Friday, February 15, 2019

Movie Music, the Communicating Link

Bernard Herrmann, likely the most celebrated of classic era film composers today, who wrote the scores  for Citizen Kane, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and Taxi Driver among countless others, once said of the function of the film score:

Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock
“I feel that music on the screen can seek out and intensify the inner thoughts of the characters. It can invest a scene with terror, grandeur, gaiety, or misery. It can propel narrative swiftly forward or slow it down. It often lifts mere dialogue into the realm of poetry.”

This is surely true of Herrmann’s own remarkable work for Welles, Hitchcock, Scorsese and others, as it is of the contributions of Max Steiner to films like Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, The Letter and Now, Voyager and David Raksin’s work on such films as Laura and The Bad and the Beautiful. Herrmann’s contention has been borne out over the decades through scores by the likes of Franz Waxman, Miklos Rozsa and all of Hollywood’s “big five” Golden Age composers. Beginning with Jaws and Star Wars, the prodigious work of John Williams continues to prove Herrmann’s point as do the scores of modern era film composers such as Alexandre Desplat for The Grand Budapest Hotel.
It was on an evening in Los Angeles in 1987 when Andre Previn led the L.A. Philharmonic in accompanying Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 masterpiece, Alexander Nevsky, with a live full symphony performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s renowned score. It is this event that has been credited with launching a phenomenon that has, in the past ten years or so, become a standard seasonal component of major symphonies throughout the world, the film concert, wherein a classic film is screened with its score scrubbed from the soundtrack and performed live by the orchestra. These concerts generally draw full-house crowds, something every orchestra enjoys playing to. And they bring, too, as a packed audience will, increased profitability for the symphony as a whole.

SF Symphony, North by Northest, 2017
And for the audience the enjoyment comes from watching a favorite film, a film like North by Northwest with its Herrmann score, and listening to that iconic music played live and full-on by a seasoned symphony orchestra. It's transporting, a kind of immersive experience that underscores for the viewer/listener what Bernard Herrmann, in speaking further on the role of  the musical score, believed, “it is the communicating link between the screen and the audience, reaching out and enveloping all into one single experience.”


Since 2011, I’ve attended many film concerts, thanks to the San Francisco Symphony. My first was a screening of Casablanca, and what a beginning that was, from the opening notes of Max Steiner’s Warner Bros. theme to that stirring moment when Paul Henreid steps up to lead the patrons of Rick’s in singing “La Marseillaise.”

Next came Vertigo, showcasing Bernard Herrmann’s sweeping evocation of romantic enchantment and obsession. Later, Nino Rota’s epic score for The Godfather, a meditation on tradition and family and changing times. Most recently, Amadeus, and the great works of young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Now comes the chance to see Damien Chazelle’s amazing La La Land, and hear Justin Hurwitz’s Oscar-winning score performed live. The film has been screened with orchestral accompaniment around the U.S. for more than a year now, from the Hollywood Bowl to Dallas and beyond. In two weeks the multi-Oscar winner (almost including Best Picture) will be presented for two nights in a row, February 27 and 28, by the San Francisco Symphony at Louise M. Davies Hall. I will be there. It's an unusual and inventive film - a musical in this era, for heaven's sake - and for film buffs who revel in its many references to classic movies, it's irresistible.

I've blogged about every film concert I've attended, which is five or six, with repeats of Casablanca and Vertigo. I always encourage local residents to come to the SF Symphony for the latest in its film series screenings - and I urge Bay Area folk to come out for La La Land. But I also hope those of you outside my area will be inspired to find out if the symphony in your vicinity has a film series program. If it does, please check it out. This is an experience you don't want to miss.

Click here for more information on the San Francisco Symphony's presentation of La La Land.


  1. I remember reading your earlier posts about film-synchronized concerts. I'm looking forward to your review of the LA LA LAND experience, as it's a musical and that should make it decidedly different from the previous ones.

    1. Thanks, Rick. You remind me that I didn't review The Nightmare Before Christmas, a unique musical, when I saw it 3 years ago. A very interesting and different experience.

  2. To add to Rick's comments, I have also read with delight your previous posts and enjoyed the concert-screenings vicariously. So thank you for the previous and future posts and for reminding us of the crucial role of film scores and the great talents we have enjoyed in cinema.

    1. You're welcome, Christian, I hope my future posts on film concerts and scores will continue to give you some pleasure.

  3. What a treat to experience live music with screenings! If I ever have the chance to be in San Francisco, I will time it around one of these concerts.