About this Recording
8.557705 - SALTER / SKINNER: Monster Music
English 

Frank Skinner (1897-1968)
Son of Frankenstein
(1939)

Frank Skinner & Hans J. Salter (1896-1994)
The Invisible Man Returns
(1940)
The Wolf Man (1941)

Reconstructed and orchestrated by John Morgan

 

By the final months of 1941, events in Europe and the Pacific threatened to eclipse any horror film ever to emanate from America's famed Universal Pictures. Nazi Germany had overrun most of Europe, Italian fascists had embarked on conquest of Africa, and Japan was ravaging much of Asia. But even as these clouds of world war gathered and grew darker, Universal's own star-studded globe – the one that revolved at the beginning of every Universal film of the era – continued to turn more and more over horror films, each one more outrageous and more rollicking than the last.

A striking variety of creative forces were involved in these ever-popular pictures: Teutonic screenwriter Curt Siodmak, make-up wizard Jack P. Pierce, art director Jack Otterson, special effects director John Fulton, cinematographer George Robinson and, most intriguing of all, Lon Chaney Jr., whose erratic efforts to outshine his late horror-star father saw him not only play the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man, the Mummy and Count Dracula but also star in Universal's curious Inner Sanctum thrillers. But of all these creative forces, none proved as consistently crucial to the success of the Universal monster movies as the marvelously macabre music of Hans J. Salter and Frank Skinner.

If ever a genre needed musical assistance in creating a sufficient amount of atmosphere, it was the horror film of the 1930s and 1940s. Today, early Universal horror classics such as Dracula and even Frankenstein (both 1931) occasionally come off as stilted, partially because they lack full music scores. Even later films such as Werewolf of London (1935) and Dracula's Daughter (1936) pale partially because of their tepid music. Happily, Franz Waxman's wizardly score to James Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) not only added punch to that film's overall impact, it also gave Universal's more attentive filmmakers a vivid idea of how fundamental film music was in this particular genre. Subsequently, when director Rowland V. Lee proceeded with Son of Frankenstein in 1938, he engaged staff composer Frank Skinner to compose a wholly new score for the picture. It was this music, orchestrated by Skinner's soon-to-be frequent partner Hans J. Salter, that set the tone, literally and figuratively, for all horror film scores to come from Universal.

Few musical collaborators in film history are as intriguing as Salter and Skinner. Skinner, with his easy-going Midwestern sensibilities and dance-band background, might have seemed the wrong man to team with Austrian-born Salter, whose experience included study under prominent composers Alban Berg and Franz Schreker, directing operettas and working for Berlin's famed UFA studios before Hitler's nightmarish visions sent him packing for other horizons. Yet their work together composing scores for Universal proved one of the happiest partnerships in film music, partially because of their willingness to cultivate a particular style they could both easily work with. "We exchanged themes before we started," Salter recalled in 1994, shortly before his death, "and we'd keep it in that one style. If it worked well enough, it sounded like the score of one composer." Of course, Salter also recalled, Universal's ever-pressing deadlines allowed them little time for more adventurous forays. From the time Salter joined the studio in 1938, he and Skinner were constantly cranking out scores for every genre of film imaginable. "We were so busy in those days we hardly survived," he said. "My first few years at Universal, I don't think I had a full Sunday off. We worked day and night."

Because of the type of pictures Salter and Skinner often worked on, and because of the low budgets usually allotted them, the composers have gained an unfair reputation as talented hacks. However, no less than Henry Mancini, who did his apprentice work alongside Salter and Skinner in the 1950s and helped score many of Universal's science fiction films then, later championed the work done by them all. "Most of them were potboilers," Mancini admitted of these films, "but we worked on 'em like they were Gone With the Wind." Salter himself has recalled in interviews how he and Skinner even went so far as to use period English music in scoring Rowland V. Lee's historical melodrama Tower of London (1939), figuring this novel approach might truly evoke a genteel air of authenticity. Alas, much of their score was subsequently thrown out and replaced with music from the team's earlier score for Son of Frankenstein. In the final analysis, it was tough to beat a horror-film score by Salter and Skinner – even when the score came from Salter and Skinner themselves.

