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Classical Music, Popular Culture or Amadeus Meets Mickey at the Movies

I once read someone's definition of a snob as a person who can hear "The William Tell Overture" without thinking of the Lone Ranger. I suppose those elements could be inverted to describe most folks who have traveled, first by radio and then by television, "back to those thrilling days of yesteryear," quite oblivious to that thundering theme's operatic origins.

Be honest now, buckaroos. What springs to mind when first you hear that staccato fanfare and that galloping melody? Gioacchino Rossini's 1829 drama in song about the legendary archer who shot an apple off his kid's cranium? Or do you, as do I, envision a masked Clayton Moore charging to screen-right on a white stallion, firing silver bullets at unseen outlaws for the glory and preservation of the Old West and Battle Creek, Michigan?

American culture, if not an out-and-out oxymoron, is often a strange and eclectic amalgam of widely disparate elements, including print, popular music and the hawking of goods from sea to shining sea. The infusion of the arts into popular culture is, by origin and continuous practice, as truly and thoroughly American as baseball and Boston baked beans.

Where else but in the U.S. of A. does a Rembrandt masterpiece promote the sale of cigars, as in the case of Dutch Masters?

What possible connection can there be between a petroleum company and Pegasus, the flying horse from Greek mythology? (Perhaps it is Mobil's way of predicting soaring gas prices.)

Who among us can count the times that Grant Wood's painting American Gothic has been used to parody everyone from Sonny and Cher to Bill and Hillary?

And how many of us first heard of Beethoven courtesy of Chuck Berry, whose rock-and-roll smash told that grim-faced, shaggy-haired German cat to "roll over"?

The Allied invaders on D-Day, on the other hand, knew about Beethoven from those famous first four notes of his Fifth Symphony. The notes were used as a coded call-to-arms, since their meter and sequence - dot-dot-dot-dash - are the same as the letter "V" (as in Victory) in Morse Code. Back stateside, the lucky 4-F (medically inelligible for military service) lads were dancing with their dates to the piano offerings of Eddie Duchin, whose signature tune, "To Love Again," was based on Chopin's E-Flat Nocturne.

The radio dramas of the thirties, forties and fifties regularly drew on the classics for theme music. The Mercury Theater of the Air, whose baby-faced producer-director-star, Orson Welles, created widespread panic with his "War of the Worlds" broadcast on Halloween of 1938, signed on and off with the opening bars of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto. The pulsating theme heard on Mr. Kean, Tracer of Lost Persons was lifted from Sergei Prokoviev's opera, "The Love of Three Oranges."

In 1940, the Disney animators brought to the screen the glorious concert suite known as "Fantasia." Fans of Mickey Mouse watched their beloved rodent, and an ensemble of satyrs, hippos in tutus, and dinosaurs in the throes of becoming extinct cavort in a series of cartoon vignettes to the music of the masters. The images were comic, surreal, mythic and incessantly breathtaking. The soundtrack gave bedazzled audiences their first exposure not only to stereophonic sound (at least in the very first screenings), but also to works by Dukas, Mussorgsky and Stravinsky. (Fifty years after its debut, "Fantasia" returned to the screen to enchant a computer generated generation. In 1999, "Fantasia 2000" was released. A mixture of old and new, it was first screened in the IMAX format.)

On Broadway, the 1943 hit musical, "Kismet," with its standout song "Stranger in Paradise," featured lyrics by the team of Robert Wright and George Forrest. Their melodies, however, were crafted by Alexander Borodin for his opera, "Prince Igor," which premiered in St. Petersburg in 1890.

An inherent feature of the film-going experience of the thirties and forties, along with one or two main attractions, the cartoon and the newsreel, was the serial. Popularly dubbed "cliffhangers," these were twenty-minute chapters in the adventures of such icons as Tom Mix, Buck Rogers and Don Winslow of the Navy. Each heart-pounding installment ended - typically - with Tom or Buck or Don lying unconscious in the belly of a plane, or on the floor of speeding roadster--that crashes into the side of a mountain or plunges into the sea. The next chapter would begin with the last minutes of the previous chapter, this time with added footage that shows how our guy got out just seconds before the crash or plunge.

