by Sam Juliano
This post is a contribution to the third annual For the Love of Film blogathon and fundraiser, which will be running from May 13-18. This year, hosts Marilyn Ferdinand, Farran Smith Nehme and Roderick Heath have dedicated the week to Alfred Hitchcock, whose early (non-directorial) work “The White Shadow” will be the beneficiary of any money earned during the event. The film preservation theme of course is at the center of this cinematic lament. We can certainly hope for a miracle. Be sure to donate!]
Printed prominently on the CD artwork and in the elaborate booklets included in the “Brigham University Film Music Archive Collection” launched in 1995 and still running series of film music releases is this specification: All proceeds from this limited edition compact disc go towards the acquisition and preservation of film music elements. The series now includes a relatively-scant 14 releases, each a miracle of production, in almost all instances produced from master tapes and manuscripts that were donated to the university, and are presently managed by the curator, James D’Arc, who has sereved as producer for each of the releases. The published “mission statement” of the project reads:
The Film Music Archives (BYU/FMA) exists to acquire, preserve, catalog, and make
available to scholars and other interested parties original motion picture music manuscripts and recordings that document the history of music composed and recorded for motion pictures.
The series has rivaled in quality the impeccable work done on all the titles in the far more prolific Film Score Monthly label, and like that other series, it affords film music the kind of definitive attention it has long deserved. D’Arc is a tireless proponent of film music titan Max Steiner, whose presence in the collection is far more all-encompassing that any of the other artist represented. Not surprisingly, the majority of the completed CD sets are on Steiner: “Max Steiner: the RKO Years,” “The Flame and the Arrow,” “The Adventures of Don Juan,” “Battle Cry,” “Dodge City/The Oklahoma Kid,” “A Summer Place,” “The Letter,” “Dark Victory,” “The Glass Managerie,” “The Fountainhead” and the just-released “Since You Went Away.” The remaining sets cover two score from Dimitri Tiomkin, and one from Hugo Friedhofer. The archive presently holds work from some other notable film music composers like Jerry Fielding, Ernest Gold and John Addison, and there are contingency plans to release future CDs featuring their work. The archives unofficially formed in 1981 with the acquisition of the Max Steiner papers, which were bequeath to the L. Tom Perry Special Collections department at BYU by Lee Steiner, the composer’s widow, who lived ten years after Steiner’s passing in 1971.
The first two releases in the series, were Dimitri Tiomkin’s reconstructed score to Frank Capra’s 1937 Lost Horizon and Max Steiner’s classic music to John Ford’s The Searchers, both of hefty running lengths of close to seventy minutes. In the case of Lost Horizon, the end product was a kind of miracle, made possible by the unlikely discovery of discs in early 1996. Says D’Arc in the CD booklet: “The release that you have in your hand, the first complete original soundtrack of Lost Horizon, is the end result of a long process involving the internet, a charitable organization (and it’s children’s summer camp), and a record collection in which the original discs, were, in effect, buried. The saga involving this recording began in the fall of 1996 when I was alerted to a number of discs included in a collection of thousands of popular 78 rpm recordings to be auctioned off via the internet by the Canadian Cancer Society. Included in this material were ten discs labeled Lost Horizon.” After speaking to the person who has purchased the lot from a collector, D’Arc decided to meet up with the eventual seller for fear of losing the transaction. The recording on the CD set of course is the one conducted by Max Steiner, and includes a photograph of Steiner, composer Tiomkin and Frank Capra in the recording studio. The Tiomkin score, which is arguably the greatest of his legendary career, is one of aching lyricism, suffused with orchestral color and haunting choral complicity that beautifully supports the elusive desire to find meaning in life and the discovery of bliss in a hectic world. The main theme, one of Tiomkin’s loveliest, is now synonymous with the lush visuals, negotiated by Capra and his ace cinematographer Joseph Walker. Music practically suffused the film, from the sensory images experienced by Conway to the declarations of the High Lama who speaks of his favorite composer Mozart: “Mozart has an austere elegance which we find very satisfying. He builds a house which is neither too big nor too little, and he furnishes it in perfect taste.” The score taken as a whole is an aural wonderment, music that is both intimate and optimistic, mysterious and other-worldly, perfectly evoking the spirit of James Hilton’s vision and director Capra’s talent for transcribing sentiment. The main theme re-appears in subsequent tracks, sometimes restrained, other times with bleeding intensity, and it’s music that can never escape the subconscious. Some of the score’s most magnificent passages are the funeral procession, when Conway leaves, as the violins and chorus converge to announce his betrayal, while the earlier drums of the procession suggest a strain of hope and faith, consistent with Shangra-La’s philosophy – symbols carry the procession along as the main theme swells with frenzy, urging the protagonist to reverse himself; the High Lama’s meeting with Conway when the organ and strings carry the musical underpinning in a scene where immortality and eternal health are posed as a reward for living an idyllic life within the borders of this earthly paradise. The music is pensive and hopeful, and tinged with excitement; the orchestral anticipation of Conroy’s return makes for a musical passage of power and exhilaration, the return home and the undeniable desirability of living the perfect life.
