Music fans of all ages noted with sadness the passing this summer in quick succession of three Hollywood giants: film composers Jerry Goldsmith, David Raksin, and Elmer Bernstein.
All three scored countless films, both great and forgettable, in eclectic, sometimes eccentric musical styles that paid homage to Hollywood’s symphonic giants Erich Korngold and Miklos Rozsa while staking out spikier turf for themselves as they ushered in the dawn of the Atomic Age.
Jerry Goldsmith died July 21 from cancer at the age of 75. Classically trained, he actually studied composition with Mr. Rozsa. But he developed a compositional approach that depended more on the mood and setting of the film than on the programmatic, late Romantic style of his Hollywood predecessors.
The result? A total of 17 Academy Award nominations for his music. Yet he copped only a single Oscar, for his moody, choral score for the classic supernatural horror flick, “The Omen” (1976).
Mr. Goldsmith’s long list of scores enhanced science fiction and prestige films such as “Planet of the Apes,” “Papillon,” and “Chinatown,” and complemented with stirring, martial music military epics such as “The Blue Max” and “Patton.”
He also penned music for the smaller screen, notably the flash-in-the-pan spy hit, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and the longer-lived family series, “The Waltons.”
Mr. Goldsmith composed the majestic music for the otherwise forgettable “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” but he later successfully adapted it as the theme for “Star Trek’s” popular “Next Generation” TV series.
More recent film work included music for “Basic Instinct,” “Total Recall,” “L.A. Confidential” and last year’s successful cartoon flick “Looney Tunes: Back in Action.” His most underrated effort may have been the moody, minimalist score to the original “Alien.” Its stealthy, nervously flickering tension hinted at the foreboding loneliness of space, the final frontier — and perhaps of our new century as well.
David Raksin, who died on Aug. 9 from cardiovascular disease at the age of 92, wrote music for more than 100 films in a career spanning Hollywood’s golden years right up to our own.
Yet he is frequently and unfairly regarded as a one-hit wonder due to the enduring popularity of his score for the 1944 noir classic “Laura.” Its title song, which served as a leitmotif in the film, proved to be one of the great songs of the 20th century.
Mr. Raksin (whose name is often misspelled “Raskin”) was, like Mr. Goldsmith, a master of many styles, adept at scoring anything from massively symphonic scores to popular TV themes. He was a friend and associate of George Gershwin, Oscar Levant, and Igor Stravinsky (whose “Circus Polka” he helped arrange for the Ringling Brothers’ elephant ballet), as well as a onetime assistant to Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Mr. Raksin got his first real break when he wrote the music for Charlie Chaplin’s 1935 classic, “Modern Times.”
The composer’s hit song for “Laura” was an unhappy accident. The film’s director, the difficult Otto Preminger, wanted to use an already popular song such as Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” as the film’s recurring theme.
But Mr. Raksin came up with a better tune, inspired when the composer read an unexpected letter from then-wife Pamela calling their marriage quits. The result was a smoky, chromatic tune that, with Johnny Mercer’s lyrics, became a favorite of generations of soloists and musicians, and yet it was never even nominated for an Oscar.
Mr. Raksin went on to compose other notable film music, including Academy Award-nominated music for “Forever Amber” (1947) and “Separate Tables” (1958). He also wrote memorable music for the television shows “Wagon Train” and “Ben Casey.”
Mr. Raksin hit a bad patch in the early 1950s when, as a former member of the Communist Party, he was forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He named some names, all of them either dead or already “outted.” Many of his friends avoided him after that.
He eventually became a respected and popular professor of film composition at the University of Southern California, teaching there until just last year.
Elmer Bernstein passed away just over two weeks ago on Aug. 18 at the age of 82. He was a prolific composer of many notable scores, but the film music for which he remains best known is his heroic score to the Western epic, “The Magnificent Seven.”
Its stirring, unforgettable theme has been borrowed countless times — most notably as the advertising pitch for the Marlboro Man — and its swaggering style has been plagiarized for countless horse operas that followed the original.
While a symphonist at heart — he had studied composition under Aaron Copland — Mr. Bernstein, like his two counterparts, readily bent the rules, enabling him to explore the harsher landscapes of contemporary urban life.
Mr. Bernstein’s movie music received 14 Oscar nominations, including one for the 2002 film “Far From Heaven.” In typical Hollywood fashion, however, his only win was for his score to the eminently forgettable film “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (1967).
Other notable film scores include “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Great Escape,” “The Great Santini” and “The Birdman of Alcatraz.” He also composed serious music and TV scores, including music for “Gunsmoke” and “The Big Valley.”
Perhaps his most impressive score was his slashing, jazz-noir music for Frank Sinatra’s breakthrough dramatic film, “The Man With the Golden Arm,” a gritty fictional story about a failed musician addicted to heroin.
With the deaths of Mr. Goldsmith, Mr. Raksin and Mr. Bernstein, the highly classical yet modernist Hollywood compositional style recedes further into the past.
Like their predecessors Korngold and Rozsa, each composer at his best was nearly operatic in his approach to film, employing character themes and motifs to underscore personalities and action, creating a contemporary verismo undercurrent that put music in the service of words and actions rather than the reverse, which is characteristic of the operatic form.
They viewed each film as an organic work of art, seamlessly blending character, plot, music, and mood to create a total audience experience not possible even in live theater.
While John Williams and a few others continue in this great tradition, contemporary movie scores are increasingly cheapened by a slavish over-reliance on popular music backgrounds that serve to illustrate, not so subtly, often glib dialogue or lazy plotlines.
Perhaps the coarseness of modern cinema no longer requires grandly conceived music. But viewing these great older films today in restored DVD versions makes it easy to see once again what we’ve lost.