Film Music vs. Concert Music: Guilty as Charged, Part I

In all of my bluster defending the great art of film music I feel the need to take a moment to concede to the critics that, yes, there are many scores and composers out there, as well as elements inherent to certain kinds of scores, that warrant your snobby wrath towards the genre.

As I noted in a previous essay, it’s difficult for me to go on raving about how “film music is so great because —“, when in reality film music is a wildly varied “genre” that spans decades and covers the broadest spectrum of talent and intention. Perhaps if I extrapolate on what I consider the poorer representations of the art form, it will bring my love of the art into clearer focus.

Classical pastiche.

This is one of the most common attacks levied against film music; that films are often scored by second-rate composers whose only gift is the ability to throw in a little Wagner here, a little Holst here, a little Prokofiev there—and then have the gall to call this reheated pot of classical gumbo an original recipe. The history of film music lends weight to this argument; the earliest films were, in fact, accompanied by frankenstenian scores comprised of the parts of familiar classical works. (To this day we still associate cinematic sunrises with Grieg’s “Morning” and scenes de amour with Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet.”)

Even since composers started writing “original music” for films, there have been countless scores with shameless lifts of classical pieces—of motifs, exact orchestration, and whole passages of music. There is a distinction between pastiche and homage, by the way, though the lines are drawn in different places depending on who’s doing the drawing.

Many composers are guilty of this crime. Since his Prokofiev-flavored The Land Before Time score and his Prokofiev-flavored Glory score, James Horner has been a regular offender, pillaging the great works of the past like a sensitive Viking with a wilted British accent. Horner is good enough at what he does, and often takes his stolen classical booty in interesting enough directions that he still often retains the interest of many listeners—myself included—who are aware of his crime. But I willingly concede that his constant breaking-and-entering of the concert hall warrants the accusing finger of the snobby film music critic.

Defensive side note: When a composer uses fragments or phrases of a classical work to deliberately root an audience in a familiar context, as John Williams did in the original Star Wars, I consider this homage rather than pastiche. Williams intentionally hearkened back to Holst and Stravinsky to plant this futuristic space opera in the deep roots of past civilization. The majority of the score is pure John Williams.

It’s one thing to stand on the shoulders of giants in order to achieve a creative purpose. It’s another thing to pretend like they are your shoulders.

Stay tuned for Part II.