Saturday, January 25, 2014

Movie Music Musings: Classic Film Scores

Charles Gerhardt at work.
A few readers asked me about the best way to start exploring film music. I think the best place to start is to search for scores to films you enjoy, or scores for films where the music stood out (in a positive way). After you have a couple you enjoy, seek out further film scores from those composers and begin the fun hobby of collecting film music.

Alternatively you can check out my Favorite Composer blogs. I tried to recommend an album or two to start with for each of these composers. Of course you can always shoot me an email if you want recommendations for any composers I didn't mention. I'm not claiming to be the best resource, but I have a few friends who are very knowledgable about certain composers and could give me a hand with recommendations.

I was specifically asked about the best way to start collecting scores from classic films. What is funny that until around the late 1990s or so, films scores were such a niche market that many classic films scores were just not available. Things have changed a great deal, with special editions of scores for classic movies now appearing every week. But prior to that, the only way to get some of those classic work was to pick up compilation albums that were essentially rerecorded highlights from films like King Kong, Vertigo, The Sea Hawk  or The Magnificent Seven. What is great about these compilation albums is the sound quality on many of them is superior to the source recording. If the crew compiling and performing the rerecording is up to snuff, you can have a compilation that is a joy to listen to and may even surpass the complete album presentation.

So that brings us to the Classic Film Scores collection conducted by Charles Gerhardt. Gerhardt helped prepare suites from many classic films and recorded them from 1972 to 1978, spanning fourteen albums. He selected a particular composer, a film or maybe an actor or actress and based the album around that element as a theme. 

While I wouldn't call these a "greatest hits", they do offer some great music. Some of the albums contain some of the most famous films ever made. The album for Max Steiner contains a suite for King Kong, and the Bernard Herrmann album features music from Citizen Kane. His album for Gone with the Wind is a collection of wonderful suites of Max Steiner's score covering many of the highlights from the film. In other cases Gerhardt avoided the obvious selections for a composer, finding lesser known films but ones with great music. A perfect example is his album for Miklos Rozsa which doesn't include any of his music for his historical epics like Ben Hur or El Cid, but does contain music from The Red House, The Jungle Book and The Four Feathers.

In 2010 the Classic Film Scores collection was rereleased and made available as a download on Amazon for the first time. These compilations are a great way to explore some of the best composers of the golden age of film music, and hear some of these scores in excellent audio quality.  

Being a fan of Bernard Herrman, I highly recommend Citizen Kane: The Classic Film Scores of Bernard Herrman. While "Kane" is the featured score, I find it the least interesting of the album (but still very good, especially the aria from Salammbo). Instead the opening track from On Dangerous Ground is a wonderful breakneck action cue. The suites for Beneath 12 Mile Reef and White Witch Doctor are a lot of fun and remind me of his adventure scores for the Harryhausen films. The concerto from Hangover Square is an amazing piece of modern music, so different from the rest of the work on the album, and yet distinctly Herrmann. 

But you can't go wrong with any of these albums, so head over to Amazon and give the samples a listen. You might find some new old music that strikes your fancy.


  1. I was unaware of those compilation albums, I will have to check them out. I don't collect a lot of soundtracks as I have too many other taste in music and you can't have everything. Enjoyed the post on Tron, and I do have that soundtrack & movie. I enjoy most of Wendy Carlos output including his early Switched on Bach album.

    1. The funny thing about these compilations is that I've had the "Gone with the Wind" one for a few years, and just assumed it was a restored version of the original score. It sounds "that" good. Gerhardt does a great job matching the tempo and feel of many of the scores. It's a great place to start getting a taste for these classic scores.

      Whoo Hoo, another fan of the soundtrack to "Tron". That score is definitely for all tastes, but I really enjoy it.

  2. I also was unaware of these rerecordings. I'll have to peruse the offings.

    1. Well worth it checking out. The pieces Gerhardt selected are all solid, and the order they are put on the album makes them a great listening experience. I picked up the Rozsa one a couple weeks ago and I keep going back to it. A great listen from beginning to end.