Volume VIII, Number 1, Spring 2012

"American Identification: A New Approach to Film Scoring" by Gergely Hubai

Gergely Hubai holds a degree in American Studies and History with teacher qualification from ELTE University and is currently a PhD student in the American Studies PhD Program of ELTE, Budapest, Hungary. His research is concerned with the relationship between artistic integrity and the Hollywood film industry through the analysis of rejected film scores. At present, he teaches film music history and theory at the Department of Film Studies, at ELTE. Email:


In the summer of 1950, the International Music Congress in Florence saw a tumultuous conflict of opinions in a modern-day “battle of Hernani” concerning film music. The verbal attacks between American and European composers revealed that the two sides had vastly different opinions about how film scoring should work and what it should achieve. The incident was not an isolated case either; rather it could be interpreted as a peak of culminating tension between the musicians of two continents. I take the surviving sources about this argument as the basis for this paper in which I ask what makes a film score “American” and how it differs from European traditions. The difference between the two continents’ musical heritage is an important, if a lesser discussed aspect of what makes the visual culture of the United States so uniquely different from that of Europe.

Meeting in Florence

The catalyst of the disagreement was a special concert held at the conference which focused on American film composers and their music written for motion pictures. The program consisted of works by Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Aaron Copland, whose work, The Red Pony, was the most popular piece for the European audience. The reception of the concert was decidedly mixed, at least the memories of those who were present show a Rashomon-like recollection of the events. American representative Daniele Amfitheatrof (who left the conference shortly after the concert) shared the following memories of the evening in a newsletter of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: “We had a good hand after every entry and prolonged applause, verging on an ovation at the end of the show” (Morton 1951a, 282).

The British side of the story however recalls a more mixed reception of the event. The audience was filled with composers and reviewers who were extremely critical about American film music traditions and this concert looked like an ideal platform to restate these opinions. The most eminent opponent of Hollywood film scores was Hans Keller, whose critical past included claims like this:

I do not deny that among the mass of Hollywood scores that are beyond hope there are a few which make a useful contribution to the visual. But there will have to be some drastic changes even in the gifted Hollywood composer’s environment before he can be expected to contribute beauty to, or to the beauty of, the film. (1947-48, 169)

Keller shared similar sentiments about the concert in Florence as he “indulged in invective, calling the exhibit a ‘repellant anthology’ and noting that the assembly was composed of ‘musicians who could hardly be expected to like the stuff’” (Morton 1951a, 282). Another British composer named Antony Hopkins also had completely different memories of the concert from Amfitheatrof. He wrote that “the Congress sat in stunned silence while reel after reel of high-powered music was blared out; only Copland’s music to The Red Pony was vociferously applauded” (Morton 1951a, 282). The disagreements continued at a panel on the following day, where Benjamin Frankel “attacked in no uncertain terms the bulk of the music heard at the previous evening. Heated speeches were made by partisans of both sides, but the overwhelming majority supported Frankel in his denunciation” (Morton 1951a, 282). I argue that this level of disagreement between the opposed parties can be traced back to three interrelated practical problems which explain the attacks and mark the beginning of making a distinction between American and European film music.

Infrastructural differences

During the 1930s, all major Hollywood studios founded so-called music departments which were equipped with all the professional equipment the era could offer. Led by the head of the music department (who was often credited as musical director), these branches had a number of sub-divisions specialized in different fields. The department had composers, orchestrators, arrangers and conductors under contract, but it also took care of a number of miscellaneous commissions. It had a separate facility for research and preparation, a legal subdivision for sorting out copyright issues and a great number of musicians who could participate in pre-production (such as vocal coaches or rehearsal pianists). With this kind of infrastructure it is no wonder that most film scores were created in teamwork as David Raksin’s often quoted reminiscences describe the modus operandi of a music department in 1930s Hollywood:

On the day when the new film was turned over to the Department for scoring, the staff gathered in our projection room. Present would be the head of the music department, his assistant, the composers, two or three orchestrators, the head of Music Cutting and a couple of his assistants. By lunch we had “broken the film down” into sequences adjudged to call for music, determined what kinds of thematic material would be required and who would write it. After lunch, while the music cutters prepared the timing sheets that would enable us to synchronize our music with the film. […] By the time the timing sheets were ready, we divided the work into three parts and each man headed for home to compose his third. (Prendergast 30-31)

