Six of the best... festive film scores
What's your favourite Christmas film? Festive films have some great music... here are six of the best!
John Williams (1990)
This low-ish budget family comedy might not have impressed the critics when it debuted, but audiences loved it … and still do.
Macaulay Culkin lit up the screen as Kevin McCallister, the little boy mistakenly left alone over the holidays only to find himself protecting the family home from a pair of bungling burglars.
Director Chris Columbus couldn’t believe his luck when John Williams agreed to score his little film.
The resulting music, replete with children’s choir, twinkling bells and a small nod to The Nutcracker, heightens the drama, sweetens the schmaltz and accents the comedy.
Williams penned two original songs as part of his score, ‘Somewhere in My Memory’ and ‘Star of Bethlehem’.
Buy the Home Alone soundtrack from Amazon
Santa Claus – The Movie
Henry Mancini (1985)
This film from the producers of Superman – The Movie looked to give Santa Claus similar origin story treatment.
If you grew up in the 1980s, it’s likely this sticks in the memory thanks to its colourful production design, animatronic Reindeer and Dudley Moore as an elf called Patch.
It was, perhaps, John Lithgow who stole the show and hammed it up as the villainous toymaker ‘BZ’.
The music for this sparkling epic came courtesy of Henry Mancini, the legendary Hollywood tunesmith and songwriter.
This project allowed him to deliver both a magical and memorable dramatic score, plus original songs – including the opening title’s ‘Every Christmas Eve’, sung by Aled Jones.
The centrepiece of his music is the ‘Christmas Rhapsody’, a delightful montage of familiar festive tunes which accompanied the film’s montage of centuries passing.
Buy the soundtrack from Amazon
It’s a Wonderful Life
Dmitri Tiomkin (1946)
This all-out classic has become staple viewing for many generations at this time of year.
Frank Capra’s film sees a small-town family man hit rock bottom and make a dangerous wish.
With an angel called Clarence by his side, he sees what the lives of his family and friends would actually be like without him. Grab the tissues…
Additional warmth and joy comes from legendary composer Dmitri Tiomkin, whose light touch orchestral score subtly adds a huge amount.
Tiomkin references the traditional song ‘Buffalo Gals’ (sung often in the film by Donna Reed and James Stewart) in the score, which is replete with bells, brass and twinkling reverence.
Miracle On 34th Street
Bruce Broughton (1994)
This remake of the 1947 George Seaton film sees the late Richard Attenborough as Kris Kringle, a charming old man who may or may not be Santa Claus.
The screenplay was adapted by Home Alone writer John Hughes, who added colour and comedy to the tale, which ends with a court case that pits the old gent against the City of New York and begs the question… Do You Believe?
Composer Bruce Broughton was in line to score Home Alone but was unable to in the end. He would score All I Want For Christmas in 1991, so had already cut his festive teeth.
For Miracle he delivered a large orchestral score with a grand and joyful main theme (all chiming bells, brass and a quotation of ‘Joy To The World’).
The wider score finds sweetness and light as Kris enraptures the city’s children as a department store Santa, plus comedy and a big dollop of romance.
He also composed all the music heard in the ‘Coles’ department store, with hints of Vivaldi and a large nod to Tchaikovsky.
Buy the soundtrack from Amazon
Jerry Goldsmith (1984)
This is a Christmas film, honest… Written by Home Alone director Chris Columbus, directed by Joe Dante and produced by Steven Spielberg, Gremlins had a lot going for it even before it hit the big screen.
The dark comedy sees an idyllic small town, Kingston Falls (modelled on It’s a Wonderful Life’s ‘Bedford Falls’), find itself under attack by creatures hell-bent on wreaking havoc over Christmas.
The lights, trees and snow are a jolly backdrop to the unfolding horror.
Spielberg was a big fan of the late Jerry Goldsmith and the composer had scored the producer’s Twilight Zone – The Movie the prior year (which Dante contributed to).
For Gremlins Goldsmith brought his trademark zeal, wit and ear for melody. The orchestra is joined by live electronics and small band percussion in one of the most memorable scores of the era.
Though rarely festive, the composer does employ a slow and rather sinister version ‘Silent Night’ as Kate (Phoebe Cates) regales her boyfriend with the tale of the Christmas her Dad disappeared… You know the rest. If you don’t, watch the movie and find out!
Howard Blake (1982)
Christmas just isn’t Christmas without The Snowman, the heart-warming animation which was part of Channel Four’s very first festive schedule in 1982.
Based on Raymond Briggs’s picture book of the same name, the hand-drawn film is a feast of visual and musical storytelling.
Aside from the original introduction, by David Bowie no less, the film has no dialogue.
It of course tells the story of a little boy who builds a snowman, which comes to life overnight and takes him on an adventure.
Composer Howard Blake created a legend when he wrote the music for The Snowman.
At the heart of the music is ‘Walking in the Air’, the song which accompanies the little boy’s flight to the North Pole with the Snowman.
Suffice to say it has become a classic. Originally sung by Peter Auty, it entered the charts a few years later when Aled Jones covered it.
There’s so much more to Blake’s music than the song, though, with memorable set pieces weaving, dancing, delighting and moving us to tears.
His music tells the story just as much as the images. Who can forget wild ride around the garden on the motorbike, the dance of the snowmen, the music box… all magical.
Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of MusicfromtheMovies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.