Over the years, Skinner's music for Son of Frankenstein has suffered from comparison with Waxman's The Bride of Frankenstein score. Such criticism is not really fair. If Waxman's score has a sly humor to it, at least part of it is to mirror director James Whale's own wry, deliciously wicked vision in The Bride of Frankenstein. Skinner's gritty, creepier Son of Frankenstein score, however, is still of the same sound world as The Bride of Frankenstein, complete with frantic harp glissandi and out-of-kilter brass harmonies, wonderfully matching art-director Jack Otterson's weird, "psychological sets" and the script's bizarre, sharply etched characters. At one point, during the scene in which Dr. Wolf Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) gives a medical exam to his father's ailing monster (Boris Karloff), Skinner even provides his own version of the "telltale heart music" heard in Waxman's rousing creation sequence — except here Skinner's music reflects the film's new development. It stresses, through sickly, transparent upper strings and thumping pizzicato in the lower strings reinforced by timpani, the very fragility of life.

Certainly, Son of Frankenstein, as a film, offered plenty of Old World macabre touches. There's one-armed Police Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) who as a child lost his limb to the Frankenstein Monster and, in the film's grand climax, is fated to do so again – enough to prompt from Skinner a brief but swaggering march capturing the inspector's vanquished dreams of a glorious military career. And there is the twisted blacksmith and outcast Ygor, providing actor Bela Lugosi with the very best role in his career and offering Skinner a chance to compose some positively evil music, including a certain "cackling" in the upper strings, punctuated by tart bursts in the brass or, for the striking sequence where Ygor emerges from the pit, a passage for brass suggesting the tolling of bells in the inferno. The film also gives Skinner a rare chance to humanise Wolf Frankenstein's infamous father with a plaintive passage for organ and orchestra as the son toasts his father's portrait and high ideals. And Skinner conjures up a lumbering, three-note motif from the very bowels of the orchestra (basses, tuba, bass trombone, contra bassoon and bass clarinet) to represent the monster himself – a motif that, to quote film historian Donald F. Glut, seems to echo the very name "Frankenstein."

Such moments in Son of Frankenstein – carefully reconstructed from scant materials and woven together by film composer John Morgan into the lively concert suite heard here – prove even more remarkable when one realises how very little time Skinner and Salter had to mull over the film's needs. In a revealing 1975 interview with William H. Rosar, Salter recalled the final 48-hour stretch to meet the film's impossible deadline: "With this score especially, we worked under terrible pressure. I remember the last two or three days before the recording, we didn't leave the studio. We just stayed there, and Frank worked on a piano there back behind the library in a room in the old building where Hitchcock now has his office. Frank would write a page or two, and I would take a nap in the meanwhile. Then I would orchestrate, and he would take a nap. We stayed in our clothes there for two or two and a half days."

Ironically, none of Waxman's Bride of Frankenstein score and very little of Skinner's Son of Frankenstein music turned up in later installments of the Frankenstein saga, though music from the latter did surface in Universal's notorious mummy series, notably The Mummy's Hand (1940), plus other memorable programmers such as The Scarlet Claw (1944) from the studio's engaging Sherlock Holmes series. And its aforementioned use in Lee's Tower of London comes with but the slightest of changes, such as flourishes in the brass. The work done by Skinner and Salter on Son of Frankenstein becomes even more remarkable when one realizes that, while both were then in their early forties, they were still largely unproven in the eyes (and ears) of Universal executives. After the stunning results, however, the two found themselves tapped for nearly all future monstrosities and madness.