Raksin’s description highlights some of the specific differences between American and European film music. While Hollywood alone could produce so many movies that composers and musicians could make a career out of solely working for the cinema, none of the European centers of filmmaking could produce enough features to warrant such a career. People who wrote film scores in Europe were usually active in the field of concert music, as well, and often viewed their work for films as inferior commissions. William Walton, Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughn Williams or Arthur Honegger were all engaged in creating film scores, but even the academic discussions of these composers’ work neglect their cinematic contributions. This key difference is nicely summarized in this later column of Antony Hopkins, who seems to attack film music in general despite working in the field himself, scoring such titles as The Pickwick Papers (1952) or Billy Budd (1962):

Who are these people, whose names never seem to appear on any concert programmes? What else have they written; what pages have they placed upon the altar of Art, rather than on the lap of Mammon? When we hear music that so depends on the artifice of the scoring, when we hear page after page of ‘effects’ with no development, no continuity, and little individuality, are we really being so impertinent if we are tempted to doubt the qualifications of the man behind it? (Keller 1951, 224)

Manufactures vs. guilds

Going back to Raksin’s memories about working in Hollywood, we can see that the composer was only a cog in the wheel of creating film scores. The quote mentions people like orchestrators, music cutters and an assortment of assistants helping, but then Raksin goes on:

Sometimes there was time to orchestrate one’s own sequences, but usually the rush was so great that by the next morning we were already feeding sketches to the orchestrators, and by noon they were delivering pages of score to the copyists. On the morning of the fourth day the recording would begin; the studio had a fine orchestra under contract, and available on very short notice. On the fifth day a couple of days of re-recording (dubbing) would commence. After that, there might be a brief respite, and then the process started again. (Prendergast 30-31)

This quote shows how the creation of even the most insignificant underscore required the collaboration of dozens of people, each of whom was responsible for a very specific fraction of the music. Somebody only worked as an orchestrator, while a different person only took care of conducting. Even the composers worked in tandem and were specialized in different sections: one maestro could write the most heart-breaking love themes while another was excellent in providing ferocious action music for chase scenes. In most cases, the scores were divided along these lines and the result was born out of teamwork where each section was completed by the most competent person under the studio’s contract. In many ways, the music departments resembled a manufacture where each musician was given only one specific task, such as composing, orchestrating, conducting, etc.

If American composers (or music departments) followed a manufacture model, their European counterparts worked more in line with guild methods. Each composer worked on fewer scores each year, spending more time on the projects as they oversaw every step of the process. Apart from composing, they usually orchestrated and (in the majority of cases) also conducted their own scores. This kind of total control over the final product was like a mark of guarantee from the composer, the sign of a real artist – the American specialists who succumbed to team effort “obviously” gave up a part of their artistic identity to the “unfortunate influence of producers and directors, whose semi-cultivated tastes invade and oftentimes rule the music departments” (Morton 1951b, 193).

Re-reading Hopkins’ quotes about the Hollywood composers, we can see how he thought that the musicians who did not orchestrate or conduct their own scores gave up these steps, not because of practicality, but because they were not capable of finishing a score on their own. This kind of “doubt of qualifications” plagued the relationship of European and American film composers, with the former group looking down on the latter team. Yet there was a third, legal technicality that managed to widen the gap between the two continents’ scoring cultures.

Legal haze

With two different schools of film scoring existing at the same time, the most problematic aspect about the relationship was of financial nature. In the Hollywood system, every member of the musical department was given a fixed monthly payment for which they had to work in 9 to 5 jobs. The composers were the best-paid members of the branch, but in addition to receiving high commission fees, they also had to give up a good deal of their assorted rights to the studios. This type of arrangement was non-negotiable back then and only the greatest names like Dimitri Tiomkin or Pulitzer-winning Gail Kubik could get different deals (Kubik 1962).

The situation was completely different in Europe. Composers like Antony Hopkins or Benjamin Frankel were never contracted to studios and all of their film scores were written on a case-by-case basis with no strings attached. They were given smaller fees when compared with their American counterparts, but they could retain their publishing rights and could exploit their film scores (with the exception of selling the recordings done for the films). This meant that William Walton could do suites of music based on his scores for Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare adaptations and Ralph Vaughn Williams could turn his Scott of the Antarctic (1948) into a popular standalone piece. American composers could not do such things without the expressed permission of the studios.

