Romantic Music: Dead or Alive?
by Jeff Britting



From the music establishment’s point of view—musical directors, managers and critics—concert halls and opera houses are nothing more than museums. Large and well funded, they are viewed by the establishment as mere galleries of music history. And in a certain way they are right. Occasional early-music festivals and twentieth-century programs aside, the core musical offerings of concert and opera music remain those of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The reason for this, however, is that the public does not view such programming as historical. Music brochures, catalogues, and recording sales consist overwhelmingly of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century music, proving that concertgoers are attending—happily and repeatedly—performances of music which to them is still relevant and very contemporary in content.

It is now forty years since the death of Sibelius, the last major composer of the preceding century—and ninety years since the “official death” of the Romantic style. Yet despite the musical events of 1910 Vienna, with the introduction of free atonality, modernism’s impact upon today’s audiences is inaudible. New Music has failed. Romantic music remains the top favorite of opera and concert goers. Ironically, this same popular and enduring style (one the broader public terms “classical”) is no longer written for them. Unrelenting critical hostility from within the academy has driven Romanticism away from serious consideration. Today it survives only within the venue of musicologists, who are in effect curators of the Romantic museum, or on the fringe among those who compose in wistful privacy. There are no new young Romantic composers being trained at Berkeley and Julliard; in these environments, students declaring such intentions are quietly if not literally shown the door. This overall lack of acknowledgment is doubly ironic because the Romantic style is still being practiced elsewhere, even though we don’t hear about it from critics. And its relevance is worth noting in the “living artist” sense of the word contemporary as well.

Today, the last venue for new original Romantic music is the medium of film. In the glare of Hollywood, continents away from the desert of academia, is a group of composers without a manifesto, who write in critical silence yet reach millions of appreciative listeners. Their work is considered beneath art, their names are largely unknown, and with rare exceptions, they offer no explicit defense or philosophical perspective on their work. But because of the inherent strengths of the Romantic style—emotional range, drama, melodic depth, and intellectual seriousness—the style and its practitioners remain successful.

The chief reason Romantic music can persist and even thrive in today’s context is the fact of storytelling. Film making quite literally is a child of nineteenth-century literature. And film music has followed more or less in step with the progress (and demise) of these two arts. Whether narrative or documentary, film utilizes dramatic development, conflict and resolution. When music rises to the level of a successful Romantic film, and vice versa, the result is not only a seamlessly integrated work of art but also a score that frequently can stand alone and be appreciated for its own Romantic quality. [Editor’s note: for more on musical ”plot” and its relation to literature, see “Thoughts on Musical Characterization,” in ART Ideas, Volume Five, Number One, 1998.]

In the West, music has accompanied dramatic presentations since the time of the ancient Greeks and has faithfully followed the major literary movements throughout history. At the height of Western drama in the Romantic nineteenth century, music was not only integral to opera and ballet but also a feature of non-musical theater as well. On stage, music opened and closed scenes and underscored action and dialogue. Such devices reached a high point in productions of Schiller and Ibsen, whose incidental music survives today in the form of concert suites. Then in fewer than twenty years, during the twilight of Romanticism, the first experiments with “moving” pictures began, and music all but passed out of dramatic plays and moved into the new medium.

At first, music performed more of a cosmetic than aesthetic purpose; it masked the noise of early silent projection equipment. But as time went on and film became increasingly narrative, music became a presence on the set, assisting actors and directors in rehearsal and during actual filming. By the late 1910s and early 1920s, particularly after D. W. Griffith, film makers discovered the interpretive powers of music and frequently commissioned complete scores. This created a new venue for composers, which was both a continuation of Wagner’s music drama and the serious melodrama (straight plays with music) of the preceding decades. After the advent of sound, advancing recording technologies and synchronization continued to make possible both musical contributions of increasing length and expressive depth.

Overall, as a vehicle for Romantic-oriented composers, film encouraged the evolution of a compositional style over time, but one which remains within the framework of Wagner, Brahms and Debussy. Unfortunately, there is little opportunity for extensive stylistic or thematic development within a picture itself or from picture to picture. Here the limitation is the medium: the kinetic pace of a series of different shots cut together interrupts the flow normally found in a concert piece or a music drama. This, incidentally, is one of the reasons why twentieth-century pointillistic techniques are particularly effective in certain underscoring situations, sometimes superior to long melodic lines. And much to the horror of the cognoscenti, film music is virtually the only forum in which the music of Stravinsky and Schoenberg has found a mass audience, well suited as they are in suggesting a kind of lumbering brutality or nightmare panic.

Technically, the challenge to the film composer is to underscore and suggest an emotional subtext, whatever it may be, rather than striking false or melodramatic notes out of balance with the action. The music must be adapted to the film; it must be functional, and only secondarily can it be considered as art in its own right. However, the element of greatest interest to listeners and the most intriguing possibility in film composition is what composers refer to as “the big tune.” Certain films allow and even demand the use of long, very defined musical lines. Outside of educational and popular music, there is virtually no other forum for composers to present this kind of melody. In serious concert settings and as absolute music, it would not be permitted unless it was in the form of deliberate pastiche or “camp.” However, concert suites of film music, often to the accompaniment of actual film footage, are heard with increasing frequency. Such arrangements tend to be from pictures with a grand scale sense of the heroic or the tragic—further evidence of Romanticism’s ongoing appeal.

Three practical recommendations will make it easier to find “big tunes” and other exceptional composition in film scores: First and foremost, the film’s subject matter. A romantic film like “The Miracle Worker” is conjoined to an equally romantic score by Laurence Rosenthal. One could create a list of films by subject and then review these scores for promising work. Second, seeking out particularly strong composer-director collaborations. In most cases music is the last component of a film to be completed and approved, often in weeks or days before its release. Films that include the composer from the beginning are likely to achieve a level of integration and musical inventiveness normally not possible under the agonizing deadlines of commercial features. An example of this working relationship is composer Alfred Newman and director John Ford in “How Green Was My Valley.” Another approach is the composer-driven score, that is to say music of such distinctiveness as to be worth listening to in its own right. Composers in this category include, above all others, Bernard Herrmann—especially in “Vertigo” and “North by Northwest”—as well as Nino Rota for “The Godfather” and Jerry Goldsmith for “Star Trek—The Motion Picture.”

Finally, a film listener might seek out older names in the Romantic European tradition: concert hall composers like Saint-Saens and Gottschalk who wrote early film music, or Wolfgang Korngold who began in opera and later succeeded in Hollywood, or Miklos Rosa, another composer of distinction spanning musical worlds.

Despite the academic blockade, Romantic music continues to be available outside the concert-hall-museum, though regrettably, like its current practitioners, the future of such music is unknown. Despite its enormous popularity, unless a voice is raised in its defense, the Romantic style may well fade from film in the same way it disappeared from live performances. On the other hand, with a return to the philosophy that made Romanticism possible in the first place, the musical establishment might one day rediscover emotional range, drama, melodic depth, and intellectual seriousness—values readily available to us all over popcorn at the Saturday matinee.

Jeff Britting’s has composed incidental music for eleven stage plays as well as the score for the Oscar-nominated documentary, “Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life,” a project on which he also served as Associate Producer. He is currently Archivist for the Ayn Rand Institute and the author of Ayn Rand, a biography.

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