Music in the Movies

         Music plays a very important part in making movies effective emotionally for audiences. They amplify emotion or detract from it, depending upon whether the music is appropriate or whether it does not fit. Wiliam Wyler's 1939 film Wuthering Heights, Luis Buńuel's 1954 Spanish-language film Los Abismos de Pasion , both based on Emily Brontė's 1847 Wuthering Heights, and William Wyler's 1949 film The Heiress, based on Henry James's 1880 Washington Square, offer excellent examples of what can be done well with music and of where mistakes can be made.

        The music of Wuthering Heights, as scored by Alfred Newman, is loud, smothering, and obnoxious. Enjoying the narrative becomes difficult because of the overzealous strings and inappropriate, waltz-like music. When Mr. Lockwood (Miles Mander) encounters the ghost during his first visit to the Heights, for instance, merry, jumpy music is played--music that belongs on Christmas morning when a girl opens a present to find a puppy and not in a ghost scene. Various moments of odd orchestration throughout the film make for a very detached experience that undermines the quality of the acting.

        The music of Los Abismos de Pasion, taken from Richard Wagner's 1865 music Tristan und Isolde, is dramatic but in a more appropriate way. Several characters have motifs that are played subtly or not so subtly whenever they appear onscreen, and this, oddly enough, helps to develop their characters. The Heathcliff character, Alejandro (Jorge Mistral), is depicted as more of a renegade than the others, and the music that plays as he walks in the rain at the beginning reflects that. Most of the music from this film blends so well with the action that its emotional impact is felt though the music itself may not always stand out by itself--a goal many composers strive toward because of the enduring philosophy that music should not be noticed but enjoyed along with the rest of the film. I had to watch the film twice in order to fully appreciate this score.

        The music from The Heiress, written by Aaron Copland, is the most memorable and fitting of these three scores. Music is always appropriately placed when it is used as music: the music for the party is light and fun, and the song "Plasir d'amour," sung and played to Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) by Morris (Montgomery Clift) when he visits, is delightful and captures the innocent youthfulness of the courting ritual. The score is well-executed, too: after Morris plays the song on the piano, the score of the film fades into the scene by repeating the tune he has just played but with a full orchestra. The most effective of the musical pieces in The Heiress is the music in the final scene: chilling music that plays penetratingly as a cold and joyless Catherine locks Morris out in the cold, thereby exacting her revenge.

        Not all composers have the talent for capturing or amplifying the emotional qualities of the films they are composing for. Talent is required for members of the audience in order for them to appreciate the score as well. Being able to appreciate the music individually is as important as considering its effectiveness as a part of the entire film. Because I am a musician, I can notice the qualities of the music while still being able to enjoy the story. This practice can be likened to reading poems: if one knows what one is doing, he can appreciate Shakespeare's use of iambic pentameter while still falling in love with Romeo's and Juliet's passion.

Eric Hovis

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