Rewriting History

Summer 2005


It has come to my attention that one of our colleagues has recently rescored a film that was released in 1965, his music replacing the original by Daniele Amfitheatrof. As of this writing, this film is in theatrical release incorporating previously unseen footage; the promotional campaign proudly touting the new score. It will also be available on DVD in the near future, which will showcase a “cleaned up” version of the earlier film with the new score, and may or may not include the original version in its unaltered state. These details, in my opinion, are secondary to the greater issue, which involves the dangerous precedent that was put into motion here.

There are a myriad of issues at hand, making it difficult to know where to begin, but let me start from the humanistic framework that has everything to do with why many of us elected to follow this treacherous career path in the first place. Just as a fine artist leaves behind for posterity his paintings, sculptures, or craft pieces, the work that we as composers and lyricists, musicians and engineers will ultimately leave behind is our heritage. It’s remarkable to see the California landscape as painted by Granville Redmond or William Wendt in the early part of the century. It’s a snapshot of our pristine wilderness, seen through the eyes of two of our most talented artists. In the same way, our legacy will be our compositions and songs.

Now if the concert hall is your domain, then hopefully orchestras will be playing your works long after you are gone. However, if you have made the conscious decision to compose music for visual media, then the film, television program or game that incorporates your life’s work will forever be your legacy; your place in history along with the project it accompanies, and just like the great landscape painting it will also be a historical record of the time and place that it was conceived; or so we thought.

I’ve always felt that the unique quality that we bring to a project is our individuality, so there may be some value in putting a face to a name, and the original composer may not be familiar to you and unfortunately he is no longer around to defend himself. Elmer Bernstein prefaced his Film Music Notebook interview of the summer of 1975 with these words about the composer. “Daniele Amfitheatrof is one of the distinguished figures in the field of motion picture music. The greatest period of his activity in the field was as a contemporary of such composers as Franz Waxman, Max Steiner and Erich Korngold.”

Daniele’s mother was graduated from the Imperial Conservatory of St.Petersburg in piano and singing under a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakoff. Mr. Amfitheatrof started composing at age fifteen, and enrolled in the Conservatory in Petrograd Russia in 1916. His father was sent to Siberia on more than one occasion for writings against the Czarina and Rasputin.

He worked as a ballet pianist at the Kirov Opera House, moved to Rome where he studied with Ottorino Respighi during the time Respighi was composing “Pines of Rome,” and actually saw him put down the score from sketch. After composing numerous pictures in Rome, Amfitheatrof came to the United States, the result of being tipped by the Italian Foreign Department that the war was coming. It was during this time that he guest conducted the Koussewitzky orchestra in Boston in the late thirties. He came to Metro in 1939 and scored, “Lassie Come Home” and worked on a number of pictures there, was on contract at Universal and scored numerous pictures for most of the studios in Hollywood including many with Abbott and Costello. His numerous credits include “Wagon Train,” “Song of the South,” “Fraulein,” “ Angels in the Outfield,” and the movie in question, “Major Dundee.”

In fairness to presenting as many facts as possible that might be germane to this particular situation, I must report that this decision has been defended by some in suggesting that the director of the film was dissatisfied with Daniele Amfitheatrof’s score. However, the truth is that the director was not allowed to finish the film, so as one colleague astutely pointed out, the same people who let the director go were probably responsible for hiring the composer, thus making an objective view by the director tenuous at best.

If it is in fact the vision of the director that is being called into account here, considering that he is deceased, the one thing that can be said with complete confidence is that regardless of whatever historical speculation can be made, he most certainly can’t put his blessing on this new score. I would also submit that despite what is being publicly reported, some individual at a studio level felt that either the original score was flawed, out-dated, sonically archaic or just wanted to put their mark on this re-release, which is unconscionable to my way of thinking, and what speaks directly to the larger issue.

The composer who took this recent assignment most likely approached this film as an excellent opportunity to further his career. No doubt he delivered a credible score that was well received, and afforded employment for a number of people. On the other hand, I would hope that the decision to accept this rescoring was an unconscious one. Left unchecked, this practice could undermine the very heart of what we as composers and lyricists do.

To play this out, it is not inconceivable that a few years down the line, one could feel that employing a contemporary score could enhance the marketability of a 75-year re-release of “Gone with the Wind.” What about someone who deemed the string section approach to “Psycho” too limiting and felt a larger orchestra would have been the better call or perhaps consider “E.T.” with an electronic approach. Let’s take songs for a moment. How about re-placing “The Windmills of Your Mind” in “The Thomas Crowne Affair” with Limp Biscuit, or “Butch Cassidy’s” bicycle montage with Korn. Of course this sounds ludicrous, and although not terribly insightful, it is in fact what we are opening ourselves up for if we don’t exercise the integrity to refuse to accept these assignments.

The best-case scenario is that the creative community at large will intervene and become strong partners should this fail to be an isolated incident. In every case, a film or television show is the end result of the hard work of many talented people. It would be inconceivable that this blatant disregard for the original copy written work wouldn’t trigger an outrage from our creative partners and speak to the larger issue of intellectual property preservation.

One of numerous handicaps of our not having attained union status is that there are ultimately few things that we can do in situations such as these. Therefore, it is beholden on us to uphold our own set of standards, while taking the moral high road. Granted, it is difficult finding jobs that at times seem elusive, but we owe it to our colleagues to use good judgment as we traverse the challenges that confront us. Let’s not rewrite history, because in the end it is our history that we rewrite.

Published in THE SCORE quarterly newsletter [Vol. XX, Number Two, Summer 2005]