Screening Music, Part Two:
The advent of the soundtrack album and
a year in celebration of Miklos Rozsa
By Steve Vertlieb
With the coming of sound came a new appreciation for music composed expressly for the screen. By 1936, Britain’s HMV label released one of the earliest recordings of motion picture music, highlights from the score of H.G. Wells’s THINGS TO COME composed and conducted by Arthur Bliss.
In America in the 1940’s, Miklos Rozsa conducted his own recordings of both THE JUNGLE BOOK and, later, Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND for commercial release.
The soundtrack album as we know it didn’t begin to come into its own, however, until the 1950’s when motion picture studios began marketing music from their films as a natural adjunct to the promotion and publicity associated with major film releases.
One of the first stereo recordings in the middle of the decade was Leith Stevens’ futuristic score for George Pal’s Destination Moon, conducted by Heinz Sandauer for the Omega audiophile label. RCA Records helped to pioneer the early trend by issuing soundtrack recordings for such prestigious productions as MOBY DICK Dick by Philip Sainton, THE BAD SEED by Alex North and RAINTREE COUNTY by John Green.
Soundtrack recordings became even more lucrative during the 1960’s with the introduction of song scores and a growing “rock” influence beginning to dominate vinyl. If a classical symphonic presence hastened the popularity of motion picture music on home recordings, long playing albums replaced the limited capacity of 78’s and opened the flood gates in the sixties to adolescent and pre-pubescent tastes. The burgeoning maturity of the soundtrack album was quickly supplanted by recordings featuring vocals by rock ‘n roll icons recruited to bolster record sales within the rapidly growing teenage market. Serious symphonic scores and albums virtually disappeared until the mid 1970’s when an early champion of serious film music, conductor Charles Gerhardt, convinced RCA to record a series of historically significant score compilations by such composers as Miklos Rozsa, Bernard Herrmann, Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman and Dimitri Tiomkin.
Coincidentally, as these recordings were beginning to re-popularize the classic film score, a veteran composer named John Williams was starting to make his own mark in collaborations with a youthful director by the name of Steven Spielberg. Their collaborative, classically trained sensibilities combined to take both the film and music communities by storm with such rich, exciting productions as JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK…the latter film written and produced by another young visionary named George Lucas who would offer John Williams, perhaps, his most celebrated assignment…the score for an experimental science fiction extravaganza called STAR WARS.
Due to the pioneering efforts of John Williams and Charles Gerhardt, soundtrack recordings have proliferated the worlds of albums and CD’s with hundreds, even thousands of new albums of motion picture music released every year. With predictable variance in quality ranging from medocre to superb, meticulously preserved archival recordings as well as state of the art re-recordings see release and distribution every week of the calender year.
Miklos Rozsa Centennial
Two of the most prestigious recordings of the year celebrate the centenary of Miklos Rozsa’s birth. Born April 18 th, 1907, a series of concerts and recordings have been planned and produced in tribute to the legendary composer’s legacy. Among the first of these is a meticulous restoration of, perhaps, Miklos Rozsa’s most widely known and recognized score…Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 classic, SPELLBOUND. As stated earlier, Rozsa had himself recorded a suite from the film in the 1940’s. In 1958, Warner Bros. Records issued what until now has been the most complete and celebrated recording of the score, conducted by Ray Heindorf, while aided and abetted by Dr. Samuel Hoffman articulating the theramin. The album, thinly performed by a relatively small orchestra, was fairly faithful to the spirit of the soundtrack, with the single exception of an unfortunate track evidently included for popular radio consumption. Still, the Heindorf album has stood as the most complete representation of the Oscar winning score for nearly fifty years.
In May, 2007, producer Douglas Fake and his distinguished Intrada label released their under promoted recording of the Rozsa score, conducted by Allan Wilson with the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra. The highly anticipated CD has been the source of rabid debate on the Film Score Monthly forum and is, without question, the most controversial film score re-recording of the year. While I have little interest in attacking either Mr. Fake or his acclaimed “record” company, the fact remains that their release of the complete score for SPELLBOUND is a major disappointment.
Over the years, Intrada has produced and released some of the most highly regarded albums of film music in memory. Two of these esteemed recordings, both conducted by composer Bruce Broughton, have constituted quintessential Rozsa…IVANHOE and JULIUS CAESAR, each a handsome and memorable addition to the Rozsa canon. While unsubstantiated, it has been rumored that Spellbound was not actually commissioned or produced by Intrada, but merely acquired after it had already been recorded. This might explain the apparent lack of quality and reverence usually attributed to Intrada. While any attempt to restore and present for posterity such a classic score must be commended, it must also sadly be reported that the tempo of the new recording is painfully slow, fully twenty percent slower than the original performance conducted by Rozsa for the soundtrack. Indeed, the opening and main title sequence on the CD sounds as though Mr. Wilson had conducted his orchestra with a monstrous sledge hammer. Much of the performance is too pretty, lacking any artistic fire or passion. It’s as though the orchestra had never heard the score until they sat down to play it. While an exciting project, the performance is entirely lacklustre and shockingly uninspired. Had Mr. Fake and his associates been part of the creative effort and evolution from its inception, and hired Bruce Broughton to do the conducting chores once again, we’d have had a truly inspired recording. As it is, however, this new recording of SPELLBOUND has not only missed the boat, but left it capsized by the pier.
