April is shaping up as movie-music month, with a MOMA retro of films scored by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and a wide-ranging “Composing for Film” series at AMMI that includes a live concert by the American Composers Orchestra and a lecture by historian Royal Brown on Hitchcock and music. Concurrent with the MOMA retro, the Goethe Institute is hosting a symposium on Korngold’s music, while City Opera is reviving its production of his most famous work, Die Tote Stadt, one of the few enduring 20th-century operas.
A child prodigy who was composing at the age of seven in Vienna, Korngold arrived in Hollywood in 1934 with a shining reputation. He settled at Warner Bros., where he was given carte blanche and treated as a European master who brought the studio prestige. It was Korngold, with his genius for melody—big, brash, and beautiful tunes—who defined the language of the nascent art of film scoring and can be considered the father of the Hollywood sound. He was the first film composer to write long lines of continuous music that contained the flow of the film’s mood. For Korngold, a film script was a libretto; a movie was an opera without singing.
His first great original film score was for Michael Curtiz’s Captain Blood (1935), starring Errol Flynn as an Irish surgeon turned swashbuckling pirate. The composer’s flair for drama, for headlong rushes of sound, provided the ideal accompaniment to the actor’s athletic leaps and tumbles. For Curtiz’s rumbustious masterpiece, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), with Flynn again in the title role, Korngold created a lilting score reminiscent of a Richard Strauss tone poem. The film’s climax finds Robin and the villainous Sir Guy (Basil Rathbone) dueling to the death as they negotiate a giant staircase, while the wild, cacophonous music jabs and thrusts along with their swords.
Director, star, and composer teamed up again in 1939 for The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (its main title music conceived like an opera overture) and once more for The Sea Hawk (1940), Korngold’s last score for a historical adventure, and also one of his finest. The composer’s greatest contribution to a film set in recent times was his bold, dark-toned score for King’s Row (1942), Sam Wood’s juicy saga of life in an American small town touched by murder, madness, and sadism. Did the razzle-dazzle enchantment of Korngold’s music accomplish a miracle? This is the only movie in his long screen career in which Ronald Reagan gives a credible performance.
At AMMI, Royal Brown’s Hitchcock lecture will precede screenings of Vertigo (1958), with its swirlingly Wagnerian, intensely romantic Bernard Herrmann score, and Spellbound (1945), which Miklos Rozsa sprinkles with the eerie sounds of the theremin. David Raksin, elder statesman of American film composers (he entered movies in 1936 as an arranger of Chaplin’s music for Modern Times) will introduce Preminger’s landmark noir Laura (1944) and Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). Also on hand—and it’s the ne plus ultra of mixed blessings—is Altered States (1980), Ken Russell’s clunky head-horror opus. John Corigliano’s aggressive, edgy, and offbeat music is superb (simply the best score written by a debuting film composer during the ’80s), but at the service of a terminally foolish flick.