The Universal Language of Music

The German immigrants who came to America brought their musical cultural heritage with them, especially in the sacred music of their churches and the singing societies popular in the nineteenth century.  One German immigrant in particular would make lasting contributions to the American music scene and the development of music used in motion pictures.

Many of the producers and directors who came to Hollywood in the 20s and 30s to work brought their love of classical music and appreciation of their German and Austrian heritage with them.  The composers who came from Europe could easily make the transition to America, because music was not dependent on fluency in a new language.

One of the first composers to write music scores for films in America was Austrian-born composer Max Steiner (1888-1971).  Steiner, who had been a child prodigy well-regarded in Europe, worked on Broadway and then moved to Hollywood in 1929.  He composed more than 300 film scores with RKO and Warner Brothers, being nominated for 24 Academy Awards and winning three:  The Informer (1935), Now, Voyager(1942) and Since You Went Away (1944).  His most popular films include King Kong (1933), Casablanca (1942) and Gone With the Wind (1939).  He also scored many Fred Astaire films and served as musical director for Astaire’s Top Hat (1935). Steiner was a pioneer in the use of original composition in film scores to synchronize music and action and create character themes that used the recurring musical phrase of the leitmotif.

Friedrich Hollaender (known as Frederick Hollander)  (1896-1976) achieved fame when he wrote the music score for The BlueAngel(1930) in which Marlene Dietrich sang the famous song “Falling In Love Again”.   He provided other signature songs for Dietrich including “See What the Boys in the Back Room” Will Have ”from Destry Rides Again (1939).  Hollaender returned to Germany in 1956.  He made a cameo appearance as a Kapellmeister in Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three (1960)

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Also considered one of the fathers of film music is Austro-Hungarian composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). A child prodigy in Vienna called the next Mozart, he was composing orchestral scores at the age of 14. Director Max Reinhardt brought him to Hollywood in 1934, where he won Oscars for Anthony Adverse (1936) and the Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).  Korngold ‘s fame as a serious composer brought prestige to the genre of film music, and he, more than any other composer, pioneered the sweeping symphonic score for films.  His music set the psychological tone of film scenes and heightened the emotional effect of what was on the screen.

Franz Waxman (born Franz Wachsmann) (1906-1967) was recruited by producer Erich Pommer  to score Music in the Air(1934) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935).  His name appears in in credit lines in an astounding number of  Hollywood films, and he received twelve nominations and two consecutive Oscars for Sunset Boulevard (1950) and A Place in the Sun (1951). Waxman worked for a number of studios, and scored five films for Billy Wilder and four for Alfred Hitchcock including Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window (1954).

It was primarily immigrant composers in Hollywood who created the lavish soundtracks of the Golden Age of Hollywood in the 30s and 40s.  They brought with them the legacy of the music of greats like  Beethoven,  Johann and Richard Strauss, and  Richard Wagner,  and  enriched the American  Tin Pan Alley popular music that had dominated early film music.

Today’s filmgoers will be most familiar with the music of  Frankfurt-born film composer Hans Zimmer (born 1957). Zimmer has composed music for more than 150 films, including box office blockbusters The Lion King (1994) Gladiator(2001) Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) The Dark Knight (2008) Inception (2010) and Twelve Years a Slave (2013).  His music for The Lion King won the Academy Award for Best Original Score.  He heads the music division at DreamWorks.  Zimmer elicits strong emotional response in the audience through his musical themes.  He expressed the purpose of his music in this way:  “Music can actually make you cry…(it) can get at parts of your psyche that other things can’t get at… I try to do something that resonates very quickly and takes you on a journey.” Zimmer has stars on both the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Boulevard der Stars in Berlin.