, November 2007
For too many years the perceived impression of “film composers” - always used as a pejorative term, and usually spoken with a sneer - was of talentless hacks who couldn’t make it in the world of real concert music. This was akin to Mozart’s expression: “those who can, do, those who can’t, teach”. Over the past thirty years, starting with RCA’s Classic Film Scores series, interest in music for film – a much more sensible term – has grown and the composers are now seen as Composers (with a capital C). The concept of “hacks” has, I hope, been dispelled once and for all.
Looking at Max Steiner’s background, one thing he could never be accused of was being was a talentless hack. Maximilian Raoul Walter Steiner was born in 1888 in Vienna and his godfather was Richard Strauss. His paternal grandfather (also named Maximilian Steiner (1839-1880)), was the influential manager of Vienna's Theater an der Wien. His father was Gabor Steiner (1858-1944), Viennese impresario and carnival and exposition manager, who built the Ferris wheel – the Riesenrad – in the Prater, which would become the setting for a key scene in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). His mother owned three of Vienna's favorite restaurants, and amongst the family friends were Jacques Offenbach and Johann Strauss Jr.
Steiner, a prodigy in composition, received piano lessons from Johannes Brahms, and, when fifteen years of age, enrolled at the Imperial Academy of Music - now the University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna. He was taught by Gustav Mahler, amongst others. His incredible musical ability allowed him to complete the Academy's eight-year curriculum in only one year, and he was awarded their Gold Medal.
One year later, Steiner wrote the book, lyrics and music, and conducted the year long run, of a musical comedy The Beautiful Greek Girl. In 1914 he found himself working in London and on the declaration of war was classified an enemy alien, but through the friendship of the Duke of Westminster he was granted exit papers and headed for New York.He arrived there in December 1914 with $32 in his pocket. Thereafter he worked on Broadway for fifteen years as arranger, orchestrator and conductor for such composers as Victor Herbert, Jerome Kern, Vincent Youmans and George Gershwin.
Steiner went to Hollywood in 1929 to score the film version of Florenz Ziegfield’s Rio Rita, and produced his own first score in 1931 for Wesley Ruggles’s Cimarron. Two years later his score for King Kong made his reputation and he continued to work in Hollywood until his death in 1971. Steiner usually worked with orchestrator Murray Cutter (1902–1980).
Steiner wrote music for all types of film – western: Santa Fe Trail (1940) and They Died with Their Boots On (1941); biography: The Life of Emile Zola (1937) and Sergeant York (1941); romance: Casablanca (1942) and film noir: The Big Sleep (1946) - receiving 26 Oscar nominations and winning three. His favourite kind of film was a Bette Davis drama, and here we have two of them, and one of his epic adventure scores.
All This, and Heaven Too is a large undertaking – over 100 minutes of music, of which we are given 45, more than enough to satisfy listeners. Although set in 1841 Steiner didn’t make any concessions to the music of the period (except for the use of Gluck’s Armide Overture), there’s a healthy bit of Americana and some good, full bloodied, romantic love music. Most impressive is track 11, an elegy for the dying, and subsequently dead, Duke. Steiner is at his most eloquent here.
The story of A Stolen Life concerns twins – one good, one bad, both played by Bette Davis – and the triumph of the good one over her sibling. It’s not a new story by any means, films with this plot are still being made, but what made this film special was Bette Davis. The music is more varied than that for All This, and Heaven Too but it still contains Steiner’s rich lyricism and romantic love music, and there’s also an amount of Americana – the film is set in New England.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of the best depictions of greed and the effects it has on three men. Set in Mexico in modern times - B. Traven’s book was published in German in 1927 and in English in America in 1935 - it offers great performances from Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston (the director’s father) and Tim Holt. Starting in a light-hearted manner the music follows the downfall of the three men as they find gold, lose friendship and end in death and disillusion. If you’ve never seen the film I’ve just ruined the ending for you.
A leitmotif portraying the prospectors’ journey binds the score together, appearing in many different guises. This music is much grittier than the other scores here discussed and it’s all the better for it: it shows Steiner could write “hard bitten” music as well as a romantic tune.
Incidentally, the novelist B Traven relished his privacy and went out of his way to hide from any kind of publicity. In 1978 Will Wyatt made a documentary for the BBC entitled B Traven: A Mystery Solved. It’s worth watching to get some background to this strange writer, and it includes an interview with John Huston, director of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Find it here.
Like Korngold, Steiner considered his film scores as operas without singing and wrote not just descriptive cues but long, continuous, stretches of music which covered several scenes, or even reels of film – track 9 is a good example of how Steiner could compose on a large scale and cover many different moods and events.
In general, the performances are excellent – in the Bette Davis CD the upper strings seemed stretched at times, but there’s no such problems in the other CD – the sound is bright and clear and the notes, by Rudy Behlmer, are good; both booklets contain information by John Morgan about the restorations he has undertaken on the scores - the same notes which are oddly lacking in the Alfred Newman disk reviewed elsewhere.
It is a real pleasure to welcome these re-issues of fine music for film.