Often referred to as the ‘father of film music’, Austrian-born composer Max Steiner moved to Hollywood in 1929, becoming one of the first film composers. Among his many successful film scores, including King Kong, The Searchers and Casablanca, the most famous is Gone With the Wind (1939).
He was only given three months to compose it and when the film was released it was the longest ever film score, at almost three hours. Steiner sometimes worked for 20 hours at a time and it took five orchestrators to help produce the score.
Each character was given its own musical motif with ‘Tara’s Theme’ being the most famous, representing the Georgia plantation. The theme has a rich Romantic quality. In a key scene it is used as Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) is seen in silhouette with her father with a foreboding sunset in the background.
Although the film won ten Oscars, Steiner missed out on getting one for the score, despite a nomination. He was beaten by The Wizard of Oz composer Herbert Stothart.
Essential Recording: Gone with the Wind – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack MGM Studio Orchestra/Max Steiner Sony 88697638242
The actor Laurence Olivier and composer William Walton worked together on several Shakespearean films, including Hamlet and Richard III. Henry V, a film that was commissioned by the Ministry of Information to help the war effort and was shot in Technicolor, remains one of the finest that they collaborated on and its score received an Oscar nomination.
The stirring film gradually leads the audience from the confines of the Globe Theatre out to the fields of the Battle of Agincourt where Henry (Olivier) triumphs. The score has plenty of period feel, from brass fanfares, drumming and unusual modal harmonies. Walton even drew upon Auvergne folksongs for his theme for the French princess, Katharine. Walton told Olivier that the film would have been ‘terribly dull’ without the music.
Essential Recording: Henry V – Suite Philharmonia Orchestra/William Walton Warner Classics
Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense thriller Psycho (1960) turned narrative convention on its head by bumping off the main character half way through. The famous shower murder, when serial killer Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), dressed as his mother, stabs his victim Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), is accompanied by the unforgettable screeching stabs of high-pitched strings.
This music exists, thanks to the persistence of composer Bernard Herrmann, who resisted the director’s initial requests for the scene to be silent. From the outset Herrmann was determined to only use strings for the whole score, which he thought would complement the starkness of Hitchcock’s black and white photography.
The feeling of impending disaster pervades the soundtrack: as Marion’s sister, Lila, arrives at Bates Motel to investigate her disappearance, the lower strings ominously creep up while the violins slide down.
Essential Recording: Psycho – The Complete Original Motion Picture Score, Royal Scottish National Orchestral/Joel McNeely Varsese VSD-5765
French composer Maurice Jarre rose to international attention with his score for David Lean’s epic film Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the story of how an Englishman helped the arabs fight against the Ottoman Empire during World War One.
Although the film’s soundtrack won Jarre an Oscar, the credit might have gone elsewhere. He was commissioned after both Walton and Malcolm Arnold were unavailable. And he was initially asked to contribute music alongside Britten and Khachaturian, who both dropped out. It was left to Jarre to compose two hours of music in just six weeks. He took a large-scale approach with a 104-piece orchestra, including 11 percussionists.
The exotic score included three ondes martenots and a cithara. For one of the film’s most iconic scenes, when Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) appears from the shimmering distance in the desert, Lean opts for just natural sounds, including wind, giving a beautiful contrast to Jarre’s immense score.
Essential Recording: Lawrence of Arabia – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack London Philharmonic Orchestra/Maurice Jarre
John Williams has written some of the most memorable film music of all time, including Indiana Jones and ET. But the soundtrack to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is the one that really established him. This got him noticed by George Lucas, leading to the collaboration on Star Wars in 1977.
With Jaws, Williams undertook the challenge of portraying an animal that lives underwater with music rather than sound effects. Spielberg recalls fondly how Williams first introduced him to the Jaws theme, playing it on a piano. ‘What he played… with two fingers on the lower keys was dun, dun, dun-dun, dun-dun, dun-dun… sometimes the best ideas are the most simple ones and John [Williams] had found a signature for the entire score.’
Williams’s brief rhythmic theme consisted of three repeated bass notes. ‘I thought that altering the speed and volume of the theme, from very slow to very fast, from very soft to very loud, would indicate the mindless attacks of the shark,’ he recalls. At this year’s Oscars, Williams has a nomination for his score to Star Wars:The Force Awakens.
Essential Recording: Jaws – The 25th anniversary edition Music composed and conducted by John Williams Decca 467 0452
Ennio Morricone is one of the most prolific film composers of all time, with several hundred film soundtracks under his belt, including iconic 1960s Spaghetti Westerns like The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.
Among Morricone’s finest soundtracks is the Oscar-nominated score to Roland Joffe’s 1986 film The Mission about a Jesuit priest's attempt to try and convert a South American tribe. The famous ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’ theme appears when Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) tentatively plays a tune to befriend members of the Guaraní tribe.
The composer apparently took inspiration from actor Jeremy Irons’s random finger placements on the oboe. The subsequent uplifting theme, with its string accompaniment, has become famous in its own right.
Essential Recording: The Mission – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack London Philharmonic Orchestra/Ennio Morricone Virgin CDV-2402