Classical Music Isn’t Dead – It’s on the Big Screen

A live performance of the score from "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" accompanies a showing of the film at Radio City Music Hall in 2010.  Photo by Flickr user workinpana

A live performance of the score from “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” accompanies a showing of the film at Radio City Music Hall in 2010. Photo by Flickr user workinpana

Word on the street is that classical music is dying out.  Sales for classical recordings are plunging, attendance at many concerts is on the decline, and it is getting harder for new graduates from art and music schools to find a decent job.  The reasons for this downward trend have been much debated.  As you might expect when dealing with the subjective world of art, everyone seems to see the problem a little bit differently.

“The root of the problem, musicians tell me, is a plague of pirated Internet downloads and a spreading anti-intellectual climate in the U.S. music world, especially among the young,” read one article by the American Spectator’s Michael Johnson back in 2011. “Further pressure, as if any were needed, comes from the current economic squeeze.”

Kyle MacMillan of the Denver Post argued that rather than not being cultured enough, Americans might now be a bit too cultured – as in too many cultures.  “The classical world’s formerly unrivaled dominance of the top end of the musical spectrum is being increasingly challenged by scores of popular world artists, who are introducing Western audiences to the classical music of a multiple of international cultures. In addition, a sophisticated brand of indie rock has caught on with its own intricate orchestrations and complex harmonies — all of it available as MP3 downloads.”

More than a decade ago, The Guardian’s Stephen Johnson claimed, “Modern wage-slaves would rather sample the sanitised reliability of the domestic music-centre. There we can compile our own concerts, based on blemish-free commercial recordings, and all in the comfort of our own homes – no schlepping through town on crammed tubes or congested roads; and best of all, no rubbing shoulders with our fellow-citizens.”

Writer David A. Smith begged to disagree in a recent article in the Waco Tribune titled “Misreading the declining audience problem”.  “It’s not…the experience of attending an orchestra concert that needs modification, as if encouraging patrons to cheer and whistle between the movements of a symphony is all that’s needed for sell-outs,” he insisted. “Rather, it’s the public attitude toward orchestral music that needs to be cultivated. The decline comes not from the formalities of the concert hall experience, but from the erosion of the idea that classical music is worth knowing. People don’t come because they don’t care.”

I could go on and on quoting people like this, but it would simply take up a lot of space without getting us any closer to the point I want to make.  What is my point?  Simply this: Classical music is not dying – it is simply evolving.

What exactly is “classical” music?  Essentially, it is instrumental or acoustic music that adheres to certain typical Western forms, though even that definition leaves something to be desired.  Back in the 1700s, for example, people would not have referred to an orchestral performance as “classical”.  It was the “popular” music of their day.  Without the benefit of amplified instruments and modern recording devices, their best chance to hear great music was to go to the concert hall.

Similarly, the term “opera” tends to be used today to talk about a combined vocal and orchestral performance in which a story is acted out with classically trained vocalists, usually singing passionately in a foreign language.  What would you call it if the singing was less flowery and the words were in English?  You would call it a musical.  Operas were Europe’s musicals of yesteryear.

We are not suffering from a dearth of great composers, gifted instrumentalists, or even an audience ready to soak in orchestral glory.  However, we do live in a world in which the auditory approach is no longer sufficient.  We live in a world that craves multi-sensory experiences.  For all of history, musicians have been following the money by adapting their works to suit the tastes of their patrons.  Where can they find fame and fortune today?  They can find it in the movies.

When people 300 years from now look back on our culture like we currently look back on the 1700s, they will certainly give a few glances to the world of “classical” music in the classical sense.  But if they really want to know the kind of instrumental tunes that get us excited, prompt us to download tracks, and cause us to hum the themes, they will need to pay attention to film composers.

The London Symphony Orchestra performing at the Barbican Centre in London.  Photo by Wikipedia user FA2010

The London Symphony Orchestra performing at the Barbican Centre in London. Photo by Wikipedia user FA2010

One of the best orchestras anywhere in the world is the London Symphony Orchestra.  I had the chance to hear them perform live at the Barbican Centre a few years ago, and it was a real treat.  However, their most famous recording is not Beethoven’s Ninth, Mahler’s Fifth, or Tchaikovsky’s Second.  The one that we all know and love is Star Wars.  Back in 2005, the American Film Institute declared John Williams’ score for the original Star Wars film (eventually referred to as “A New Hope”) to be the greatest American film score of all time.  It was performed by the LSO.

I must confess my absolute enthusiasm for film scores.  My love is not based on academic study, but rather the experience of going to the movies and seeing how an excellent score enhances the story telling and involves the emotions in a way that is otherwise impossible. While some scores certainly fail to accomplish this feat, the ones that do are highly memorable.