At the other end of the artistic spectrum is the recent release of Tadlow’s World Premiere Recording of Miklos Rozsa’s THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, composed for Billy Wilder in 1970. Miklos Rozsa and Billy Willder both emigrated from Hungary, finding eventual success in the Hollywood film community. Friends and co-workers, Wilder and Rozsa had worked together for many years, beginning with FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO (1943) which had originally been intended for Franz Waxman. When Waxman’s schedule prevented his working on Wilder’s newest film, Wilder gave Rozsa a chance…with the promise that they might work together again if Wilder was happy with the composer’s work. As it turned out, Wilder was delighted with Rozsa’s score for FIVE GRAVES, and kept his word. Rozsa created brilliant, searing scores for Wilder’s next two pictures…DOUBLE INDEMNITY in 1944, followed by THE LOST WEEKEND in 1945. In 1953 when famed violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz commissioned a concerto by the composer, Rozsa wrote, perhaps, his most haunting work…The Concerto For Violin and Orchestra, Opus 24. Heifetz recorded the concerto for RCA in 1956 with Walter Hendl conducting the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Billy Wilder fell in love with the concerto, calling it one of his favorite pieces of music. Often, while preparing a film, the director would work on the script in his bungalo while listening to the romantic strains of the Rozsa violin piece. He vowed often to Rozsa that one day he would build a film around the work.
When Wilder, a renowned Sherlock Holmes afficionado, decided to construct a film around his fictional hero, he imagined Rozsa’s brooding and heroic themes both caressing and exalting his sensitive, semi-tragic consulting detective.
I have always found THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1970) a sad, bittersweet fall from grace for Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective. Like the director himself who, reputedly, had once been both hardened and devastated by a woman’s betrayal and rejection, the reality of romantic castration emotionally violated Holmes proud sensitivity, breaking his heart and turning it ultimately to stone. His pain, as expressed in his face when reading the letter describing the execution of his idealized lover, and ultimate descent into continued drug addiction, say it all. He hid his fragile emotions under a guise of smug detachment. When love at last crept cautiously into his heart and he dared let down his meticulously structured guard, he paid dearly for his sentimentality by having his name and reputation suffer disgrace and humiliation. He hides his pain by retreating from reality in a cocaine induced stupor, returning to his worldly façade a more cynical and embittered observer, rather than innocent participant in life’s unfolding journey. It is an exquisite rejection, rapturously illustrated by Rozsa’s haunting Concerto…a melodic castration that must have meant a great deal to Wilder and Rozsa. I was deeply moved by the film when I first saw it in theatres upon its initial theatrical release. Sadly, it was inappropriately advertised and consequently misunderstood and under appreciated both by critics, and a public who saw Wilder’s eloquence sail blithely over their heads.
Wilder approached Miklos Rozsa with the concept of structuring his film around the Violin Concerto and asked him both to adapt his earlier work for the screen, and compose additional themes befitting the classically romantic thematic material he had prepared. Both the film and the music gloriously elevate the senses and, even though fully a third of the picture was callously butchered by United Artists prior to its release, the remaining skeleton is a vastly entertaining jewel that is, for me, among my favorite, most passionate and exquisite film experiences.
In a year in which the composer would have celebrated his 100 th birthday, producer James Fitzpatrick set about a noble task…to rescue, restore and record the complete score for Wilder’s invisible masterpiece. Conducted by Nic Raine with the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, accompanied by a lovely solo violin performance by virtuoso Lucie Svehlova, Tadlow has joyously restored a glorious romantic work by one of the screen’s most enduring composers. The playing by Raine and his orchestra is impeccable. Every note of the score is performed here with passion, grandeur and loving sensitivity.
This is not only a major release, demanding the attention of anyone even moderately interested in film music composition, but stands as the finest representation of the composer’s work on screen not actually conducted by Miklos Rozsa himself.
The program booklet and artwork, handsome and artistic in and of themselves, richly add to the flawless production of what must be considered the finest release of classic motion picture music this year.
[This essay posted courtesy of www.cybrcaf.com]
If you enjoy music from older films, this DVD is highly recommended.
It is hosted with great candor by John Mauceri and includes music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Alfred Newman, David Raksin, Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin, and Franz Waxman, and all the film scores mentioned are on the 100 Essential Film Scores list [see below].
This DVD is well worth adding to your collection:
Music for the Movies: The Hollywood Sound
The new updated 3rd edition of A Guide to Film Music -- Songs and Scores is now available from PineTree Press.
The book covers the years from 1926 to 2006.
To read about this film music guide, go to
Film Composers and Soundtracks
100 Essential Film Scores
What are the 100 essential film scores of the 20th century?
To see the list, go here.