrative.


The Sand Pebbles (1966)

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No list of great film scores would be complete without Jerry Goldsmith, who like Elmer Bernstein has written more memorable scores that can be recalled. The Sand Pebbles has many beautiful themes and develops effortlessly between the military action of the main plot and the love and friendship of the subplots. Goldsmith has an extremely flexible style that can be successfully adapted to any subject matter, as in scores such as Patton, The Blue Max, The Wind and the Lion, Planet of the Apes, Hoosiers, Papillon, and Chinatown.

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