Friday, March 19, 2004

The death of classical music in the 20th century has become an almost tiresome cliche, but maybe now is the time to ask if these reports of serious music’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Perhaps we have just been looking for it in the wrong place. Perhaps it merely went into hiding in a place where you would least expect it: the Hollywood soundstage.

Let’s go back to those thrilling days of yesteryear and consider composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Academy Award-winning soundtrack for Warner Bros.’ 1938 swashbuckling costume epic “The Adventures of Robin Hood” as a case in point. Mr. Korngold’s score for the film, which starred a youthful Errol Flynn as Robin and a winsome Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian, has long been hailed as the gold standard for movie music.

As an exciting new recording makes clear, however, even this high praise somehow diminishes the achievement, for Mr. Korngold’s “Robin Hood” score was much more than great incidental music. It was nothing less than a massive, heroic tone poem easily the equal of anything by Mahler or Richard Strauss and approaching the tight cohesiveness even of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Maybe classical music never died, after all.

Not that it hasn’t been ailing. Long gone are the days when college students demonstrated loudly in the balconies in support of Hector Berlioz’s tradition-shattering “Fantastic Symphony” or when wealthy young women routinely handed their room keys to barnstorming pianist-composer Franz Liszt. Today, serious music is a nonevent for most young people downloading three-minute cuts of the latest MTV-hyped, high-decibel tripe into their iPods.

To some extent, the classical repertoire hasn’t been significantly freshened for nearly a century. Yes, works by 20th-century composers including Stravinsky, Bartok, Prokofiev, Ives and Messiaen are increasingly represented in the concert hall and on the dwindling number of new classical CDs. And modern composers are commissioned to write new stuff all the time. Nevertheless, the average concert program today still treats musical diversity as a choice of Bach, Beethoven or Brahms.

Worse yet, when new music is introduced, concertgoers are turned off by the snarling cacophony that’s a legacy of the Second Viennese School. These musical ideologues valued new works in direct proportion to the auditory pain they inflicted. Largely the product of a nihilistic European intelligentsia reeling from the destruction bookended by two world wars, this institutional ugliness has mindlessly possessed at least two generations of American academic composers.

Yet while such composers labored mightily to exterminate listenable music, classically trained professional composers who still longed for money and an audience — including European Jewish composers anxious to escape Hitler’s wrath — headed for that capital of decadence, Los Angeles, to try their hand at writing music for motion pictures.

With a hat tip to the French brothers Lumiere for inventing the motion picture, it was in America where this fledgling art form made its greatest strides. Early films were stage plays without words, assisted by captions and transformed into thrilling melodramas with the addition of live music in a small orchestra pit or by means of a theater organ. Specially composed recorded music became an important part of the film experience when “talkies” began to appear in the late 1920s.

It was around this time that Hollywood got lucky. Fearing the rise of Nazi totalitarianism, a significant minority of classical composers, many of them Jewish, fled to the United States in the 1930s. Some, like Kurt Weill, composer of the “Threepenny Opera,” were avant-garde musicians still capable of writing in popular genres. Others, like Karl Hajos and Friederich Hollander, were mainstream composers who ended up in film. (Even the dreaded Arnold Schoenberg eventually settled in the United States.)

None of this generation achieved greater stature than Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

A child prodigy, the Czech-born Mr. Korngold wrote his first symphony at age 11. His uncommon genius was recognized by Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, the leading Germanic lights of the early 20th century. At age 23, he scored his first real triumph with his opera “Die Tote Stadt” (“The Dead City” or “The City of Death”).

The score for “Robin Hood” was not Mr. Korngold’s first cinematic effort. First noticed by the Warner brothers, he had been invited by them to the United States in the early 1930s. The Warners were quickly rewarded for their prescience when Mr. Korngold penned popular scores for their hit films “Captain Blood” and “Anthony Adverse,” the latter of which won the composer an Academy Award.

Mr. Korngold was strongly influenced by his father, an influential music critic who hated the Second Viennese School’s atonal experiments. The composer thrived in a then strongly traditionalist Hollywood by remaining an unabashed Romantic tonalist, although his music is comfortable with dissonance and modern idioms.

Mr. Korngold envisioned his film scores, including “Robin Hood,” as “operas without singing.” And what story had greater resonance in the Depression 1930s than the tale of a former lord who robs the rich to help the poor, thwarting the schemes of greedy royals who would rather pocket the money themselves? Add a poignant love story with a brave young woman, and you have the stuff of timeless movie legends.

As in Wagnerian opera, Mr. Korngold organized his score around a series of leitmotifs, including the famous “March of the Merry Men,” love music for Robin and Marian, and heroic music for Robin Hood himself — borrowed from the composer’s ambitious but failed “Sursum Corda.” All were woven into a lush symphonic tapestry that immeasurably enhanced this already well-constructed film.

