True fans know the score on cinematic composers

Writers of film music are unjustly ignored, says Jessica Duchen, ahead of a Proms celebration of their work

Imagine Psycho without the murder in the shower. Then imagine that scene without its music. Finally, try imagining any Hitchcock thriller without its score. The composer who created Hitchcock's eerie sonic atmospheres was Bernard Herrmann, whose centenary falls this year, and selections from his magnificent scores, including North by Northwest and Psycho, open tonight's celebration of film music at the Proms.

Music for the movies deserves a little time in the spotlight. Too often it is viewed as a secondary art. It is not only composers who lose out because of this, but audiences too. Film scores have frequently been regarded as unfit for concert consumption, pushed into a ghetto and left there to moulder. Yet the truth is that compositions for the cinema form a sizable chunk of the best-known and best-loved music of the 20th century.

Tonight's Prom will pay tribute to just a few such works. Laurence Olivier's 1944 film of Shakespeare's Henry V lives on, thanks in part to its music, by William Walton. James Bond would arguably be nowhere without the themes composed by John Barry. The 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express features a score by Richard Rodney Bennett that turns a luxury train journey into a terrifically catchy waltz. John Williams is pre-eminent, for superlative scores to films including Star Wars, Schindler's List and the Harry Potter series. And don't forget the Mediterranean gorgeousness of Ennio Morricone's music for Cinema Paradiso.

There is, however, a historic problem around film scores: a suggestion that to create a score primarily to serve another artform somehow detracts from the dignity and integrity of music. In the guise of "pure music" versus "programme music", this argument has been around for nearly 200 years. It is the issue that split musical Romanticism in two and it has more or less continued to divide attitudes ever since.

Music can be "pure", but this may be rarer than you would think. On the whole, composers are a practical and pragmatic bunch. Through the history of western music they have written for specific purposes or contexts including the stage, the church, teaching, learning, firework displays and eating. These days we listen reverently to 18th-century works whose composers dashed them off to accompany somebody's stately dinner.

Let's leave aside the politics of envy – often the composers and academics who scorn "film composers" have been less fortunate in terms of income and recognition than those they berate. Film music at its best is an integral part of a "total art work", as in Wagner's term, gesamtkunstwerk. For Hitchcock, Herrmann's input was precisely that. To see how crucial the music became, consider that Hitchcock himself wanted to leave the shower scene in Pyscho unscored. Herrmann insisted it must have music. The rest is history.

The mention of Wagner is no coincidence: the style recognised as typical of film music in the 1930s and 1940s, which remains influential today, grew out of the Wagnerian strand of Romanticism. It arrived in Hollywood largely thanks to the composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold. He was a child prodigy – at nine he met Mahler, who declared him a genius. Korngold built an impressive career in the concert halls and opera houses of Vienna, but emigrated to the US to escape the Nazis.

Korngold approached the movies with high ideals. He regarded his films as "operas without singing", and declared that "Music is music, whether it is for the stage, screen or rostrum". And he saw no harm in reworking his best material into concert works. Herrmann, 14 years Korngold's junior, likewise thought that ideological divisions between musical genres were ridiculous.

"I count myself an individual," he wrote. "I hate all cults, fads and circles. I believe that only music that springs out of genuine personal emotion and inspiration is alive and important."

Some critics, though, had other ideas. Herrmann wrote a great deal of concert music that has nothing whatever to do with cinema – but we hardly ever hear it. Like many of his peers, Korngold included, he was branded a "film composer" and his compositions beyond the cinema were neglected because of it.

It is high time we reassessed the outdated assumptions that still stop us from hearing so much interesting music. Writing film scores is a demanding craft and it is one that not every composer can master, but anti-cinema snobbery among musical decision-makers was so unforgiving that Herrmann's other efforts all but vanished from view.

Herrmann hated the term "film composer", pointing out that many great composers had written for film as well as the concert hall and stage – among them Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Walton. His own output included a Symphony, a Sinfonietta for Strings and a cantata of Moby-Dick. As an Anglophile New Yorker who settled in Britain, Hermann composed an opera based on Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, which for him was "an obsession". Described by one of his friends as "the bastard child of Puccini", the opera lay unstaged in Herrmann's lifetime; he recorded it at his own expense. This year, it has been performed in Minnesota. But it has never been presented in the UK. It is great to see Herrmann featured at the Proms at all in his centenary year, but it is a pity that he has been confined yet again to the "film music" ghetto.

It has taken more than 50 years for Korngold's reputation to recover from his association with Hollywood. Today, his Violin Concerto is a favourite with international soloists and his Die tote Stadt has entered the repertoire of opera houses around the world. Meanwhile, his piercing high trumpets, lyrical string melodies and upbeat marches form a direct bridge from Wagner and Mahler to John Williams. Although many classical composers turned to fundamentalist Serialism for half a century, the language of Romanticism was not entirely dead and buried. It found a new home in the cinema, and there millions of people still enjoy it.

Today, extraordinarily versatile composers are working across the board. They write operas or concert works, but might also provide music for films or for television advertisements, an industry that harnesses the power of music to cut straight to a listener's emotional response. The prolific Nico Muhly, whose Two Boys has recently been a hit at English National Opera, also wrote the score for The Reader, among other films; Joby Talbot has written film scores for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse, a full-length score for the Royal Ballet's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and a five-movement work for chamber orchestra, Tide Harmonic. And Nitin Sawhney can turn from his award-winning albums to The Human Planet for BBC TV or music for the games developer Ninja Theory.

Now that the big growth area for composers is video games, the idea that "film composers" must be scorned looks desperately dated. If we can jettison the notion once and for all, it would be not a moment too soon. Let's celebrate them at last, as top-notch creators in their own right.

Film Music Prom with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Keith Lockhart, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (0845 401 5040) tonight, 7pm

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee