Arts & Culture | Film Composers | Contemporary | Classical

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) is said to have written the first film score with L’assassinat du duc de Guise (‘The Assassination of the Duke of Guise’, c. 1908). Many composers in the US and Europe followed suit, although few wished to make a career in films. A famous exception was Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957), whose scores include the Academy Award-winning The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Other American composers to write for film include Copland, whose score for The Heiress (1949) won an Academy Award, and Thomson, winner of the first Pulitzer Prize for film music, for Louisiana Story (1948). Film scores by British composers that contributed memorably to the success of films include Henry V (1945) by Walton, Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) by Malcolm Arnold (1921–2006) and Arthur Bliss’s (1891–1975) Things to Come (1936).

Since the 1950s the field of film music has been dominated by specialist composers such as Georges Delerue and Maurice Jarre in France, Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone in Italy, John Barry in Britain, and Elmer Bernstein and John T. Williams in the US. Still, art music composers continue to fulfil important screen commissions, notably Michael Nyman (The Piano, 1992; The Diary of Anne Frank, 1995) and Philip Glass (Kundun, 1997; The Truman Show, 1998; The Hours, 2002).

Pre-composed music has also been used in films, sometimes becoming more famous through its filmic associations. The director Stanley Kubrick memorably used passages from Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra and Ligeti’s Atmosphères, Lux aeterna and Requiem in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The slow movement from the Piano Concerto No. 21 by Mozart is now often called the ‘Elvira Madigan’ after its popularity in the Swedish director Bo Widerberg’s film of that name. The Adagietto movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 became indelibly linked in popular imagination with sequences in Death in Venice (1971), directed by Luchino Visconti. One of the most popular – and controversial – uses of pre-existing music was Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940), whose cartoon treatment of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring induced contempt from the composer. The sequel, Fantasia 2000 (1999) contains animated sequences based on, among other works, Respighi’s The Pines of Rome and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Martin Scorsese’s 2010 film Shutter Island used an extensive compilation score of contemporary music by Ligeti, Penderecki, Cage, Feldman, Scelsi, Schnittke and others.


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