A brief history of the film score: from the Lumiéres to the present day


The French film critic and director Jean-Luc Godard once said “Photography is truth. Film is truth at twenty-four frames per second.” Film, however, is much more than the images on the screen – and the score is arguably the most significant aspect of the film beyond what happens on the screen. Since the very first film, the score has been key: in their first screenings in 1895, the pioneers of cinema, the Lumiére brothers, hired a pianist to accompany their short films. The silent films of the early twentieth century often had powerful cinematic scores, with the score for the Soviet epic Battleship Potemkin originally written by Edmund Meisel, but has since been rescored multiple times. Paradoxically, the impact of sound was essential in silent film. The first ‘talkie,’ The Jazz Singer featured an exciting combination of original soundtrack, dialogue, and classic vaudeville songs, becoming one of the most successful films of all time.

In the years since, the film score has become an essential and iconic part of the cinema. The 1950s and 60s were arguably the high watermark of the orchestral film score, with the epic films of David Lean accompanied by similarly epic scores by Maurice Jarre. Jarre’s scores to Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia were epic in scale – and the score itself took on a life of its own, outside the picture itself. ‘Lara’s Theme’ from Doctor Zhivago was re-released as the pop single ‘Somewhere, my love’ by Connie Francis, reaching a different audience, stripped from its filmic context but consequently more accessible. Jarre was one of the most influential film composers of all time – he won three Oscars for his work with Lean, and his themes are grand and sweeping in their scale. However, the 1960s also saw the use of classical music to replace the film score, most notably in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s use of Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube over the space-station docking scene, and the ‘sunrise’ from Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra are iconic moments in filmmaking, and the use of the pieces made them increasingly popular in the classical canon.

The 1950s and 60s were arguably the high watermark of the orchestral film score, with the epic films of David Lean accompanied by similarly epic scores by Maurice Jarre

However, the most pertinent example of a recent film composer who uses the orchestra to excellent effect is John Williams. Williams’ work is defined by ear-catching themes, and his scores are among the most recognisable in the cinematic repertoire. His work encompasses the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series, as well as Oscar wins for E.T., Schindler’s List, and Jaws. Of these, the theme to Jaws is arguably the most iconic. The repeated motif of the two deep notes, which some scholars have argued echo the shark’s heartbeat, speed up and crescendo to high pitched terror. The theme, used with POV shots of the shark slicing through the water (incidentally only used because the frankly ridiculous shark-robot was so temperamental and broke so often) has bled into popular culture and is rightly considered an icon of movie music. Beyond the use of classical music in scores, jazz has frequently been used, with Bernard Herrmann’s score to Taxi Driver (which finished recording only two days before his death), which juxtaposes dissonant notes in the violins with a smooth saxophone solo to describe the sleaze of 70’s New York, Miles Davis’ score to Elevator to the Gallows, and Krzysztof Komeda’s soundtrack to Roman Polanski’s debut film Knife in the Water being excellent examples.

As well as traditional ‘film’ composers, collaboration with ‘classical’ composers has been commonplace, and there is much debate about the extent to which film score can be considered ‘classical’ music. The score to the 1959 epic Ben Hur, with its triumphant ‘Parade of the Charioteers’, was composed by Czech classical composer Miklos Rozsa, and Leonard Bernstein, the long-time director of music at the New York Philharmonic, also made forays into film, composing the score of On the Waterfront and, famously, West Side Story. Although Rozsa called his work in film his “double life,” the classical music establishment has begun to recognise the status of film score as high classical music. Concerts of film music are put on regularly by world-class orchestras, and the Classic FM Hall of Fame features three film scores in its top 30 – all of which rose from their position last year.

The history of the film score is as varied and rich as the history of film itself. Although the recognition of scores as works within the classical canon is under some debate, the development of sound in film has come far from the days of the Lumiéres and their single pianist. Film music has the power to evoke intense emotion, describe stories beyond the pictures on the screen, and allow the filmmaker and audience to reimagine the power of cinema.

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