Great composers

The death in January of the great film composer John Barry has had me thinking about the rather forgotten history of music in movies. I say forgotten because how many contemporary film composers can be named aloud like film actors or directors? John Williams for his “Star Wars” scores might be one; and maybe Jerry Goldsmith for such diverse work as Roman Polanski’s genre classic “Chinatown” and his five scores for “Star Trek” movies.

The truth is that film composers have pretty much remained backdrop entities in the team-art business of moviemaking. Yet there have been outstanding composers whose achievements earned them more than passing footnotes in motion picture history.

The Golden Age

Hollywood’s Golden Age, which began with talking pictures in the 1930s and ended with the demise of the studio system, witnessed the arrival of classically-trained European musicians who would score many of the great American classics. For history’s sake I cite here three with some of their best-known films:

Erich Korngold, Czech born, 1897: “Captain Blood” (1935); “Anthony Adverse” (1936); “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938). The latter two earned Oscars for music composition. Korngold’s work was notable for its romantic, finely textured screen accompaniment. Recognizing the unheralded place of the composer, Korngold once said, “A composer’s immortality lasts from the recording stage to the dubbing room.” That pessimistic statement spoke to the unheralded place of the composer at the time in film art.

Max Steiner, Austrian born, 1888: “The Informer” (1935); “Gone with the Wind” (1939); “Casablanca” (1942). One of the industry’s most prolific and influential composers, Steiner liked to mix his soaring original music with existing musical tunes and songs—Irish melodies in “The Informer,” Stephen Foster tunes for “Gone with the Wind.” Steiner also favored signifying leitmotifs that helped identify characters and setting, e.g., “Tara’s Theme,” a recurring musical motif in “Gone with the Wind.”


Dimitri Tiomkin, Russian born, 1899: “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946); “High Noon” (1952); “Giant” (1956). Tiomkin’s work for director Frank Capra made him the director’s favorite, and earned him the scoring task for the World War II documentary series “Why We Fight” (1942-45), directed by Capra and Anatole Litvak. Tiomkin is remembered for his musical versatility in adapting to whatever style of music best fit the narrative or genre, from fantasy (“Lost Horizon,” 1937) to western (“Red River,” 1948) to noir (“D.0.A.,” 1950).

The Americans

As for American-born composers, there’s no shortage of greatness, but three stand out as deserving of historical citation:

Elmer Bernstein, born New York City, 1922: “The Man with the Golden Arm” (1955); “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957); “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962). Bernstein’s lengthy career (1951-2001) included scoring for every possible type of motion picture, from serious fare to pure entertainment. He was especially gifted at creating music that evoked specific geographic locales and settings, e.g., a southern aura for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and a poetic, pastoral musical statement for “A River Runs Through It” (1992). Bernstein once stated, “Music really is an art whose life begins where pictures and words leave off. You receive it through an emotional fantasy. It is for this reason that I think it functions so ideally in film.”

Alex North, born Chester, PA 1910: “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951); “Viva Zapata!” (1960); “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966). North’s innovative score for “A Streetcar Named Desire” broke from tradition and incorporated jazz and blues to underscore the complex character psychology at work in the sexually-charged drama. He chose guitar music and violin chords for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, developing an intimate, muted musical background for the four-character, single-setting film. These scores well-illustrated the task which North said he set for himself—producing music that would “penetrate the soul of the individual.”

Bernard Hermann, born New York City 1911: “Citizen Kane” (1941); “Psycho” (1960); “Taxi Driver” (1976). Many consider Hermann to have no equal as a Hollywood composer. He possessed a special gift; his music elevated the on-screen drama while working its way into the filmgoer’s mind. Nowhere is this ability more transparent than in Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”—music at once menacing and terrifying in ways that are not soon forgotten by the viewer. It’s impossible to imagine the shower scene in “Psycho” divorced from the screeching violin notes.

Hermann’s brilliant score for Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” offered a textbook lesson in how music composition can serve the narrative. Two contrasting examples give indication of his virtuoso talent. First is the film’s opening scene with the camera moving past a “No Trespassing” sign and voyeuristically approaching the Xanadu estate, where Kane lies alone on his deathbed. The music is sonorous, melancholic, full of portent and mystery—even before we know what is happening in the story, we understand its emotional weight.

Later, in a flashback to Kane’s childhood Kansas home, light, lyrical music underscores the scene as young Kane plays outside in the snow with his sled. The cheery “Rosebud Theme” serves as ironic counterpoint to the opening music, and to what is about to ensue: the boy’s imminent removal from a simple life, to be cast into a world of money, ambition and ultimately professional and personal failure.

John Barry
I’ll conclude this brief overview of memorable screen composers with John Barry, yet another European musician who found acclaim in America. Born in York, England, in 1933, Barry achieved legendary status for his screen scores. In 1962, taking a catchy tune written by Monty Norman for the first James Bond movie “Dr. No” (1962), Barry helped arrange Norman’s piece for what would become the “Bond Theme” (Norman, appropriately, was credited for the theme’s creation). Barry went on to score 11 James Bond movies, helping build and sustain one of cinema’s great franchises with jazzy, brassy music that conveyed the spirited dynamics of a Bond film.

His score for “Goldfinger” (1964) with a song by Shirley Bassey was so popular it overtook the Beatles “A Hard Day’s Night” as Number One on the US charts. But Barry’s talents went far beyond the Bond work. Like Hermann, Barry possessed special gifts for taking the filmgoer into the very heart of a drama while simultaneously establishing the music as artistically significant in its own right. His wistful music for “Dances with Wolves” (1990), with its mood-setting lyricism, meshed perfectly with the story of a Civil War veteran living in isolation among Lakota Sioux on the western frontier. The composition conjured up a sense of both the intimate and the epic, and, although a western in idea, Barry’s music moved the narrative’s theme toward that of a man finding peace and “harmony” in his life.

