These days, if the topic of interesting contemporary film music comes up, the talk will generally turn fairly soon to films whose soundtracks feature highly varied styles and genres—frequently a mix of popular and “art music”—and were compiled mostly from existing recordings. Oftentimes, original music is also present. As a rule, the directors of such productions tend to be music aficionados. This tradition of “postmodern compiled soundtracks”1, as one can hear in films like Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006, featuring music from Jean-Philippe Rameau to New Order), Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007, feat. Jonny Greenwood, Arvo Pärt, Johannes Brahms, et al.), or Giorgos Lanthimos’s thriller The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017, feat. Sofia Gubaidulina, György Ligeti, Franz Schubert, et al.), originated in the described form with the films of Stanley Kubrick, who used solely existing recordings (of music ranging from Johann Strauss to György Ligeti) for his sci-fi “monolith” 2001 – A Space Odyssey (1968)—something truly novel at that time. It’s well known that, as a practice, the compilation of music for use in a film is significantly older and ranges back to the music that accompanied films during the silent movie era, which—roughly speaking—drew first and foremost on the abundant treasure trove of the romantic repertoire.

The composition of original film music with modern ambitions is above all a (comparatively rare) phenomenon of sound film’s initial decades, beginning in the 1930s and extending into the 1960s, in which strong impulses initially emanated from European (art) film. Broader—which is to say continual—written reflection on modern music in film can be found beginning in 1937 in the column “On the Hollywood Front” published in the New York periodical Modern Music, the first author of which was America’s “Bad Boy of Music” George Antheil. As its title implies, and with the exception of a handful of productions mainly from the Soviet Union (including Alexander Nevsky – director: Sergei Eisenstein, music: Sergei Prokofiev, 1938) and from France (Le Sang d’un poète – director: Jean Cocteau, music: Georges Auric, 1932), this column was concerned mostly with domestic output—with several of the discussed composers being European émigrés. Its selection of films was quite generally oriented toward the matter of appropriately up-to-date “underscoring” and the question as to what should actually be considered “modern” from a film music perspective. Antheil, in his inaugural article, thus wrote: “Music, in the motion picture business, is on the upgrade. It may interest musicians to know that I have been remonstrated with because I did not write quite as discordantly as had been expected. ‘We engaged you to do “modernistic” music – so go ahead and do it.’ Out there they still call any kind of new music ‘modernistic’ (whatever that may be) but one can no longer doubt that Hollywood is developing a real taste for it.”2 This introduction indicates how, going forward, the discourse would (occasionally somewhat despairingly) grind away at such a banal-seeming question as whether and to what extent the presence of dissonance was to be considered as per se indicative of modern film-music-related thinking and composing. Between the lines, however, it also becomes clear that other aspects were likewise to be addressed. The discussions around just what type of film music was suited to the times, discussions that proceeded to unfold over the years that followed, throughout the Second World War and thereafter, can be retraced with reference to a number of interesting and previously unstudied sources.3

One person who appears repeatedly in this context and who also wrote on the subject was Hanns Eisler, co-author (together with Theodor W. Adorno) of the widely known 1947 book Composing for the Films. Largely unknown, however, is the fact that several of the themes addressed therein had already been topics of discussion for years amongst numerous other film (music) professionals in and around Hollywood, as becomes evident—above and beyond the aforementioned column—in the unpublished transcript of a panel discussion entitled “Seminar on Music” (with the handwritten subtitle “Role of Modern Music in the Modern Film”), which took place on 17 May 1945 at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles. This event, funded by the Hollywood Writers Mobilization, brought together then-active (film music) composers and professors of music such as Adolph Deutsch, Leigh Harline, Hugo Friedhofer, Walter Rubsamen, and Ingolf Dahl—along with an audience that included numerous other illustrious colleagues such as David Raksin—to attempt to define the contemporary idiom in modern music, ask as to modern music’s autonomy and hence the composer’s freedom in relation to modern film, and formulate a position on the need to educate both audiences and film producers. Interestingly enough, this attempt at a definition merged into a concept that corresponds most closely to the “virtues” of New Objectivity: general avoidance of the romantic idiom, exaggerated sentimentality, and the usual dissonant clichés (“The way dissonance is used will make a score contemporary”), and the encouragement of music’s sparing use, “economy of means”, dramaturgical counterpoint, and a greater emphasis on form. Some examples of film music amentioned as successful would be Aaron Copland’s music for Of Mice and Men (1939), Bernard Herrmann’s music for Citizen Kane (1941), Luis Greenberg’s music for The Fight for Life (1940), and Hanns Eisler’s music (created under what were more or less laboratory conditions) for the documentary White Flood (1940); overall, the list includes a conspicuous number of social and war dramas and/or documentaries, the latter still under the impression of the World War’s final months. Only several years later, during the mid-1950s, did a mode of composing influenced by Arnold Schönberg become more prominent, examples of which would be Leonard Rosenman’s atonal music for Vincente Minelli’s psychological drama The Cobweb (1955), for which he considered this sort of “mind-reading expressionistic music” to be appropriate.

The above-mentioned panel discussion, by the way, had concluded with the comment: “[I]f one had more freedom, we would all of us write better and possibly more contemporary music.” And indeed, one does see that it is particularly film music that emerges from situations where the composers (or the compilers) have enjoyed a relatively high degree of autonomy that comes to be regarded as succeessful. In the everyday film business, though, this was—and will probably remain—the exception.

  1. See Julie Hubbert: “He Got Copland. Musical Style in the Postmodern Soundtrack”, in: Zwichen “U” und “E”: Grenzüberschreitungen in der Musik nach 1950, eds. Friedrich Geiger and Frank Hentschel, Vienna: Peter Lang Verlag, 2011, p. 135–157.
  2. Modern Music 14/2, 1937, p. 46–47.
  3. The sources in question were introduced as part of my lecture at the mdw symposium “Exile, Modernism, and Hollywood”, held on 11 and 12 June 2022. Publication of an article on this topic in The Journal of Film Music is planned.
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