Movie Songs

Movie soundtracks are unspooled in NJ Symphony program

May 27, 20246 Mins Read


Remember “music appreciation”? Remember when you listened to “Carnival of the Animals” and made crayon drawings of what you heard? Remember the teacher who told you the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony were “fate knocking”?

Of course you don’t. Not unless you happen to be a baby boomer, who grew up before school boards decided such things were “frills.” Today, symphony orchestras fret about where their new audiences will come from. Mozart, Bach and Beethoven are not in the curriculum anymore — much less Ellington, Armstrong and Thelonious Monk.

Symphonic music, in an age of rock and rap, might have gone the way of the rotary phone. But for one thing. Hollywood.

And that’s why symphony orchestras, like the New Jersey Symphony with its upcoming program “Epic Scores of John Williams and More!,” have really latched on to movie music.

Where the sound lives on

“John Williams has done a really remarkable thing in keeping that orchestral sound alive,” said Erin Norton, vice-president of artistic planning for the New Jersey Symphony.

“Epic Scores of John Williams and More!,” coming Thursday and Friday May 30 and 31 to Newark’s NJPAC, with performances at Red Bank’s Count Basie Center on June 1 and New Brunswick’s State Theatre on June 2, will do more than just dish up familiar, beloved themes from “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter.”

It will also, thanks to the guest-hosting of musicologist and internet personality Brett Boles — creator of Tiktok’s The M Tea — connect the dots between the lush, romantic sound of 19th century European orchestral music, and the kind of movie scores that Williams, James Horner, and Howard Shore create for their films. And that their 1930s predecessors Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold turned into a Hollywood convention.

“This is a bit unique in the way we’re kind of tracing the progression of film music over nearly a century,” Norton said.

Conductors Xian Zhang (the symphony’s music director) and Rivero Altarriba will take turns leading the orchestra; pianist Min Kwon will join them for a selection from Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, often heard on film soundtracks. There will be no actual films projected; this is a show about sound, not sight.

“This concert provides audience members with a new lens to experience their favorite tunes from films,” she said.

Sounds of silents

Films, even silent films, always had music — if only a piano player banging out “hurry music” or “Hearts and Flowers” at the appropriate moment.

The one time they didn’t, paradoxically, is when sound arrived. The producers of the first “talkies” worried that orchestral underscoring would confuse viewers — where was the music coming from?

They needn’t have worried. Viewers understood — because they were familiar with the idea of “mood” and “theme” music from the 19th century classical repertoire. In particular, the operas of Wagner. Which is one reason his “Ride of the Valkyries” is included in the New Jersey Symphony program (also, it’s been used in a lot of movies, most famously “Apocalypse Now”).

Wagner was Hollywood before there was Hollywood. His Ring Cycle (1874) was a George Lucas extravaganza in which music, drama, acting, costumes, scenery, and spectacle were combined into a “gesamtkunstwerk” (“total art work”) designed to blow audiences away.

They’re playing our song

One of Wagner’s famous devices was the “leitmotif.” The leading motif. Or as we would say in America, “theme music.” Each character or idea — Siegfried, Brünnhilde, The Rhine — had a tune associated with it, which would come back with variations each time he, she or it appeared.

One need look no further than “Star Wars” to see how John Williams applied this principle. Yoda, Leia, The Empire each have a theme. You can hear for yourself: the concert will feature a “Star Wars” suite, and another, by the same composer, for the “Harry Potter” films.

The German ideas of underscoring lent themselves to film. But there was another reason they were embraced by Hollywood. It was because Germans themselves were embraced by Hollywood.

Korngold, Steiner, Waxman were among the Jewish composers, from Germany and Austria, who had fled the Nazis and resettled in America in the 1930s, just as the talkies were getting underway,

They brought with them all the techniques and ideas they had learned from German conservatories — plus a distinct partiality for the styles of Wagner and Richard Strauss. You can hear it in Korngold’s famous theme from “King’s Row” (1942) which is on the New Jersey Symphony program. It will remind you of the 19th century German composers who inspired it. It will also remind you of John Williams, whom it inspired.

“It points to the really rich symphonic tradition of Germany and Austria, and western music in Europe,” Norton said. “They brought that sweeping, romantic style, which really lends itself well to the silver screen. I think that’s why Hollywood latched onto that sound.”

Bigger than the movies

Music, of course, is only one component of a movie; it’s not meant to stand out. But over the years, certain scores have done just that. “Star Wars,” “Gone With the Wind,” “Jaws” without their music are inconceivable. And occasionally, there are scores that are more famous than the movie itself.

Nobody now remembers the 1934 Soviet comedy “Lieutenant Kijé.” But everyone knows Prokofiev’s “Lieutenant Kijé Suite,” a popular item on concert programs. The New Jersey Symphony will play it as part of this one.

But this program is more than just a history of film scoring. It’s also about the way film music works — to intensify and enhance the drama, to give it layers and subtexts. In a movie, the dialogue tells you what to think. But the music tells you what to feel.

Host Brett Boles will unpack all of that. It’s his forte.

“He breaks down themes from film and tells you why they play with your emotions,” Norton said. “He shows you why certain musical themes and melodies make you feel the way you do. He looks at themes note by note, and tells you what lies hidden underneath. It’s really kind of an amazing skill.”


“Epic Scores of John Williams and More!” presented by the New Jersey Symphony. 1:30 p.m. May 30 and 8 p.m. May 31, Prudential Hall, New Jersey Performing Arts Center, 1 Center Street, Newark. 8 p.m. June 1, Count Basie Center for the Arts, 99 Monmouth Street, Red Bank. 3 p.m. June 2, State Theatre, New Brunswick, 15 Livingston Avenue. $25 and up.

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