Top Five Film Scores that Thrive as Concert Works

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

It takes a certain skill to compose a great film score. It takes an even more precise one to compose a great score that can be appreciated outside of the movie theater and in a concert hall. On the eve of the 83rd Academy Awards, here are the top five scores that hold up on their own.

1. It’s difficult to steal the thunder to a filmmaker as illustrious as Sergei Eisenstein, but if anyone came close, it was Sergei Prokofiev with his great score for the Eisenstein film, "Alexander Nevsky." The genius of both filmmaker and composer come together in the epic Battle on the Ice, where Eisenstein shows Nevsky’s Russian forces gathering to defend against the oncoming invaders from the west, as Prokofiev’s music builds the mounting tension.

2. This list would be incomplete without a nod to the master the action-adventure soundtrack, John Williams. His suites from movies such as "Superman" and the "Indiana Jones" trilogy are staples on Pops concerts. But his most beloved work comes from "Star Wars," which has appeared everywhere from marching band performances to Volkswagen ads, and continues to grace concert schedules.

3. "Psycho" wouldn’t be "Psycho" without it’s equally creepy and unsettling Bernard Herrmann score. NPR called it one of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century. On the occasion of the film's 50th anniversary, no fewer than four American orchestras (Chicago, Dallas, Minnesota and St. Louis gave live performances of the score alongside a screening of the Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece).   

4. Though Leonard Bernstein’s music appears in several movies, "On the Waterfront" remains his only film score. Some critics thought the brassy and sometimes dissonant music too assertive in parts of the movie. Quickly, it became appreciated for its own merit. A year after the film’s release, he turned the score into a symphonic suite that Bernstein biographer Humphrey Burton compared to a 1950s New York interpretation of "Romeo and Juliet."

5. John Corigliano’s Academy Award-winning score for "The Red Violin" also provided a source for a concert piece: a Concerto for Violin and Orchestra: The Red Violin. The film, which tells the story of a 17th century violin stained crimson with the blood of the maker’s dead wife, proved to be great inspiration for a virtuoso violin showpiece. Joshua Bell, who played solo violin on the soundtrack recording, later toured with the paired down 20-minute concerto.

Weigh in: What film scores would you enjoy hearing in the concert hall? Leave a comment below.


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Comments [24]

Michael Meltzer

By the way, I also think that everyone that disagrees with me is arrogant and close-minded, but I try to limit my expression of that sentiment because I know it doesn't really add meaning to my argument.

Feb. 26 2011 06:30 AM
Michael Meltzer

I'm sorry, but if the movie "Psycho" had never been filmed but the music in it written anyway, and given a non-programmatic non-suggestive title like "Concert piece #4," I can't imagine it attracting very much attention. I really think that if non-musical context, in other words the emotions that really were generated by the cinematic action but are (erroneously) associated with the music were separated out, this would be a much, much smaller field of choices.

Feb. 26 2011 06:17 AM
Squiggy from Eastchester, New York

The theme from Dr. Zhivago; the theme from The Godfather; The James Bond theme; The theme from The Illusionist.

Feb. 26 2011 12:09 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from BOONTON, NJ

SERGEI PROKOFIEFF who composed that great "Alexander Nevsky" score also composed the music for "The Gambler," based on the play by Feodor Dostoievsky. I sang the the title role of Alexis [Dostoievsky in real life, Alexis in the play] in its American premiere. After Stalin's death the Bolshoi performed the work and I met with the company's members when the Bolshoi performed the opera at the "MET." The role of Alexis is the longest role in a single opera. Siegfried is longer if one includes the Siegfried of both the opera of that name and the Siegfried in Goetterdaemmerung.
I also sang the lead tenor role, Mosca, in the world premiere production of George Antheil's opera "Volpone" lasting 30 performances at the Cherry Lane Theater in Greenwich Village in the summer of 1953. Antheil wrote the music for my cousin Michael Blankfort's 1953 Columbia Pictures film, "THE JUGGLER." starring Kirk Douglas. Antheil had written the scores for over 100 films. When I asked Antheil "how can an opera composer make a living writing operas?" he told me that he was writing the music for the film "The Juggler." I then informed him that my cousin was a major screenwriter for Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount Films, and Columbia Pictures. My cousin encouraged me in my singing and composing.

Feb. 25 2011 08:12 PM
Marie from Rye, New York

Alexander Nevsky "Battle on the Ice. Unfortunaely Sergei Einstein depicts the hero in the manner of George Kastrioti of Albania, a christian & Eastern Europe's formidable hero who saved the East from the Ottoman Muslems in the 1400 th. Century. His immage is duplicated here as it can be seen in the monuments and history books. Let us not forget the truth. Give credit to the real man whom history has forgotten but should remember as note to the future battles that may be at hand.

Feb. 25 2011 02:43 PM
Ardath Bey

Calling Erich Korngold, Miklos Rosza, Nino Rota "real composers" in order to belittle the chosen scores is arrogant and close-minded.