One of the most popular of the serial heroes was Flash Gordon. His cheering young fans viewed scenes of the redoubtable Flash waging war upon Ming the Merciless, emperor of the planet Mongo. A portion of the background music that blared from the screen was the work of Franz Liszt. His Les Preludes could be heard above the sputter and sparks of rocket ships that were the Model Ts of special effects spacecraft.

The show also used the re-orchestrated love theme from Tchaikovsky's overture, "Romeo and Juliet," which underscored the romantic interludes between Flash and his galactic girlfriend, Dale Arden. It is a melody that has chalked up more screen mileage than James Bond's Aston Martin.

It wasn't long before the longhairs of rock-and-roll began to borrow from longhairs of earlier epochs. An eighteenth-century minuet in three-quarter time by Johann Sebastian Bach hit the pop charts in 1964 as a four-quarter reworking in Dusty Springfield's "All I See Is You."

In 1975, Barry Manilow brought an element of highbrow polish to his soulful "Could It Be Magic" by adding several bars of Chopin's "Prelude in C." The following year it was Rachmaninoff's turn for a shot at Top -40 immortality when the Second Movement from his Second Symphony provided the tune for Eric Carmen's "Never Gonna Fall in Love Again."

It is impossible to mark on the dateline of American cultural history the exact point where the highbrow began to be pressed into the service of commerce and popular art forms. The practice probably took root and gained momentum as soon as the advantages, economic and otherwise, became plain to the captains of industry, from ad executives to the heads of movie studios.

That latter group will stand out in our discussion here, because no doubt the busiest corner of this crossing of the crass with the classic is Hollywood and Vine. And since the dominant art form is this case is music, we find herein a dramatic example of something that began just about a century ago and seems to have come full circle.

It all began in the mute infancy of the cinema, when live music quickly became an essential part of the show. Besides breaking the silence and providing counterpoint to the noisy projector, the sound of music enhanced the action taking place on the screen. Although original scores were provided for certain films, such as those of Carl Joseph Breil for two of D.W. Griffith's silent epics, the established classical repertoire, whether performed by full orchestra or on an out-of-tune upright, was what audiences heard, from the downtown Roxy to the neighborhood Bijou.

With the advent of sound, the role of music in film production underwent a process of re-evaluation. More weight was now given to the notion that a film, in all its originality, was best enhanced by an original score. The music would be as integral to the finished product as the lighting, the cinematography, and even the actors. Soon the opening credits were including the names of composers, names like Max Steiner, Franz Waxman and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, all of whom were born in Europe and had received classical training in the German tradition.

Steiner, who went on to score nearly three hundred films, among them "Gone with the Wind," was lured to Hollywood from New York, where he had composed and conducted theater pieces for the Great White Way. Korngold, a wunderkind in his hometown of Vienna, created lush scores that added immeasurably to the appeal and prestige of such Errol Flynn vehicles as "The Sea Hawk" and "The Adventures of Robin Hood." Waxman's creative range and staying power extended from the Gothic horror films of the thirties (The Bride of Frankenstein) to the historical epics of the sixties (Taras Bulba).

By the forties a golden age of film composition was well underway. It would extend through that decade and well into the next. By the fifties a growing cadre of film composers, many of them American-born, were creating a new art form, as well as quite a name for themselves. Among the most notable were Alfred Newman (uncle of Randy and father of current practitioners Thomas and David, as well as the record holder for the most Oscars won for individual achievement - nine), Hugo Friedhofer, Roy Webb, David Raksin, Victor Young, Bernard Herrmann, Dmitri Tiomkin, Miklos Rozsa, Elmer Bernstein, and many other highly skilled musicians on filmdom's assembly line. These were the authors of the aural dimension of the cinema. By means of notes and key signatures and orchestration, they could move, transport and manipulate an audience with uncanny craft and calculation.

In 1968, MGM released "2001, A Space Odyssey"--and film scoring changed again. The director, Stanley Kubick, rejected an original score by Alex North and created one out of his record collection. Represented were the Johann and Richard Strauss, Aram Khatchaturian and several others. Audience reaction was electric. Viewers thrilled to the sight of the opening sunrise punctuated by the awesome and thunderous Also Sprach Zarathustra. They were enthralled by the image of a twenty-first century space shuttle in its graceful, gliding approach to Space Station Alpha, but to the strains of the nineteenth century Blue Danube Waltz. Revered by critics and cultics alike, the film is listed as one of the ten greatest of all time on the most recent poll of Sight and Sound Magazine.