For a composer, the advantage of writing music for films is not only the sizable paychecks enjoyed by the top talents, but also the opportunity to gain literally millions of listeners.  The number of people around the world who regularly go to the movies surely dwarves the number who regularly go to classical music concerts.  While people may or may not find classical music to be boring, there are few people who find movies to be boring…at least the good ones.

One of the greatest composers of film music today is Hans Zimmer, a native of Germany who sets the tone for many of America’s biggest blockbusters.  His career took off when he composed the amazing score for The Lion King, a box office hit that also won him an Oscar.  His resume is a veritable “who’s who” of memorable scores: The Prince of Egypt, Gladiator, the Pirates of the Caribbean series, and the Dark Knight trilogy.  This past summer, he had both Man of Steel and The Lone Ranger for his big budget fare.  This fall, he has critical darlings and likely Oscar contenders in Rush and the yet-to-be-released 12 Years a Slave.  He may not be Mozart, but Hans Zimmer is going to be remembered.

Film composer Alexandre Desplat as photographed in 2009 by Arelien van Welden.  Photo by Flickr user Le P'tit Zouave - LPZ Digital Media

Film composer Alexandre Desplat as photographed in 2009 by Arelien van Welden. Photo by Flickr user Le P’tit Zouave – LPZ Digital Media

In recent years, Academy members have made it their mission to shower the French composer Alexandre Desplat with Oscar nominations, and it’s easy to see why.  He has received nominations for The Queen, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The King’s Speech, and most recently Argo.  While I did find the last one on that list to be a bit too formulaic, it’s still an impressive list.

Desplat has also composed some scores that I loved even though they did not get the same attention from the Academy.  The themes from Girl with a Pearl Earring still pop into my head a decade after its release.  Last year’s Moonrise Kingdom was more atypical but certainly a delight, and his scores for the final two Harry Potter films did a great job of capturing the emotions in that intensely popular series.

Recently, I watched two films that both had the same composer and were also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards: The Lives of Others and A Royal Affair.  In both cases, I found the score to be profoundly moving.  They are the work of Gabriel Yared, a Lebanese native who originally rose to prominence writing scores for the late director Anthony Minghella.  Three of his collaborations with Minghella – The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Cold Mountain – earned him Oscar nominations.

Philip Glass, shown in this picture at a 2008 performance in Milan, has achieved success in both the classical and film worlds.  Photo by Flickr user MITO SettembreMusica

Philip Glass, shown in this picture at a 2008 performance in Milan, has achieved success in both the classical and film worlds. Photo by Flickr user MITO SettembreMusica

The importance of film music has also been demonstrated in the way that prominent musicians in the classical world have made forays into the movie business.  Chinese composer Tan Dun’s score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a true work of art, while American composer Philip Glass has also left his mark on the film business.  By far my favorite Philip Glass score is for The Hours, which is unsurprisingly quite heavy on piano.

Prominent violinist Joshua Bell can be heard in The Red Violin and Angels & Demons.  Yo-Yo Ma plays the moving cello solos in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Memoirs of a Geisha.  Itzak Perlman’s melancholy violin is at the heart of Schindler’s List.  World-renowned pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s film performances include Pride & Prejudice (the 2005 version) and Atonement, while the equally famous (if not more so) pianist Lang Lang is featured in The Painted Veil.

I could go on and talk about how much I love Dario Marianelli’s collaborations with director Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, and Anna Karenina) as well as his work on V for Vendetta.  I could tell you how some of Clint Mansell’s work in The Fountain is enough to draw tears, and Craig Armstrong and A.R. Rahman’s music is what truly makes Elizabeth: The Golden Age worth watching.  I could even drone on about how much I am looking forward to Howard Shore’s next Hobbit score, his fifth trip into Middle Earth.  However, I think it would be best if I switched into wrap-up mode before I lose all my readers.

Part of what makes film scores seem so much more interesting – besides the fact that they are accompanied by moving images – is that they are so obviously telling a story.  Storytelling leads to the development of prominent themes, a nice variety of tempos, and the kind of melodic nature that appeals to audiences.  When you think about it, the best pieces of classical music are very similar.  Many of them were based on stories – either ones that were already well-known or ones that the composer set out to tell.

Fear not, lovers of orchestral music!  For as long as there are films, your music is not going anywhere.  As television programs continue to have greater budgets and production quality, there will be growing opportunities for prominent composers there.  Many composers are also doing good work for video games, one of the highest grossing forms of entertainment out there today.

I cannot guarantee you that audiences will always be willing to sit through Wagner’s “Ring Cycle”, but I can assure you that there will always be a place for resounding horns, frantic violins, and pounding percussion.  It just happens to be that that place is increasingly at the movies.