By the time The Invisible Man Returns (1940) began production, Salter had gone beyond orchestration duties to actually composing for Universal's horrors (though he long afterward insisted he had no particular preference for this film genre). While the score for director Joe May's The Invisible Man Returns is credited to both Skinner and Salter, Salter later took credit for most of the music, the exception being the final scene where the title figure regains visibility. Whatever the case, the score is notable for a gorgeous love theme that receives extensive play early on in the film (during a rendezvous between bandage-covered fugitive Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price) and his love (Nan Grey) in a secluded house and a most mournful passage conveying the utter isolation and sorrow involved in being unseen. This latter theme, emphasizing lonely woodwinds (and in this recording developed far more fully from surviving sketches than as heard in the film), makes its most memorable appearance in a cue titled The Return, a moving sequence when the Invisible Man, cold and wounded, troubles a scarecrow for its hat and clothes. Even here, the love theme heard earlier manages to surface and drive away most of the chill and despair. In fact, but for a few moments, the score could have easily been written for a tender romance, not a Universal horror film.

Other cues in the film include a fun, fairly frivolous one for a drunken and corrupt coal-mining official who has odd problems with his car and imagines he is the victim of a ghost. Constant and comical shifting amidst the woodwinds conveys the victim's confusion in a musical sequence that, alas, is not developed as much as one would wish. There is also the bracing title music, which seems every bit from the team that scored Son of Frankenstein – and, indeed, near the film's end, music from Son of Frankenstein is trotted out (though this is not included in the suite at hand). There is also a brooding passage early on that marks the hours ticking away before Geoffrey Radcliffe's execution – a melancholy bit Salter later reworked and used in Son of Dracula (1943) for Dracula's ill-fated honeymoon in a creepy old Southern mansion. Ironically, that score – credited wholly to Salter – includes a soaring, full-blooded passage for Dracula's swampside resurrection that actually comes from Universal's Alfred Hitchcock thriller Saboteur (1942), featuring a remarkable score credited wholly to … Frank Skinner!

If one horror score best typifies the team's considerable success as collaborators, it's the moody, often aggressive score for The Wolf Man (1941). In a spirited 1978 interview with writer and longtime champion Preston Neal Jones that touched upon this and other Universal horror films, Salter explained the approach he and Skinner had in scoring such assignments: "In musical terms, we stayed within the bounds of tonality and did not try to write anything too complicated. I was somewhat ahead of Frank in terms of harmony and melodic development, having had a formal musical education, which he had not, but I held back a little while he progressed. He was a fine musician and a dependable, hardworking friend. He had come from the field of dance-band music, as a musician and arranger, and it was wonderful to see his ability grow with the job of arranging and writing for films. I can't speak too highly of Frank Skinner. He often did more than he needed to do, such as coming to my rescue when I couldn't finish a sequence on time. He could step in and help me write it." Of course, Salter also worked with other composers, including for a brief period friend and fellow German refugee Paul Dessau, whose vibrant brand of dissonance coloured the score for House of Frankenstein (1944) in such a major way as to cause alarm among Universal executives (though, ironically, the complete score today remains one of the most satisfying and musically reasoned in all film music).

George Waggner's The Wolf Man had the misfortune of being released in the wake of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. Oddly the film – a well-crafted work stressing not just the horror of a lycanthrope loose in the countryside but the pathos of sprouting fur and fangs and ferocious behaviour whenever a full moon is out – proved a box-office success and launched a brief but busy career for Lon Chaney Jr. as Universal's top horror star. Although it was one of the final Universal horror pictures clearly boasting the look of an "A" film, just before the genre plunged to programmer status during World War II, the film's enduring impact owes much to its driving score, a collaboration again involving Salter, Skinner and this time tireless music director Charles Previn, famed conductor André Previn's uncle. To borrow a line from Curt Siodmak's final script, this is music that "runs around on all fours and bites and snaps and bays at the moon."

