Brief Comments on (Some of)
My Favorite 20th Century Composers

by Roger E. Bissell


[These remarks are based on impressions, rather than intense study, of the composers mentioned. I am primarily spilling my guts, rather than trying oh-so-carefully to remain consistent with the (a)esthetic canon that Ayn Rand has laid down.]

1. Dimitri Shostakovich--I'm hot and cold on Shostakovich's music, but not on his excellence and creativity as a composer. One of the most fun pieces I've ever performed in a concert band setting is his "Festive Overture," which I think should be used for the sound track of the running of the John Galt Line (if they ever do finish the Atlas Shrugged mini-series). Listen to it--and even if you disagree or have a better suggestion, I'm sure you will see why it inspired me to connect it with Dagny's and Hank's stunning triumph. But an example more in the context of comparison to Beethoven and Brahms is Shostakovich's 5th Symphony--not just the rightly famous Finale movement, a massively triumphal piece in its own right, but all four movements. The symphony is strongly unified thematically and presents a wide range of motivically linked moods. The best way to see (hear) this, especially if you are a relative novice, is to listen to the Finale movement first, focusing on the melodic themes, then listen to the four movements in order from the beginning. The themes being most "accessible" and coherent in the Finale movement, they will then stay more firmly in your mind and help you to knit the four movements together as you listen. If you like the Finale movement, hell, listen to it twice before hearing the Symphony as a whole. But in any case, be forewarned: the music is very intense and you may be somewhat uncomfortable listening to the first three movements. As for which recording: the only one I have is the old one by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. If someone else knows of a clearly better one, please let me know! Beyond these two pieces, I personally am somewhat familiar with his piano preludes, as performed by Keith Jarrett. They're not as pretty as Rachmaninoff's, but they're very interesting and tug at you in much the same way as his symphonies--but on a smaller canvas, of course.

2. Igor Stravinsky--He is one of the 20th century composers who is widely recognized as great, even while people often experience discomfort at listening to him music. While I find this to be true of some of my experience of his works, I want to offer a couple of more positive notes on him. First, I think the "Firebird" is a wonderful piece, at least from a sense of life standpoint. Secondly, I think Stravinsky's much-overlooked "Pulcinella Suite" (from his neo-classical period) is a gem. I played it in the Iowa State University orchestra in 1968 and found it utterly charming. Perhaps it's the combination of the sparsity of the chamber orchestra's texture, along with the unexpected poignancy of the melodies, that grabs me in the Pulcinella.

3. Film composers--my friend Chris Sciabarra once noted, as did Harry Pleasants before him (in The Agony of Modern Music) that some of the finest music of the 20th century has been composed for the screen. Sciabarra said: "Hybrid art, or not, most of the great screen composers have written magnificent pieces that have integrity as stand-alone composition: whether we're talking about Rozsa's pieces for epic theater (Ben-Hur, El Cid, King of Kings) or Williams' Jurassic Park--this has been some of the most melodic and well-constructed music of the century. And some, like Hermann and Rozsa and Korngold, have a reputable "classical" catalog apart from their film compositions. More power to them and their kind." (comments in a post to the now-defunct discussion list, I agree, and I'm not at all surprised that this is the case. The people writing neo-crap at the tax-supported universities are being paid by coerced tax dollars, while the composers writing for the movies and television are (for the most part) engaging in free enterprise and have to produce something of value to more than just a miniscule elite of "Emperor's New Clothes" types who like to pretend to be more sophisticated and intelligent than the people who fail to see the merit in junkpile music. That said, here are some remarks about various of my favorite screen composers:

a. Chris mentioned Michel Legrand, one of my absolute favorite composers--and arrangers. About 1974 he did a double album of arrangements called "20 Songs for the Century." See if you can find this album in a used record shop. It is a treasure! But his own songs are fabulous works of art. One of my favorites is his "On My Way to You," the lyrics by the Bergmans, his frequent collaborators, being the crown jewel of the song. (It nicely stated, in words and music, how my wife and I felt about (re)finding each other after having each spent 20 years being married to two other spouses.) Both Barbra Streisand and Maureen McGovern have done excellent recordings of this song. His score to "Yentl" is very nice, too, especially "The Way He Makes Me Feel." Back in the 70s, he arranged two albums of his movie music, one of them sung by Sarah Vaughn. See if you can find these albums in a used record store; I know you'll enjoy them. In addition to the better known themes he has written, there is a positively gorgeous song from the movie "Wuthering Heights" called "I Was Born in Love with You." It is reminiscent of two other wonderful songs, "It's a Lazy Afternoon" and "Clear Out of This World." (I used to wear out my jazz listeners trying to perform a medley of these three songs on trombone!)

b. One composer that serious music afficionados MUST check out is Claus Ogerman. His 1982 (?) recording with top alto saxophonist Michael Brecker, "City Scapes," was a Grammy nominee (winner?), and he did another album about that same year with Dutch acoustic guitarist, Jan Akkerman. I don't know if he has written for the movies, but he arranged one side of the Sinatra album of Jobim songs, "Francis Albert Sinatra," back in the late 60s. (Interestingly, some of the best pieces on the other side of the LP were arranged by Eumir Deodato, who achieved some notoriety in the 70s for his disco recordings of such pieces as "Also Sprach Zarathustra.")

c. Another of my favorite movie writers is pianist-composer Dave Grusin. From the opening scenes of "The Firm", I knew I was hooked, and it was all because of the music. (The story was great, but the music was transcendent!) If you can stand to wade through every other track being schlocky stuff by the likes of Lyle Lovett, I heartily recommend the sound track album. (Maybe you can even rig up a way for your CD-burner to make a CD with just the Grusin pieces. :-)

d. There is no doubt that some of John Williams' music has taken on cliche status. Having worked in the "bowels" of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, I can tell you that I have heard way more than enough of that theme! But he has written so much good music that it would be a mistake to judge him by the most over-played of his pieces. Instead, I suggest listening to a Greatest Hits compilation--my favorite being "The Speilberg-Williams Collaboration." I also very much enjoy "Send in the Heroes," a collection of Olympic themes, several of which Williams wrote. But my absolute favorite music by Williams is the sound track to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." I really think he should have received an Oscar for this score--if not a Pulitzer Prize! Also, don't overlook some of the incidental themes from his Star Wars trilogy. One of the most exquisite themes any composer has written (IMO) is the one from "Return of the Jedi" entitled "Luke and Leia." The theme is stated first by the french horn, then the oboe--with the obvious allusion to the male and female leads of the story. Also, I had the opportunity several years ago to do a transcription of "Yoda's Theme" from "The Empire Strikes Back", and I was on pins and needles during the section from 1:35 to 2:00 (not the end of the piece), wondering how in the hell is Williams going to make it back to the tonic chord? His harmonic zig-zags were audacious and brilliant and made the progression seem inevitable--in retrospect, the mark of creative genius (as I see it).