You Heard it in the Movies: Great Film Music I

Millions of people who might never set foot in a classical concert hall thrill to the symphonic sound of film scores that often comprise entirely of classical orchestral styles and techniques. If anyone tells you classical music is dead in the 21st century, all it means is that they don’t go to the cinema.

To be sure, a wide gulf still exists between classical (“serious”) music and film soundtracks. Few classical composers write film scores, and many viewed it with condescension as something only good enough for paying the bills. To me, this is a shallow view of musical creativity. Some of the best purely orchestral music from the past half-century were written for film: the scary power of Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo and Psycho or Miklos Rozsa’s Spellbound, the haunting melancholy of Ennio Morricone’s The Mission, Nino Rota’s theme for The Godfather, Gabriel Yared’s score for The English Patient, the expansive drama of John Barry’s Goldfinger, Maurice Jarre’s score for Lawrence of Arabia, or Hans Zimmer and Lisa Bourke’s Gladiator, the sweeping adventure of Dmitri Tiomkin’s High Noon or Danny Elfman’s Batman, the sensuality of Jerry Goldsmith’s Chinatown or Thomas Newman’s American Beauty, or the heart-breaking grace of Dario Marianelli’s Atonement and John William’s Schindler’s List, San Bao’s soulful The Road Home (theme for Zhang Yimou’s film of the same name), Kitaro’s epic-sounding theme for The Soong Sisters or the heart-rending “Yumeji’s theme” for In the Mood for Love, composed by Shigeru Umebayashi.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Many of us will be able to instantly to recall the mood and themes of these scores in your minds. They are part of a shared cultural inheritance. Of how many classical works since the Second World War is it possible to make that statement?

I will be sharing a few posts on great film music. Here are three soundtracks for starters.

In the Mood for Love (2000)

In the Mood for Love is a 2000 Hong Kong romantic drama film written, produced, and directed by Wong Kar-Wai. Its original Chinese title means “Flowery Years” and it tells the story of a man (played by Tony Leung) and a woman (Maggie Cheung) whose spouses have an affair together and who slowly develop feelings for each other. Shigeru Umebayashi (b. 1951) composed the film’s wistful soundtrack.

The Soong Sisters (1997)

The Soong Sisters is a 1997 Hong Kong historical drama film based on the lives of the Soong sisters from 1911 to 1949. The three sisters married the most important historical figures related to the founding of the Republic of China – Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek and K’ung Hsiang-Hsi, making their family the focal point of every major decision made in modern Chinese history. Directed by Mabel Cheung, the film starred Maggie Cheung, Michelle Yeoh and Vivian Wu as the sisters. The score was written by Kitaro.

The Mission (1986)

The Mission is a 1986 British period drama film about the experiences of a Jesuit missionary in 18th-century South America. Directed by Roland Joffé and written by Robert Bolt, the film stars Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Ray McAnally, Aidan Quinn, Cherie Lunghi, and Liam Neeson. It won the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or and the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. In April 2007. The soundtrack, scored by the late Italian composer, Ennio Morricone, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1986 and won the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score and the BAFTA Award for Best Music. It was selected as the 23rd best film score in American Cinema in the American Film Institute’s 100 Years of Film Scores. Here’s the signature theme song, Gabriel’s Oboe, played by the renowned cellist, Yo-Yo Ma.

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