Max Steiner

Max Steiner: The RKO Years

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Max Steiner's importance in film music is undisputed -- he basically created the orchestral film score as we know it while at RKO in the first half of the 1930s, and with his younger contemporary Alfred Newman at Goldwyn and later at Fox, gave music a significant role in talking pictures, opening the way for figures such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Miklós Rózsa, and Bernard Herrmann to find their respective places in Hollywood. But Steiner's contribution and early significance has usually been defined in terms of one RKO movie, King Kong (1933) -- it is true that Kong was immensely significant in every aspect of its production, including its music (especially to the ticket-buying public), but listening to this wonderful, triple-CD set, Max Steiner: The RKO Years, one realizes just how limited Steiner's importance to that single movie is no more reasonable than trying to define the Beatles' importance in rock music to one LP, or Beethoven's significance to the Fifth Symphony or the Emperor Concerto. The Film Music Archive at Brigham Young University, which has been preserving and restoring the movie music masters from the Warner Bros. and RKO libraries, has gathered together the surviving acetate recordings of the music from 11 movies that Steiner scored at RKO on this set. The first half of the first disc reveals that there was material before Kong that anticipated elements of its scoring; and similarly, the rest of the set shows that there was scoring after Kong that built on what Steiner had achieved there with his enveloping, nearly hour-long body of music, and carried to new levels of sophistication. And just to give credit where it is due, it was RKO's chief of production, David O. Selznick, who insisted in the early days (in 1931 and 1932, when no one was composing music for movies), that Steiner write the scores for those early films. The music here is all intended to underscore action, mood, or thematic elements of the script, and Steiner brings a surprising degree of elegance to the writing from the very start, with the landmark drama Symphony of Six Million -- even today, his music underscoring this drama of tradition versus ambition in the Jewish ghettos of urban America resonates, perhaps better than the drama itself, with hauntingly beautiful string passages and interesting attempts at development within the confines of the script and the visuals; audiences in 1932 were reportedly astonished (and, after some confusion, delighted) by the presence of music in the non-musical film, and the sheer amount of music there. Even seven decades later one can enjoy the score itself. His work for Bird of Paradise is steeped in an unusual exoticism rather than based on the leitmotifs that comprised the structure of most of his major scores -- Steiner shows a high quotient for memorable musical passages in all of the work here, but especially in the generational melodrama Sweepings (1933) and the Broadway-derived Morning Glory. One may take these attributes for granted, but in the early 1930s, with orchestral scores a brand new element of filmgoing in the talkie era, the rich, sonorous string writing and the elegant harp and percussion ornamentation in Morning Glory made those movies a special experience to audiences, and hearing the music standing alone today, it's easy to understand the degree to which -- even allowing for the relatively primitive recording and playback equipment of the period -- Steiner understood how to write music for the maximum impact on audiences without distracting them from the film itself. The lyricism of his music for Of Human Bondage is still startling today, but it also possesses what became known as the Steiner trademarks for establishing setting, a quotation from "La Marseillaise" to place us in France, and an automobile horn to put us on a Parisian street. Disc Two presents Steiner working in period settings, in Little Women and The Little Minister, the latter with a distinctly Scottish flavor while the former's scoring evokes Civil War-era New England. The full scores, represented by 30 minutes each of music, are augmented with a pair of outtakes, one an unused song intended for Katharine Hepburn to sing in The Little Minister, and the other an early version of one of the Little Women cues. The third disc is devoted to two Steiner scores, from The Lost Patrol and The Informer, both films directed by John Ford -- by this time, he had achieved a level of sophistication that, in addition to devising rich underscores to the movies, allowed him to write music that could stand on its own; The Informer is the more clever (as well as, understandably, the darker) of the two bodies of music, with some brilliant musical inversions, among other conceits, in its structure of leitmotifs. Only the early material on the first disc shows any serious technical flaws, and none of that is sufficient to mar the listening experience; the time we get to the second disc, the deficiencies have faded and the listening experience is unimpeded, and by the third disc, the quality is excellent for the period of recording involved. Additionally, because the sources for most of the material here are original acetates prepared by the composer, we get to hear the uncut versions of many themes that were later trimmed or removed entirely during editing of the film itself, which reveals a great deal about the final creative decisions made in assembling the finished prints of the movies. The annotation is extremely thorough, and there are enough surprises in here to keep even the casual fan of the genre busy enjoying the revelations contained within.

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