The magnificence of the score earned Barry both an Oscar and a Grammy, the latter testimony to the score’s cultural appeal and life beyond the film. Another of Barry’s compositions of similar quality and cultural permanence was the score for “Out of Africa” (1985) for which he won an Oscar—as did Michigander/screenwriter Kurt Luedtke. (Also of Michigan note, Barry composed the sultry noir score for Lawrence Kasdan’s “Body Heat” (1981) and the sentimental music for the Mackinac Island fantasy “Somewhere in Time” (1980).

Barry, who died on Jan. 30, scored more than 100 films and television programs. Like many who had gone before him, his work represented some of the very best of what is possible in the art of film composition.

Do you have a favorite movie composer? A score you really love? Who of today’s composers deserves more recognition? Share your ideas in the comments section below.


  1. steve suskin - 1973 MA

    When talking of Bernard Herrmann, don’t overlook his amazing score for Hitchcock’s masterpiece “North By Northwest.” That “fandango” theme sets the tone for the entire film. Also Maurice Jarre’s score for “Lawrence of Arabia” and Nino Rota’s score for “The Godfather.” Great article, Frank!-Steve Suskin.


  2. Javier Domenech - 1995

    I am surprised John Williams is not mentioned in your article as one of the great American Componsers. Most popular hits include Star Wars, ET, Indiana Jones, Superman and there are scores of others (pun intended)


  3. cynthia mueller - 1980

    one of my favorite hermann scores is the hitchcock COMEDY, \”The Trouble With Harry.\” this hilarious film is also shirley mcclain\’s and jerry mathers\’ film debut. i watch it every autumn.


  4. William Johnson - 1993

    There are so many incredible movie scores out there. I too wondered about his list, but of course his list appears to be made up of deceased composers. Thankfully, Mr. Williams is still very much with us. What I think is neat is that we’re now getting others (like Daft Punk, or Trent Reznor) doing film scores: it can only enliven the genre. If I had to list the current crop that I enjoy well it would include John Williams, Vangelis, Howard Shore, Hans Zimmer, Murray Gold, Randy Newman, and even James Horner.


  5. Earl Ryan - 1964

    I would like to add Ennio Morricone. His music defined a bunch of spaghetti westerns and reached a peak in \”Once Upon a Time in the West.\” Also, I think it is significant that, in King Kong, Max Steiner created the first motion picture score that was integrated with the action. For example, when Noble Johnson comes to meet the film crew on the island, each step is emphasized by chord in the score.


  6. dave Pauls - 1967

    The name of Maurice Jarre should be added. His score for Lawrence of Arabia still sends shivers down my spine. His score for Dr. Zhivago was a best selling album, with the haunting Lara’s Theme featured prominently.


  7. Marlane Paxson Fairleigh Hodges - 1960

    I think Bill Conti’s musical score for the television drama “North and South” was exceptional.


  8. David Haldeman - 1973

    I had the rare and amazing opportunity to actually have John Barry score a television commercial for me back in the early 80’s for the Lincoln car brand. As always he brought a very distinctive tonal quality to the project.
    I now own several Movie Soundtrack CD’s of his including the classic romantic film “Somewhere In Time” shot on Michigan’s Mackinaw Island.
    I’d also like to add Michael Giacchino to the list of talented film scorers. His lonely melodies added so much emotion to the Lost TV Series.


  9. David Kudish - N/A

    Great article. What I have come to respect from a terrific university.


  10. Jim Stewart - 1954

    How can you not name Henry Mancini?


  11. Joshua Rabinowitz

    @Marlane: Bill Conti warrants mention for “Rocky” and “The Right Stuff” too. Although the latter included a lot of material borrowed from Tchaikovsky, Holst, and Debussy, Conti DID win an Oscar for the score.
    Among today’s more active composers, I am a big fan of Carter Burwell’s work (e.g., “Fargo,” “Being John Malkovich,” and “True Grit”). His variation on Beethoven’s Ninth for “Raising Arizona” is great fun!


  12. john Woodford

    That’s a great review. I’ll add Mark Isham, whose score for “Romeo Is Bleeding” is among the finest ever. Check it out. Not to mention “Never Cry Wolf,” “Cool World,” “A River Runs Through It” and a host of others.


  13. Herb Bowie - 1973

    I would add Lalo Schifrin for his work with Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel, especially the Dirty Harry score.


  14. Peter Bleby - 1977

    So many fabulous scores – but Miklos Rosza should be mentioned if only for “Ben Hur” but he did many more as well.


  15. Jill Chukerman Test - 1982, M.A.

    Loved this article, am a big fan of movie scores and some in this article in particular, esp. John Barry. The tribute video, however, both moved me and confused me–the footage was from Out of Africa, of course, but the score was Somewhere in Time. Loved it anyway but it was odd not to hear the actual OOA score w/ the footage.


  16. Ward Gillett - 1980

    James Horner (Titanic, A Beautiful Mind among others) and Hans Zimmer also deserve mention.


  17. kent woodman - 1974 (1977)

    Great to see Frank Beaver still in action! He’s the only prof for whom I’d devote an all-day, six-time, back-to-back viewing of the then new theatrical release, Harry and Tonto (I DID get my A on the essay). So I’m surprised to discover Bill Conti (already twice mentioned here) wrote the original score.
    I’d be remiss not to mention U-M composer alum (and fellow film student of Mr. Beaver) Preston Stahly for his score of the Robert Altman film Secret Honor. He’s currently Artistic and Executive Director of the New York Art Ensemble (


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