Alexander Nevsky, Bag End, Birth of a Nation, Darth Vader, Film music, film score, Gilraen's Memorial, Howard Shore, Imperial March, Jaws, John Williams, Journey to the Grey Havens, melodrama, Mendelssohn, Midsumer Night's Dream, Prokofiev, Rivendell, Sergei Eisenstein, silent film, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, The Shire, The Tales That Really Matter, theme
Welcome, as always. In this posting, we’d like to talk a bit about film music.
We’re interested in all kinds—from classic 30s to more recent scores. We began by asking ourselves why is there film music? Where does it come from?
To begin, we looked back into the 19th century, where we found that music could be used underneath the action in plays—Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream being a good example. Mendelssohn wrote the overture as a teenager, and as a purely orchestral piece. The rest of the music was written for a performance of the play in Berlin in 1842. Some of it consists of settings for the songs from Shakespeare’s play, but other music is meant to be played during a scene to heighten tension or to release it. (This use of music was so common in the 19th century that we get the expression “melodrama” originally from plays with music. “Melos” is an ancient Greek word for “song”, which gets added to “drama”.)
When film began to take its place next to drama as a form of popular entertainment—sometimes in the same theatres—film was, of course, silent.
Without spoken dialogue or sound effects, as people were already used to the music played in dramas, it was natural to have music played under films, commonly using a piano or an organ.
The music could be classical excerpts or popular music of the period, which would be improvised by the organist or pianist. For some films, music was even specially written. Birth of a Nation (1915) was one of these.
Such music, as in plays, would underscore the action building or releasing the motion. This was true of early sound films—like Alexander Nevsky (1939).
And of more recent films. Think of the shark theme from Jaws
Or, Darth Vader
(And think of how the music change when Luke takes off his father’s helmet.)
A special favorite of ours is the Shire theme from The Lord of the Rings.
In the theatrical version of the film, we hear this first when Gandalf visits Frodo.
(The Shire theme in “Bag End“, taken from the complete recordings)
In this scene, we’re being told, just as in a silent movie, about a feeling—and only through music which accompanies the picture.
But when we hear the music return when Frodo and Sam have set out on their journey to Rivendell:
Leaving Rivendell, as a part of the Fellowship (and the theme here acts as a prelude to the Fellowship theme):
Sam’s speech, where the theme resides to accepting the journey but reminisces about home:
And saying farewell before departing into the West:
And so we have an entirely different feeling each time we hear a variant of the theme– the Little People make their mark in the film not only by taking a part in the story, but also in the music, as it shifts through their adventure.
But try this for yourself, dear reader. Pick a favorite film, and try to focus less on the action and more on the music: are there recurring themes, for instance? And, if so, do they change? And if they do change, how does that affect the film and you?
Thanks, as ever, for reading,