When the 1950s saw a rise in American-European co-productions, the two methods of payment clashed and ended a part of European film music. The Hollywood studios were forced to use British, French etc. crews for their films, but they were not ready to give up their musical rights to anyone at any point. For the better part of the decade, many of these scores ran with two different underscores: the so-called Continental versions used the music penned by a European composer, while the American version used a homegrown score recorded in Los Angeles. (see Faiola 2003)

One of the best movies to illustrate this difference is the 1950 British-American co-production Night and the City (1950), which is one of the few pictures where both scores and both copies of the movie survived. Stylistically there is not much difference between the British score written by Benjamin Frankel and the American score by Franz Waxman. These similarities show that the reason for the commission of new music had nothing to do with some kind of a cultural conflict. The paychecks, however, are very telling: Frankel received £750 for his music, while Waxman got $12,500 for the same amount of music. The difference lies in the rights: while the American composer gave up most of his rights for the larger amount of money, his British counterpart could retain them for a decreased salary (Faiola 1-16).

This practice ceased to exist in the early 1960s when Hollywood was not ready to play these financial games anymore. The existence and disappearance of this system could merit a paper on its own, hence, I just would like to point out one easily noticeable aftermath of this decision. The older generation (who participated at that concert in Florence and heavily opposed American film music) simply stopped composing for films within a couple of months – as it can be seen from the filmographies of William Walton, Benjamin Frankel, Antony Hopkins or Clifton Parker. A new generation (which included the likes of resident James Bond composer John Barry or the Academy Award winning John Addison) was willing to play by the rules of Hollywood and could make their mark in the New World, as well. This change of guards marked a new step in Euro-American film music relations, one which could only be discussed at another time.


The immediate reception of the film music-themed concert during the 1950 International Music Congress in Florence as well as the debate around the event mark the first outspoken break between the American and European film music scene. The argument of the American and European delegates finally pointed out the obvious differences between the film music culture of the two continents in eloquent and explainable terms. These could be summarized in the following: 1) American film composers were specialized in a given field, while their European counterparts were interested in several different areas of music; 2) American film composers organized their work in a manufacture fashion, while the European composers were more self-reliant, and thus, looked down upon those who did not follow these methods; 3) these differences led to a legal dreadlock that made collaboration between European composers and American studios almost impossible. Traces of musical discrepancy may still be detected between the two continents’ usage of film music – this could perhaps explain some of the more subtle differences between American and European cinema.


Works Cited

  • Dassin, Jules, dir. 1950. Night and the City. Written by Jo Eisinger et al. Twentieth Century-Fox Productions.
  • Faiola, Ray. 2003. “Liner notes to The Night and the City.” Screen Archives SAECRS008.
  • Frend, Charles, dir. 1948. Scott of the Antarctic. Written by Walter Meade et al. Ealing Studios.
  • Hopkins, Antony. 1951. “Film Music.” Sight and Sound, Part 1: August 1950, Part 2: May 1951. In Hans Keller. “Dragon Shows his Teeth.” Music Review, Vol. 12. No. 03, August, (221-225), 223-224.
  • Keller, Hans. 1951. “Dragon Shows his Teeth.” Music Review, Vol. 12. No. 03, August, 221-225.
  • ——. 1947-48. “Hollywood Music – Another View.” Sight and Sound, 16.64, 168-169.
  • Kubik, Gail. 1962. “Original contract for I Thank a Fool.” Housed at University of Kansas, Gail Kubik Special Collection.
  • ——. 1951. “The Dragon Shows His Teeth.” Music Review, Vol. 12, No. 3, August, 221-225.
  • Langley, Noel, dir. 1952. The Pickwick Papers. Written by Charles Dickens and Noel Langley. George Minter Productions.
  • Milestone, Lewis, dir. 1949. The Red Pony. Written by John Steinbeck. Chas. K. Feldman Group Productions Inc.
  • Morton, Lawrence. 1951a. “Film Music of the Quarter.” Hollywood Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 3, Spring, 282.
  • ——. 1951b. “Composing, Orchestration and Criticizing.” The Quarterly of Film, Radio and Television, May, 193.
  • Prendergast, Roy M. 1992. Film Music: A Neglected Art. New York: Norton.
  • Ustinov, Peter, dir. 1962. Billy Budd. Written by Peter Ustinov et al. Allied Artists Pictures.