One person you won't find in that cheering section, however, is Oscar-winning composer Jerry Goldsmith. A veteran who began in television and who, at age seventy-two, remains an active practitioner, Goldsmith has been quite vocal in his criticism of Kubrik's choice of soundtrack music, calling the practice "abominable" and "idiotic." He says this about his reaction to the Johann Strauss waltz: "It was amusing for a moment, but quickly became distracting, because it is so familiar and unrelated to the visual."

Of course, familiarity is a factor producers bank on, as in those instances when, say, the "1812 Overture" is trotted out to accent a bit of slapstick. At the same time, the unfamiliar has the power to suggest that something original is playing in the background. A good example of this is the "Adagio" from Khatchaturian's ballet "Gayneh," which is heard in Kubrick's 2001 during the first scenes of HAL and company's ill-fated excursion towards Jupiter. It is likely that most viewers assumed, as did this writer, that this somber piece was written especially for that scene of that movie.

Jerry Goldsmith's brand of protest, by the way, goes beyond the verbal. In 1993, putting his baton where his mouth is, so to speak, Goldsmith conducted the New Philharmonia Orchestra in a recording of Alex North's rejected 2001 score. To hear the discarded creation of this late master of the form, whose genius gave the world both the magnificent bombast of "Spartacus" and the tenderness of "Unchained Melody," is to experience the sour sense of having been cheated.

It was also in 1968 that "The Graduate" hit the theaters, and film music - not to mention plastics - took on a new meaning. This one had a score that was part pre-existing Simon and Garfunkle and part original Dave Grusin. (Simon did write "Mrs. Robinson" especially for the film). With production costs, including the ever-increasing salaries of the stars, going through the roof, it is understandable why the moguls of Tinseltown opted for soundtrack material that was already in the can - and preferably in the public domain - over popping for a composer and a hundred-piece orchestra.

By the seventies, while films like "American Graffiti" were featuring scores that were wall-to-wall from the Top-40 hits, more and more productions were engaging composers who were, more often than not, decomposing, and whose melodies were first created for listeners of long ago. Even with the resurgence in the mid-seventies of the original - and symphonic - score, as in John Williams' massive and masterful output for Lucas and Spielberg, the likes of Bach and Beethoven were giving Dolby his due in the emerging age of the multiplex.

And so it is that that particular beat goes on, with the lofty and the low making seemingly easy bedfellows, and embodying the definition of American culture. The reasons for this phenomenon defy easy analysis. It could have something to do with America's love of incongruity, with our tendency to thumb our noses at propriety and convention, the way the nominee wears a Stetson with his tuxedo to the Country Music Awards.

Perhaps it is because we Americans are cultural lemmings, slaves to trend, whether the current fad is baggy pants, pierced body parts or Gregorian chant.

I'd like to think, though, that we take these occasional, and albeit shallow, forays into the high-brow simply because they make us feel good about ourselves, and permit us to experience the glory and self-esteem that come with being people of good taste.

Here are some examples of familiar musical tidbits in film:

J.S. Bach: "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor." A favorite among deranged organists, it was played by Captain Nemo (James Mason) on the Nautilus instrument in Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and was heard in Rollerball.

Maurice Ravel: "Bolero." The sound of the diminutive Dudley Moore making love to the braided Bo Derek in 10.

Pachelbel: "The Canon." Music heard at the beginning of Ordinary People, and at nearly every wedding ceremony of the past decade, including mine.

Richard Wagner: "Ride of the Valkyries." Music to napalm a Southeast Asian village by, as heard in Apocalypse Now!

Carl Orff: "Carmina Burana." Choral pyrotechnics to enhance the visual variety, in Platoon, as well as in every movie trailer with an explosive nature.

Well, you get the picture, and, I hope at this point, the music that goes with it. We could cite a hundred more examples of this cultural commingling, and it would be like taking a bite of an elephant. It is likely, though, that "Old Jumbo," like the love in that song by George and Ira, is here to stay.

Chicago-born Pat Brennan is a teacher, songwriter, performer and writer of fiction and non-fiction. He lives with his wife and son in Albuquerque, New Mexico.


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