I’ve recently read many articles mourning the decline of classical music in today’s society. Classical composers just don’t seem to be as highly regarded as they once were, and have lost much of their prestige among our generation (their careers are often highly competitive and, on average, very low-paying). Many question whether we’ll ever be able to truly revive the passion held by symphony-goers in years past, but I don’t think it ever actually died. I think it went to the movies. I have a theory that the Mozarts and Beethovens of our time are our film composers. These musicians posses the hefty responsibility of making an entertaining, cohesive accompaniment that blends, enhances, and accentuates the scenes of a film. At the same time, they are also creating scores that stand alone as masterful pieces of music. If you’re new to movie music, here are a few recent scores I love to get you started:
American Beauty, Thomas Newman
Track to hear: “Dead Already”
This Oscar-nominated score is perfection. It manages to capture the monotony of suburban life while simultaneously infusing it with playfulness and troublemaking. Its unconventional, minimalist style illuminates the subtleties of the character-driven story while its exotic nuances (like marimba, xylophone and detuned mandolin) keep you guessing at what’s next. This isn’t your average “Hollywood strings” movie score, so listen with an open mind.
Edward Scissorhands, Danny Elfman
Track to hear: “Main Titles”
If you’ve seen a Tim Burton movie, you’ve heard a Danny Elfman score. The eccentric and surprisingly untrained Elfman has established himself as the master of quirky, hauntingly beautiful music in Hollywood film today. And Edward Scissorhands is no exception. This score sounds like someone blended Christmas, Halloween, and angel choir warm-ups together in a studio.
The Fellowship of the Ring, Howard Shore
Track to hear: “The Breaking of the Fellowship”
This score is epic. There are so many things going on musically that I don’t even know where to start. From massive, Elvish-singing choirs to gorgeous fiddle solos to clashing cymbals and didgeridoos, Howard Shore blends an unbelievable array of motifs and influences. Shore created a theme for the trilogy that is sweeping and heroic, yet simultaneously nostalgic and hopeful. And Enya sings in it. If that’s not reassuring then I don’t know what is.
Pan’s Labyrinth, Javier Navarrete
Track to hear: “Lullaby”
As unforgettable as it is heartbreaking, this score is written entirely around one simple, haunting melody sung by a character named Mercedes. Her lullaby sweeps throughout the film, returning in the form of strings, horns, and, finally, a gorgeous violin solo. Prepare to be humming this one for a while – it’ll stick with you.
Sabrina, John Williams
Track to hear: “Theme”
This score is, in my opinion, one of John Williams’ most underrated. It is absolutely lovely. Williams’ clearly drew upon his early years as a jazz pianist to craft elegant, wonderfully romantic piano compositions that are both exhilarating and poignant. The beautiful covers of old jazz standards peppered throughout the score create a vibe reminiscent of Hollywood’s golden age. If you want to hear what falling in love sounds like, press play.
Pride & Prejudice, Dario Marianelli
Track to hear: “Mrs. Darcy”
This score sounds exactly the way the film looks, and everything about it is gorgeous. From the rolling English countryside and old estates to Keira Knightley’s ridiculously good-looking face, the music is a perfect fit. World-renowned pianist Jean Yves Thibaudet drives the score with masterful performances backed by the ever-wonderful English Chamber Orchestra. The tumultuous tale of Elizabeth and Darcy is brought to a tender close in the piece “Mrs. Darcy,” a sweeping, heartbreakingly gentle finale (warning: tears might occur).
Inception, Hans Zimmer
Track to hear: “Time”
Rising tension is the name of the game in this movie, and Hans Zimmer knows what he’s doing. His edgy, electronic score is not only a symphonic powerhouse but also an intricately crafted homage to the French singer Edith Piaf, whose song “Non, je ne Regrette Rien” was used as the “kick” out of dreams in the film. Zimmer has said that the entire score is based on two notes in the song, which he manipulated in various time signatures to craft a score. If you haven’t seen the viral fan video made about this, you absolutely should. It’s kind of impressive.
The King’s Speech, Alexandre Desplat
Track to hear: “The King’s Speech”
This score is as elegant as it is playful. It’s no surprise, coming from the uber-prolific French composer Alexandre Desplat, who seems to be unable to compose anything less than excellent work (he has been nominated for six Academy Awards for Best Score – most recently for this year’s Philomena). The score manages to be both triumphant and understated, and in many ways an homage to the regal, majestic pieces of Beethoven used at film’s finale.
The Brothers Bloom, Nathan Johnson
Track to hear: Brothers In A One Hat Town (Overture)
If you’re looking for a jazzy, quirky, unorthodox score, look no further. Nathan Johnson made it for you, in his cousin’s caper-adventure-comedy The Brothers Bloom. This is not a typical score; this is a badass, speakeasy-inspired piece of genius. Strains of ragtime, old blues, and jaunty swing can be heard throughout this charming masterpiece. I instantly feel like a cooler human being when I listen to it.
The Village, James Newton Howard
Track to hear: “The Gravel Road”
Whether you loved or hated this film, the score’s power is undeniable. Thrilling, haunting, and compelling, it stands on its own as masterpiece for Howard. And that VIOLIN. Soloist Hilary Hahn absolutely shines from her first note on, achieving a delicate, sparkling sound that only grows brighter when she quickens her pace. And some of these pieces are fast. I grew up playing violin, and I still don’t understand how someone’s fingers can move so quickly.