Critics such as David J. Skal, in his book The Monster Show, have remarked how strange The Wolf Man is as a wartime film, set as it is in a fog-shrouded Welsh village contemporary with the times, yet completely devoid of any hint of the actual war Great Britain then found itself embroiled in. Whether by design or accident, the music, with its hunting horns and intoxicating gypsy motifs, only stresses the film's never-never land setting. Wolf-bane, the passage composed by Previn for that ill-fated walk through the woods taken by unlucky lycanthrope-to-be Lawrence Talbot (Chaney) and two lady friends (and emphasizing harp, celesta, vibraphone, English horn, oboe, French horn and some very nervous strings for its impact), proves both enchanting and eerie in a way film music seldom manages. By this time, the score's brooding intensity has forever scattered most of the hope and innocence and puppy love offered up in the previous cue, The Telescope, an untroubled bit that briefly taps some of Salter's light-hearted music for director Waggner's Man Made Monster (1941). Some of the score's darker moments also come from the team's work on other Universal films. For instance, the ominous opening in Desperation comes from Joe May's The House of the Seven Gables (1940) and Waggner's Horror Island (1941). And at the end of the same cue, the pounding passage telling Talbot his beloved is doomed to be his next victim involves a reworking of music from Little Tough Guy (1938).

But The Wolf Man score's most stirring moments are dominated by an ominous three-note figure first heard in the film's highly condensed but extremely effective overture. This warning motif is repeated often and in various forms – most notably in sequences when the werewolf is about to attack, with panicky woodwinds giving way to the trumpets' final warning followed by relentless stalking motions emphasizing winds and strings. And when the attack finally does come, violence quickly consumes the entire orchestra, the three-note figure showing up at the top of it all – a continual reminder of a warning that, as in most such films, always goes unheeded. The motif even surfaces in quieter moments such as Bela's Funeral, when Talbot visits the crypt of his werewolf predecessor – a powerful, vividly magical passage by Skinner, especially as originally composed for the morbid and soon-to-be-cut scene in which we see all from Bela's perspective in the coffin. This time, though, the warning motif shows up in more somber form, scored for muted trumpets and embellished by a surging in the strings and drowsy commentary in the trombones that emphasize the full weight of tragedy and mystery.

While few film music historians have done so, the highlights of Salter, Skinner and Previn's music for The Wolf Man deserve mention alongside Bernard Herrmann's Psycho and John Williams' Jaws. For years, The Wolf Man score and other Salter-Skinner collaborations (which, incidentally, Salter always viewed as "pure Americana," despite the movies' distant settings) were held out to aspiring composers as foremost examples in scoring this particular genre. Too, music from The Wolf Man turned up in many other Universal films, ranging from The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) to the enduring Sherlock Holmes series. Amazingly, the actual scores at Universal were lost and when, Iong after Skinner's death in 1968, it was suggested these classic horror scores be reassembled for a standard-sized symphony orchestra (ensembles of thirty or so performed the original soundtrack scores), Salter, then in his early nineties and quite accustomed to neglect, admitted he held out little hope for such a project. At one point, longtime Salter friend Bob Burns took the old composer down to Universal to visit the music department, only for Salter to discover he was a mystery to the new staff there. "Most of them didn't even know who Hans Salter was," Burns recalled. "I mean, they were very gracious and everything, but they really didn't know who he was. He was saddened by that, I think."

Happily, author and record producer Tony Thomas, a longtime Salter friend, kept some of the vintage Universal film music alive by issuing private recordings made from old acetates Salter had kept from his heyday at the studio. In 1991 Thomas went a step further, encouraging a project to reconstruct the long-lost horror scores and rescore them for full orchestra. John Morgan, who credits Universal's horror music partially for his own film music career, began the painstaking task of piecing together these scores from surviving three-line conductor's parts and from the old film soundtracks themselves. Occasionally, this meant restoring music cut from the films, such as in Bela's Funeral and Sir John's Discovery in The Wolf Man.

