In the Footsteps of Victor and Irving

Summer 2004


Victor Young and Irving Berlin were two of the most prolific and gifted artists of their time. Jerome Kern once said that “Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music”. Irving Berlin, whose career spanned eight decades and gave us such classics as “God Bless America,” “Always,” “Easter Parade,” and White Christmas” and Victor Young whose inspired scores for such movies as The Uninvited, and Around the World in Eighty Days and such standards as “When I Fall in Love,” will forever be a part of our cultural heritage and their timeless works will forever be a part of the American repertoire. I chose to write about their genius and their milieu because we owe them and their contemporaries a debt of gratitude for setting in place the high standards that we should all strive to maintain, and for making ours such a celebrated profession.

During the last two holiday seasons I have been involved with historic reenactments in support of the Heritage Square Museum off the Pasadena Freeway. In the role of William Perry, a businessman and lumber baron I help impart some of the early history of Los Angeles. During breaks from performances I had the opportunity to spend time at the Charles Lumis House, El Alisal, which is across the street. I found that Lumis had single-handedly saved the California Missions from deterioration and helped preserve much of early California heritage, including early sound recordings in establishing the Southwest Museum.

I believe that we, as composers and songwriters owe it to the legacy of our talented forefathers to keep their spirit alive in much the same fashion. I feel that a thorough understanding of the past can help us as we proceed into the future. Not only will it aid us creatively to understand what has come before, but also it may help in giving ourselves and our industry the respect it deserves.

Our profession unofficially began in 1895 in Paris. The Lumiere family presented one of their early movies to the strains of a solo piano at the Grand Café. It wasn’t long until ornate movie palaces were being built to showcase silent films accompanied by marvelous orchestras. The father of our esteemed advisory board member, David Raksin, was the conductor of such an orchestra at “The Met” Theatre in Philadelphia. Although the conductor wrote original compositions from time to time, huge libraries of concert pieces existed and were employed at the conductor’s discretion. The moods were generally indicated, and he had a great deal of latitude in choosing the music except in the instances where a specific piece was called for.

As of late, in my quest to save the historic Ambassador Hotel, where six Academy Award ceremonies were held, I have also become familiar with our own movie houses that miraculously still exist. Over the past three months I have found myself on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles on a regular basis. Seeing the absolute majesty of such landmarks as The Million Dollar Theatre, The Los Angeles Theatre, The State, and The Mayan leads one to only imagine what a special experience attending a movie was. These houses were filled with avid moviegoers, in fact it has been estimated that sixty-five percent of the American public went to the movies on a weekly basis in the years around 1938.

Recently I have been reading Roy M. Prendergast’s book Film Music, a Neglected Art, which I understand will soon appear in a newly revised third edition, and Elmer Bernstein’s Film Music Notebook, which is a Complete Collection of the Quarterly Journal from 1974 to 1978. The latter is published by the Film Music Society and I would encourage all of you to not only join this wonderful organization, led by our friend Chris Young, but to order your copy of this book, which chronicles the history of our profession through in-depth interviews by Elmer Bernstein.

Over the past few years the ever-evolving technology has enabled many to join our ranks with its ease of operation. In fact, a painter left my house a few minutes ago and was telling me how he has been working after hours writing convincing material at his computer without really understanding anything about music. Although I applaud his energy in pursuing a muse, I fear his cavalier attitude does not bode well for the perpetuation of a glorious craft.

Ray Colcord, my immediate predecessor and a believer in the tradition set forth by the founders of this organization, established our Hall of Fame Awards that we will continue, along with the SCL Ambassador program created during this administration. I think that it is good to remind ourselves of the time and preparation that some of these gentlemen brought to our craft. The triumvirate of Max Steiner, Erich Korngold and Alfred Newman certainly defined the “Golden Age of Scoring,” and for good reason.

Max Steiner is widely recognized as one of the father’s of our craft. Born in Vienna in 1888, his first operetta was published at the advanced age of 16. Word of Mr. Steiner’s talent reached America and Florenz Ziegfeld brought him to New York City during World War 1, where he remained for fifteen years as the conductor of the Ziegfeld Follies. In 1929, one year after the advent of sound, he was invited to come to Hollywood to conduct the score for Rio Rita, a musical for RKO Studios. He became the Musical Director for the studio and continued in film for the remainder of his career. In 1935 he became the first composer to win an Academy Award; his achievement was for The Informer, directed by John Ford. Filmmaker and composer, Robert Rodriguez challenged our community to demand to be brought on during the formative stages of a project. This was just the case with the score to this film. Max Steiner imbued The Informer with Irish folk melodies that were planned out in pre-production meetings with Mr. Ford. From King Kong to Gone With the Wind to Casablanca to A Summer Place, Max Steiner’s contributions to our profession are legion. His melodies continue to move and inspire me and he will always have a place at the top of any list that recognizes the best.

Another of our Hall of Fame inductees was Bernard Hermann. Considered by many to be the master of macabre, he brought his own style to a business that theretofore had been steeped in the mid-to late nineteenth century idiom of Puccini, Verdi, Strauss and Wagner. Prendergast writes that when the early film composers were confronted with dramatic problems they merely looked to those composers who had solved almost identical problems in their operas. Hermann, on the other hand, incorporated unique combinations of instruments in his palate. Once again, in the case of Hermann’s first film, Citizen Kane, completed in 1940, he was brought to the project early and was present during the production of the movie, sketching much of the music as the movie was being shot. Mr. Hermann writes, “the film was so unusual technically, that it afforded me many unique opportunities for musical experiment. It abounded in musical montages, which were long enough to permit me to compose complete musical numbers, rather than do what is ordinarily done—cut the music to suit the film”. Of course his oeuvre is legendary, from the haunting, The Day the Earth Stood Still to his atonal masterpiece, Psycho in 1960.

There is hardly time within the confines of an article such as this to list all of the songwriters and composers that we should be forever indebted to, but as I have said before, we are all ambassadors of our profession and we owe it to our craft to know as much about who came before as we do to keep abreast of the new trends. We are all walking in the footsteps of these legendary talents and we must continue the tradition they so ably passed to us.

Published in THE SCORE quarterly newsletter [Vol. XIX, Number Two, Summer 2004]