Finding Today’s Orchestral Composers: Writing Film Scores

Mark Walter

Ask most people to identify a famous orchestral composer and they’ll usually respond with composers of earlier periods of orchestral music. Many of those composers were sponsored by nobility, a royal court, a wealthy private patron, or an organization of merchants. Orchestral scoring and symphonic composition were then, as they are now, very time consuming and expensive undertakings. Dance and opera companies also sponsored a composer’s works, who would write for the specific production, and then once written would often have to modify the score for the varying talents of the diverse troupes of dancers, singers and musicians that performed in different cities.

Fast forward to the 21st century and the landscape has certainly changed. Some orchestral composers are also conductors, producing works for their own orchestras. Other composers are producing work for the film industry. When 20th century filmmakers began tapping into the talents of composers, there was often a stigma associated with writing for movies. Miklós Rózsa, the Hungarian-American composer (1907-1995), was a huge influence on the direction of film composition. But even Rózsa had problems in the beginning, stating:

“One of the things I quickly came to realize about Hollywood music was that there simply was no style as such, and what I managed to do in 1944 in Double Indemnity I count (at least for myself) as something of a breakthrough. Many of the early musicians working in Hollywood sound films were former Broadway and silent film conductors, song-writers and vaudeville pianists, ‘top-line’ composers with innumerable uncredited hack “arrangers” and “orchestrators.” The general idiom was conservative and meretricious in the extreme—diluted Rachmaninov and Broadway. In Double Indemnity I introduced certain asperities of rhythm and harmony which wouldn’t have caused anyone familiar with the serious musical scene to bat an eyelid, but which did cause consternation in certain musical quarters in Hollywood. The musical director of Paramount couldn’t stand the score from the beginning, and told me so. Did I really have to have a G sharp in the second fiddles clashing with a G natural in the violas an octave below? Couldn’t I change it, just for his sake? In his opinion the place for such eccentricities was Carnegie Hall, not a movie studio. I refused to change a note, and thanked him for the compliment; he assured me it wasn’t meant as such and prophesied that the score would be thrown out lock, stock, and barrel after the sneak preview. In fact everybody liked what I’d done and the score remained intact, but the story gives one some idea of how difficult it was to maintain any decent level of musical integrity in the Hollywood of those days.”

Things are very different today. We have many well known composers scoring for filmmakers around the world, including John Williams, Danny Elfman, Jerry Goldsmith, Tan Dun and Michael Kamen.

Kamen (1948-2003), for example, is well known for his film scores for Brazil, X-Men, Licence to Kill, the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard series, as well as Band of Brothers, being performed by the BCO this season. A diverse composer, he also wrote for Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, David Bowie, Herbie Hancock, Bryan Adams and Sting.

Another film composer is Danny Elfman. A prolific film composer, Elfman has over 40 film works to his credit. Scores include Beetlejuice, Batman, Dick Tracy, Ghostbusters 2, Mission Impossible, Black Beauty, Mars Attacks, To Die For, Sommersby, Scrooged, Chicago and Spiderman.

John Williams is one of the most widely recognized composers of film scores. He is often credited with the revival of the symphonic film score with his brassy themes for the Star Wars series, probably his most famous and recognizable work. Among his composing credits are Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, the Indiana Jones series, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Hook, Schindler’s List, Saving Private RyanHarry Potter movie series. From 1980 to 1993 he was principal conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra and continues to have close associations with the Pops and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. and the

Who’s your favorite film composer? The BCO strives to include film score selections in all of its public concerts. We hope you enjoy this season’s selection.