A college music professor once commented to me—in a somewhat disparaging tone—that film music is essentially just “themes and variations.” While this is a bit of an overreaching generalization, by and large he was right.
I’ve belabored the fact that I love film music for its narrative quality. I’ve also lamented the aimlessness of much classical concert music. Tied closely to these ideas is my love of strong themes and their intelligent development in film music.
Themes give a musical work a strong identity. They set it apart from other works, and create a tangible, memorable impression. They offer the storytelling component that I find so rewarding. The extent to which themes can be creatively varied and developed is limited only by the strength of the theme and the talent (or willingness) of the composer. Binding the whole of a work to a central melody or set of melodies makes for a satisfying, cohesive musical exploration.
In light of my strong feeling about the power of themes, and in the spirit of year-end favorite lists, I thought I would comment on a few of my favorite themes.
The Poppy Fields (Main Title), from The Shadow.
This is a more recent addition to my list of favorites. When I first began amassing Jerry Goldsmith’s scores in earnest a couple of years ago, this one was among the first—and it remains one of my all-time favorite Goldsmith scores. This main theme encapsulates the sinister but infectious character of the score. Hummable, addicting, dark, fun…It’s Jerry doing what Jerry did best.
E.T. and Me, from E.T.
I realize the more famous theme from E.T. is the flying theme, and I only became endeared to “E.T. and Me” after hearing a more complete version of the score. I think this entire score stands as one of the finest pieces of music ever written—an exploration of friendship, fear, and the mystery (and loneliness) of childhood. This humble little melody, prominently featuring harp, is as fragile as a flower, and just as beautiful. The theme also occupies a special place in my heart for its association with my budding friendship with a girl who became my wife.
The Enterprise, from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Quite possibly Goldsmith’s best (or at least best known) theme, this “main theme” from various Star Trek films and television series captures all of the majesty, seafaring adventure, and futuristic space that make up the Star Trek world. This rendition, from the first motion picture, accompanies a slow, artistic reveal of the ship Enterprise. It is the most expansive, reverent treatment of a marvelous theme.
Binary Sunset, from Star Wars.
Another far-off time and world is here represented with one of Williams’ best themes. Better known as “the Force theme,” this melody wove its way into every Star Wars film, representing a deep longing, of warring against dark forces. It’s a timeless Williams melody, richly dark yet filled with great hope.
The Reunion, from A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.
It’s hard to explain why A.I. is my favorite film. But it’s not hard to demonstrate why this is my favorite score. As brimming with memorable themes as any of Williams’ best-loved scores, A.I. is a mature musical examination of life’s essential questions about origin, love, and death. This finale is perhaps the most meaningful piece of music in my life, a heartbreaking lullaby that explains what I love about film music better than any words.
I love themes written by many composers other than Goldsmith and Williams; I could easily populate a list like this with a hundred entries. But these are among those themes that rise to the top in my overarching evaluation of the music I love. These themes shaped my love of film music, and are in many ways the standard by which all other themes are measured.