A valuable new compact disc recording of Mr. Korngold’s “Robin Hood” music on the Marco Polo label, performed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra under the baton of William Stromberg, vividly resurrects the entire score, including moments that ended up on the cutting-room floor. An added bonus are the extensive liner notes that provide a biographical sketch of the composer, an explication of the film and a description of the story behind each track. The 78 minutes of resurrected musical passion and romance on this CD will end forever any argument about whether film music is worthy of being called “classical.” Mr. Korngold’s thematic elements evolve here with an infinite variety that never ceases to astonish.

Mr. Korngold knew how to generate an emotional response. The “March of the Merry Men” — adapted, ironically, from an earlier waltz — is jaunty and optimistic. The distant trumpet call announcing Robin is thrilling. Yet at crucial reversals in the film, these themes are transformed into a sinister minor key, creating a sense of impending doom. Near the film’s climax, Mr. Korngold pulled out all the stops for the villainous Prince John’s eventually thwarted Coronation Procession, adding brass and tolling bells to stunning effect, reminiscent of the Coronation Scene in Moussorgsky’s “Boris Goudenov.”

The heroic music for “Robin Hood” influenced and continues to influence new generations of composers. Clearly, John Williams has taken many cues from Mr. Korngold in his exciting scores for the “Indiana Jones” and “Star Wars” films as well as his poignant music for “Schindler’s List.” Danny Elfman’s arch, growling motifs in the “Batman” films and others have their roots in Mr. Korngold’s villain music. Riffs from Robin Hood’s final battle music were quoted in John Belushi’s mock heroic scene at the climax of “Animal House.”

Mr. Korngold attempted to return to the European music scene after World War II but was rejected as not serious by the European cognoscenti. Then as now, they resented his resolutely romantic tonalism and regarded him as a hack for sinking to the composition of movie music — which had, in fact, enabled him and his family to survive the Nazi Holocaust. Returning to the United States, he died in Hollywood of cerebral thrombosis in 1957 at age 60, neglected and largely forgotten.

The Marco Polo “Robin Hood” CD coincides with a renewed interest in Mr. Korngold’s music in Europe, where new performances of “Die Tote Stadt” are the centerpiece of this year’s Salzburg Music Festival. Presciently, the opera was given a quite decent performance several seasons ago by Washington’s Summer Opera company at Catholic University. Perhaps the Washington National Opera will follow the trend in an upcoming season.

Mr. Korngold was among the first composers to comprehend that entertainment history and perhaps the musical arts themselves had been forever changed by American advances in cinema. Further, he alertly recognized that a film composer, as opposed to a composer of operas and symphonies, could actually support a family on this stuff — no trivial matter, as any professional musician will acknowledge. Thus, a significant classical talent turned decisively toward composing for motion pictures, imbuing them with an operatic sense of tragedy, gallantry and high seriousness.

Many others would follow Mr. Korngold’s path, the best of them preserving the romantic, the heroic and the popular aspects of classical music and structure, even as the Second Viennese School led the establishment off the cliff and into oblivion.

Leonard Bernstein, who grew up against the backdrop of motion pictures, preferred an edgier approach to musicals and film scores more in touch with urban sensibilities. Perhaps better known as a conductor, Mr. Bernstein regarded himself primarily as a composer. He was a master of many genres who experimented with the 12-tone row but never really had his heart in it.

Mr. Bernstein’s only original movie score, his Oscar-nominated music for Elia Kazan’s monumental “On the Waterfront” (1954) starring Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint, is one of the best such scores to come out of the 1950s. Yoking a modernist, gritty, city sensibility to strong thematic elements and identifiable motifs, it is not, perhaps, as readily listenable as “Robin Hood,” but it accurately captures the monochromatic despair of working-class has-beens, as opposed to the idealism of Mr. Korngold’s Sherwood Forest romanzas.

Mr. Bernstein himself arranged his original score into a suite that still is heard occasionally in concert halls. A new recording of this work was issued recently by Naxos and is performed crisply by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Bonuses are three dance tracks from Mr. Bernstein’s “On the Town” and a recording of the composer’s most popular classical piece, his “Chichester Psalms.”

From Mr. Korngold’s operatic brilliance to Mr. Bernstein’s acerbic modernism to John Williams’ triumphant popularity, movie music clearly has provided a welcome outlet for talented composers who combine their love of the tradition with an ability to earn a significant living and attract an admiring public.

Programs of ambitious film music already draw significant crowds to summer pops concerts in such venues as Wolf Trap and Tanglewood. In a daring experiment last season, National Symphony Orchestra conductor and Music Director Leonard Slatkin — long attuned to the sometimes surprising peregrinations of classical music — mounted a well-received film-music festival at the Kennedy Center. More programming like this is overdue.

As these new recordings and others amply demonstrate, it is long past time to recognize Hollywood’s greatest film scores as significant milestones in the legitimate classical repertoire. Continued academic snobbery and pointless experimentation will only further alienate musical culture from its traditional and popular roots in the unities of dramatic presentation and formal structure. These universally identifiable elements will continue to attract eager audiences now and in the future — even if they have to conceal themselves within musical genres where the snobs will never find them.

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