Bernard Herrmann and John Williams are great masters of film scoring and don't need me to come to their defenses, but it's sad to see this snob attitude still prevailing in some archaic classical circles.

As far as film music is concerned, the best is the one that works on the screen better than in concert halls. Which doesn't mean concert pieces from them shouldn't be performed. The music from Psycho is daring and original. Star Wars is also remarkable, in a totally different manner. Both can be satisfying concert experiences.

I also hold Goldsmith in high regard. I saw him live at Carnegie Hall in 1998 and the concert was phenomenal. Another great film composer was James Bernard, who wrote horror scores for Hammer. I'd gladly attend a concert of his music.

Feb. 25 2011 01:39 PM
Mariano Torras from Brooklyn, NY

I think that we are forgetting Aram Ilyich Khachaturian and his score for Spartacus.

Feb. 25 2011 01:14 PM
David from Flushing

The iconic shower scene music of "Psycho" has always struck me as being a bit similar to the music preceding the fall of the walls of Jericho in Handel's "Joshua," "The nations temble" chorus. Whether this was inspiration or mere coincidence, I cannot say.

Feb. 25 2011 12:57 PM
Varda from Great Neck, NY

Among my favorites: scores from the James Bond movies and the Pink Panther

Feb. 25 2011 12:52 PM
Sydney from Boston

Jerry Goldsmith --- Chinatown is one of the best movie scores ever.

Agree with Morricone and Horner. I still love Titanic.

Feb. 25 2011 11:56 AM

All of the above and "Somewhere in Time."

I agree totally with Paula, that the best classical music of the 20th and 21st centuries has been film music.

Feb. 25 2011 10:00 AM
jwl from Pgh, PA

What about Danny Elfman, (Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Beetleguise, etc...) one of my favorite film score composers.

Feb. 25 2011 08:24 AM
Chris Shillock from Minneapolis

A lot of great dark scores by Carter Burwell (Hamlet, the Coen Bros movies), Max Richter in Waltz with Bashir. Vangelis in Chariot of Fire & Blade Runner.

Feb. 25 2011 08:20 AM
Chris Shillock from Minneapolis

A lot of great dark scores by Carter Burwell (Hamlet, the Coen Bros movies), Max Richter in Waltz with Bashir. Vangelis in Chariot of Fire & Blade Runner.

Feb. 25 2011 08:19 AM
concetta nardone

Five is not enough. I agree with all of the comments so far especially Our Town. What a lovely piece of Americana that music was. Whenever I hear it, I stop to listen no matter how busy I am.

Feb. 25 2011 07:20 AM
Michael Meltzer

How could you possibly talk about classical film scores without having real composers Erich Korngold, Miklos Rosza, Nino Rota at the center, and tremendous talents whose main employment was doing the same thing for TV, Lalo Shifrin and Pete Rugolo.
This was so superficial an effort, it is not an artistic exploration in any sense, only nothing but a musical parlor game.

Feb. 25 2011 06:44 AM

Ennio Morricone's score for The Mission's not a shabby work in itself ... The same can be said of James Horner's score for Glory.

Oh! And how about scores for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Sea Hawk, Ben Hur, Robin Hood (Korngold), Dances with Wolves, The Last of the Mohicans (1990's) ...

Feb. 25 2011 06:07 AM

There must be more to the psycho soundtrack than the violin part in the shower scene, right?

I can't help think of the Simpsons episode where Mr. Burns is mistaken for an alien and the Springfield Orchestra bus drives past with the players playing that part from Psycho.

Feb. 25 2011 02:12 AM
Alan Van Poznak from Tenafly, NJ

#5: You should have said "pared down,", not
"paired down."
Like paring an apple, no?

Feb. 24 2011 03:02 PM
ward from New Haven


Feb. 24 2011 07:29 AM
Michael Meltzer

If you leave out Copland's "Our Town," you're not listening. If there's no room in the five, you should have made it six.
"Nevsky" and "Our Town" belong in every musician's video library.

Feb. 24 2011 12:51 AM
Frances Apgar from Upper West Side New York City

And, how can we possibly forget the
great Richard Rodger's scores for
"Victory At Sea"
But, Oh!...there have been so many
great scores...

Feb. 24 2011 12:07 AM
Paula Davis from Brooklyn

Hans Zimmer has made some appealing contributions, especially the scores for the Pirates of the Caribbean series. The romantic, inspiring and powerful scores for Out of Africa, Dances with Wolves, Sophie's Choice, and the Lord of the Rings, all lend themselves to symphonic performances as well. The best "classical music" of the 20th/21st centuries is that which has been composed for Hollywood productions.

Feb. 23 2011 08:27 PM
Ellen from Oregon

how can you leave out Also Sprach Zarathustra from 2001: A Space Odyssey!

Feb. 23 2011 05:55 PM

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