Max Steiner’s theme to Martha’s emergence from the shadows to the porch of the ranch house in John Ford’s The Searchers is one of the cinema’s most recognizable and gorgeous themes, one that is as synonymous with western setting as the ballad that commences with What makes a man to wonder, what makes a man to roam, what makes a man leave bed and board, and turn his back on home is a statement on the film’s narrative arc. Steiner borrows from a lovely Civil War song titled ‘Lorena’ but it is Steiner’s interpretation and use of the main theme in key moments that give the film and the western genre one of it’s most identifiable codas. It’s breathtaking, but it can also be ominous, as in the cue when Ethan Edwards stares ahead as he prepares to mount his horse knowing his brother’s house may be under attacks from the Comanches. The solo violin carries the sense of foreboding, and returns in a mournful dirge when the discovery of the attrocities are discovered by Ethan and Martin Pawley. Steiner wrote some of his most powerful orchestral music for this terrifying scene. Throughout the score Steiner evokes mood brilliantly, letting his music serve as stronger harbinger of what is to come and how one should feel in those passages where dialogue is either irrelevant or unable to transcribe the deepest feelings. A scene of deep emotional resonance near the end when Ethan is re-united with Debbie allows Steiner to bring back ‘Martha’s theme’ in a passage of soulful sublimity. All in all Steiner’s music for The Searchers is probably more complex and deeply felt than anything that can be created by language and is a testament to the crowning jewel of a peerless career during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Brigham Young University’s booklet is a fascinating look at Steiner’s music and the method by which it is wed to the visuals of what is arguably the greatest of all Western films.
Max Steiner’s music to the Mirian C. Cooper production of She (1932) is one of the greatest weddings of harmonic and dissonant elements in movie history. It’s Tchaikovsky shaking hands with Stravinsky if you will. But it was Max Steiner’s first musical masterpiece, and to this day is affectionately referred to as “an opera without arias.” The score is awash with ethereal beauty, an oppressive atmosphere of doomed romance and a strain of ethnic exoticism. A haunted female chorus contributes mightily to the mood, and She’s theme is one of the most sublimely beautiful he’s ever written. Among many fascinating details about the creation of the score by the great writer Ray Faiola (who provided liner notes for nearly all the BYU releases) is the revelation that Steiner did not write the full score, opting to allow three other musicians including Bernhard Kaun to complete the “bridges” between passages he had in place. There is progression in this music and soaring lyricism inevitably yields to the depths of human despair. There’s a Wagnerian scope, and an epic structure to the score, which at 72 minutes is substantial. The CD of She is now hard-to-find and commands a hefty price tag on e bay. It’s the only BYU release to become a collector’s rarity to this point.
Each of the other current releases in the series is crafted in the same meticulous way, and each is released in limited numbers. The most recent in fact, Max Steiner’s Oscar winning score for 1944′s Since You Went Away was limited to 500 copies. (my own copy in an amazing irony came today as I prepared this feature). It’s another wonderful set, and it expands on the previously-released German pressing that has been circulating for years. It’s one of Steiner’s most ravishing compositions, from the impassioned opening titles to the rapturous music serving as an underpinning to some of the domestic scenes. The score is Steiner is melodious mode, much as he was in Dark Victory, the Bette Davis tearjerker that is another notable entry in this series. In the style of the incomparable Film Score Monthly series, BYU’s CD sets are attractively designed with exhaustive bookets (Since You Went Away’s is 70 pages) featuring overviews of the film and score and a track-by-track musical/narrative analysis delivered with authoritative scholarship. In March 2003, D’Arc explains the daunting challenge of preparing the CDs and booklets for release in the liner notes in the booklet to Dimitri Tiomkin’s score to Howard Hawks’ The Big Sky:
As has become the custom with the presentation of original recordings of classic film scores in the Brigham Young University Film Music Archives soundtrack series, the efforts involved in bringing this CD to you required almost as many crew members and was often as difficult and full of obstacles as was the trip of the keel boat Mandan up the Missouri River as depicted in ‘The Big Sky’ itself.
One of the highlights of the series both by way of volume and quality is the three disc set “Max Steiner: The RKO Years” which includes some of his finest early work at the time he began to impress producers and hone his craft. Included in the set are his scores and/or partial scores for Symphony of Six Million, Bird of Paradise, Sweepings, Morning Glory, Of Human Bondage, Little Women, The Little Minister and the two gems he wrote for The Lost Patrol and The Informer, the latter winning Steiner the first of his three Academy Awards. The dark and brooding music for the expressionist The Informer, went a long way in carrying the dramatic themes, and chronicling the downward spiral of the main character Gypo Nolan, played by Victor McLaglen. For this score Steiner creates themes for all the character including the blind man (D’Arcy Corrigan) who emerges from the fog to serve as Gypo’s conscience. As The Informer is a drama noted for it’s segments with no music as it is for the ones that do, Steiner’s music sometimes comes in with a powerful force. I am also fond of the music Steiner wrote for the aforementioned Little Women and The Dawn Patrol.
Other titles in the series that offer unforgettable music (geez, there doesn’t seem to be a weak release) are Steiner’s Johnny Belinda, Dark Victory, Dodge City, A Summer Place,The Adventures of Don Juan and Battle Cry, (the last introduces the now universally admired march “Honey Babe”) Friedhofer’s The Bishop’s Wife and Tiomkin’s The Big Sky. It’s been an arduous and time-consuming task to bring all the elements together for these CD treasures, but D’Arc and his staff (including Executive producer Craig Spaulding at Screen Archives Entertainment) appear to be ready to carry the torch well into futures. This is a boom to collector’s, film music fans, and those committed to the preservation and protection of our culture.