Salter and Skinner tackled a wide variety of other assignments during their long careers. Besides scores such as Magnificent Doll (1946), Salter was proud of his work as musical director on some of the successful Deanna Durbin films. Skinner enjoyed more mainstream scoring assignments such as Man of a Thousand Faces (concerning, ironically, the life of silent horror star Lon Chaney Sr.). And while it is seldom mentioned, even in adoring biographies about the two composers, each saw his scoring nominated for Academy Awards – Salter for It Started With Eve (1942), Christmas Holiday and The Merry Monahans (both 1944) and This Love of Ours (1945), Skinner for Mad About Music (1938), The House of the Seven Gables (1940), Back Street (1941) and Arabian Nights (1942). They were jointly nominated for The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943).

Still, neither Salter nor Skinner was able to put his work for Universal's horrors far behind. Certainly, one can argue the merits of a throwaway assignment such as Skinner's rousing score for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) easier than his subsequent, more conventional score for Man of a Thousand Faces. Skinner's splendidly imaginative music for such dark films as Hitchcock's Saboteur deserves far more credit than it has received. And while Salter has won understandable praise for his music for westerns, his work on films such as Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), The Mole People (1956) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) remains far more inspired. Of all this work, though, the macabre music of Frank Skinner and Hans Salter for Universal's horror-film heyday in the late 1930s and 1940s ranks as their finest work. Even with today's ever-changing tastes and perspectives, this music is likely to find favour as long as the films themselves do – maybe even longer.

Bill Whitaker
Veteran journalist Bill Whitaker has chronicled everything from TV hostess Oprah Winfrey's trial in Texas cattle country for maligning beef to the struggles of everyday life in post-Soviet Moscow. As an editor, he oversaw an award-winning series on the national impact of the Branch Davidian siege and, more recently, a 10-part series on President Bush's policies and initiatives and their impact on the president's home county in Central Texas. As a writer, Whitaker has interviewed such notables as action-hero Arnold Schwarzenegger, wrestler / political activist Jesse Ventura, western actor Ben Johnson, film star Sylvester Stallone, lounge-music legend Les Baxter, actress Joan Fontaine, Russian poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko, football great "Slingin' Sammy" Baugh, director Robert Wise, author / screenwriter Curt Siodmak and American composers Roy Harris, Howard Hanson, Morton Gould and Henry Mancini.

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Arranger's Notes

The three suites contained in this recording represent seminal scores from Universal Pictures' second wave of classic horror films of the 1940s. Starting with Son of Frankenstein (1939) and continuing with The Invisible Man Returns (1940) and The Wolf Man (1941), this music became the thematic basis for reuse and further development in dozens of the studio's films over the next twenty years.

One of the unexpected joys in working on projects such as this is discovering music that was written for a scene but dropped or severely truncated because of re-editing of the film. An important example of this is contained in The Wolf Man score. The cue titled Bela's Funeral contains much music that was dropped when the scene was extensively cut. Our restoration of the music, as it was originally conceived, brings to life one of the most heartfelt and beautiful sections of the score … never before heard!

As is the case with much film music of the period, no orchestral scores exist. Fortunately, piano-conductor parts were found through the Library of Congress and it was from these three-line sketches that fully orchestrated scores were reconstructed for this première recording. Since the piano-conductor parts were made primarily for copyright and conducting purposes, they are only an approximation of the entire scores. Often prepared in haste, these scores are inundated with wrong notes, inaccurate rhythms and missing musical lines. As the audio portion of the music only existed within the mixed soundtrack of the final films, it was a challenge to reconstruct this music as authentically as possible. I hope our endeavours meet with the approval of the many fans of these films, as well as introducing this wonderful music to a new generation of music-lovers.

I want to thank my friend Bill Stromberg who conducted the excellent Moscow Symphony Orchestra in providing exciting and faithful performances of this music. I must also thank Klaus Heymann of Marco Polo / Naxos for supporting this project by supplying us with the finest musicians, recording and production facilities.

John Morgan

 


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