Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Are Film Scores Contemporary High-Art Music?

Thank you to so many readers for their thoughtful and interesting comments in response to my article about the relevance of high-art music (“classical music”) in the modern age, here. I would like reply to some of the points they made here, by way of continuing the discussion.

My assertion, if you remember, is that whatever form it takes, there will be no high-art music that can contribute to the evangelization of the culture, until the culture of faith and the wider contemporary culture are re-connected. And that won’t happen, I believe, until contemporary sacred music that participates in the tradition is the norm (along with the established canon from the past). My argument was that it will be modern sacred music that will drive and inspire most powerfully the creation of a culture-changing, modern high-art music, and not, or not only, the classical music of the past. I do agree, however, with those who suggested that a good education can form in people an appreciation of such music. However, I feel that education can never be the main factor in effecting such a change. The demand for such music is created, I believe, primarily by the quality of the music created. The value of such an education, therefore, is predominantly in the formation of those who will patronize and those who will compose beautiful new music. Once composed, the music will create its own market. 

Having said that, I am absolutely not arguing that we shouldn’t try all approaches. The more avenues of creativity that we explore, the greater chance we have of success. (I make the same arguments in relation to art, incidentally.) The first task, I would say, is to form the artists and patrons, which I feel is a more realistic goal, and to encourage them to work together to make the art that will create its own market through the power of its beauty.

Some made the interesting suggestion that film music might be modern high-art music. There may be a point here. The power and goodness of the music, it seems to me, will be dependent upon the nobility of end towards which the film which it accompanies is directed. If that end is in harmony with the noblest end of man, then the composer that works well will create beautiful music. That being the case, such music will be most powerfully effective when heard in the context for which it was intended, which is in conjunction with the film for which it was composed. This, then is as much an argument for the production of better movies as it is for the production of better music. To take an example these two powerfully combined: I have always loved Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. This piece was chosen to accompany a scene in the 2005 film Master and Commander in which an 18th-century British frigate rounds Cape Horn in terrifyingly stormy seas. On the wide screen, this was one of the most dramatic pieces of cinema I have ever seen. for several minutes we saw towering waves and spray from the perspective of a small wooden boat.

Now, every time I listen to this piece I imagine also stormy seas. I would say that this combination of picture and music speaks evocatively of the awesome power of a great God and Creator - our Lord, Master and Commander! It is interesting that this composition is an early 20th-century English adaptation of a melody composed originally as sacred music by the English Elizabethan composer of polyphony, Thomas Tallis. This illustrates the chain of causality that I have referred to above. The original melody is in Mode III:

And here is the full Fantasia based upon this melody written a piece of orchestral music (actually for string quartet and orchestra) by Vaughan Williams. 

The composition of music to accompany vision is a discipline, one imagines, that can in some cases channel the skills of the composer to greater heights than he otherwise might achieve. I prefer, for example, Ennio Morricone’s film music, even sacred music composed for a film such as The Mission, to his performance Mass composed in 2014.
To draw parallels with art again, when I was working as a sub-editor on the Culture section of The Sunday Times in the UK some years ago, I spoke to the art correspondent who regularly featured exhibitions of works of illustrators. One I remember was of the original drawings of Winnie the Pooh by E.H. Shepard. I spoke to the journalist about it and asked if illustration was now considered high art. He said, no, but so much art nowadays is so directionless and meaningless, that he liked to throw in illustration because he noticed the conformity to an external purpose seemed to produce, in many cases, better work and skill from the artists. He told me that he rarely stated this openly because it was not a popular opinion.
This, I think, is worth remembering. There is no such thing as music for music’s sake, just as there is no such thing, despite what we are told, as art for art’s sake. The very fact that a composer or artist decides to create something means that it must have some purpose in his mind. Beautiful music and art are so because they fulfill a noble purpose. Bad art fails to do so or fulfills a less than noble purpose. To aim to create illustrations that contribute to stories that charm children and stimulate their imaginations in a beautiful way is a noble aim!

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: