High Score

Who’s the greatest film composer of all time?

We all know that trying to decide who’s “the best” in matters of the arts, and especially who’s best in the art of music, is a bad idea. But let’s be bad. Let’s do it: Here’s my nomination for best film composer of all time.

A little background. It’s been said that to be a true film composer, you have to be a master of every style but your own. There’s some truth in that, as rampant eclecticism is the rule. But in fact one style dominated movies for a long time: Max Steiner’s faux-primitive ooga-booga music for the 1933 King Kong was the first full film score of the talkie era, and it set a number of precedents. Steiner was a Viennese who could emit late-19th-century music, redolent of Strauss and Mahler, by the kilo. Outside Skull Island, that plush orchestral sound would dominate film scores for the following decades: the Austro-German-Hollywood grand style epitomized by Steiner and another Austrian, Erich Wolfgang Korngold. (In recent years, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and others have returned, or regressed, to that approach, as channeled by John Williamsin Jurassic Park, Star Wars, and so on.) Second, Steiner’s King Kong score established the idea of wall-to-wall music behind films—his Gone With the Wind score shuts up for only about 20 minutes of the movie. Third, he popularized the kind of obsessive musical mimesis called “Mickey Mousing.” When a horse jumps over a fence in Gone With the Wind, Steiner’s harp glissando follows her up and over.

Steiner scored hundreds of movies, but not everybody adored him. When Bette Davis was filming the scene in Dark Victory (1939) where she climbs the stairs in the middle of going blind, she stopped halfway up and came down to demand of the director: “Is Steiner doing the music for this?” The director admitted Steiner was. “Then I’m not going up those stairs,” Davis said. “If Max is doing the movie it’ll be me and him both going up the stairs, and it’ll wreck my scene.” The director promised Davis no music. In the end, though, Steiner did score the scene and, inevitably, mucked it up.

Then and now, producers and directors spoke a different language than musicians. What does a composer do with a direction like, “Write something hopeful, but with a sad undertone and a little sexy.” You nod, do what you want, and hope for the best. When William Wyler heard one of Aaron Copland’s cues for The Heiress, he said, “No, Aaron, it’s all wrong. What I want for this scene is a nice lesbian tune.” Nice lesbian tune, thought Copland. What he did was to go home and stick a few funny notes into the same tune, then bring it back to Wyler, who cried: “That’s it exactly! A lesbian tune!” (Copland won an Oscar for The Heiress. I once asked him what he thought about writing for film. “It pays really well,” was all he had to say.)

A lot of people will declare, as I would have at one time, that the greatest film composer of all, hands-down, is Bernard Herrmann. His résumé starts spectacularly with Citizen Kane in 1939, and he died virtually in the saddle in 1976, hours after the last recording session for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. En route, Herrmann scored Hitchcock films including Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho. Herrmann’s most famous moment is also, I submit, the quintessential movie-music cue: the shower scene in Psycho. It’s one of those bits (the shark music in Jaws is another) that you only need to “sing,” or rather, howl—as in Reeeek! Reeeek! Reeeek!—to conjure up the whole bloody affair. Psycho is as much state of mind as movie, and the shower scene embodies that. The music is utterly expressive of the action: The string glissandi make a nasty slicing sound that equally suggests female screams and the shrieks of predatory birds (recall Norman’s little taxidermic hobby). Above all, the cue is perfect because it’s nearly invisible, so imbedded in the moment that I suspect a lot of people don’t realize there’s “music” in the scene at all.

Herrmann did a row of classic movies and pioneered modern film-scoring, but he’s no longer my nominee for greatest of all. My new champion is a composer who’s scored nearly 100 films, from thriller to arty, who had an encyclopedic command of style as well as a singular voice of his own, and who is numbered in the highest rank of modern concert-hall composers—something many film composers aspired to but only one achieved: Toru Takemitsu.

Takemitsu was an amazing figure: a first-rate straight composer, detective novelist, and fanatic of film and pop music. (“My teachers,” he said, “are Duke Ellington and nature.”) Despite his success in the concert hall, he’s not properly recognized in the United States for his movie work simply because many of his movies never made it here. But there’s enough that can be found in your video store to show what he could do, including Woman in the Dunes and, near the end of his life, Akira Kurosawa’s Ran.

In terms of imagination and musical technique, Takemitsu simply had chops beyond Herrmann or anybody else. And if you want to talk about style: Woman in the Dunes has unearthly music close to his concert-hall voice; Rikyu, about a tea-ceremony master, uses short, almost inaudible washes of sound alternating with Renaissance-style viola da gamba music that Takemitsu imitated dead-on. When I first heard the wonderfully cheesy, neo-Burt Bacharach title tune for Kurosawa’s Dod’es-kaden, I thought, Takemitsu can’t possibly have written this. But he did, and it shows in the scoring: Phrase by phrase, the saccharine little tune is rendered into something new and surprising, starting with marimba and ending with Bach trumpet and recorder. That title tune is the movie: A story about a retarded kid living in a junkyard, which could have been dark and maudlin but is made with a light touch. Takemitsu’s sweet-sad tune tells us that from the start.

For the epic battle sequence of Ran, Kurosawa’s version of King Lear, the director told Takemitsu he wanted something like Mahler. What Takemitsu gave him is and isn’t Mahler. It has a big orchestral sound spread over wide spaces and a Mahleresque sense of doom, but the music is modern, keening with tragedy and horror, utterly unclichéd, as indelibly wedded to the images as the shower scene in Psycho. Together, the music and visuals make the battle in Ran, I propose, one of the most eloquent sequences in all of film.

As he lay dying, Takemitsu lamented that he’d been too sick to go to the movies. In his prime he went several times a week, and he had the means to turn that obsession into something marvelous in an art too little celebrated—and let’s face it, much of the time not all that worth celebrating. The ultimate test of Takemitsu’s talent is that, like some of Herrmann’s, his film scores can work splendidly on their own. Listen to the waltz from The Face of Another. You’ve probably never heard of the movie, you’d certainly never guess who wrote it, but it sweeps you off your feet.

Addendum, Oct. 18: A helpful reader points out that the waltz from The Face of Another and other film music by Takemitsu can be found on a 1997 Nonesuch compilation, The Film Music of Toru Takemitsu, conducted by John Adams.