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Given the growing critical attention being afforded to music composed for films, one of the increasing frustrations for academics and aficionados has been the difficulty of accessing original source materials. Celluloid Symphonies sets out to address that problem by offering more than 50 essays and interviews by some of the key composers and commentators who have defined its form and function.

There’s much of interest to be found in the material covering the first three decades of film when advice (often of the hectoring kind) rather than analysis was to the fore. Two pieces from 1909 encapsulate the challenges of the new musical frontier. Where the Edison Kinetogram offers incidental music cues and playing indications for its latest releases, moving Picture World’s advice to cinema managers is more pointed: ‘get a good piano player [and] pay a salary which will justify you in demanding the best work.’

Arranged chronologically, the book charts the developing complexity of music’s contribution to film and the perpetually problematic position of the composer. The first decade of ‘talkies’ was a period of jostling for position as much as searching for priorities. Hitchock’s somewhat surprising assertion that ‘every film should have a complete musical score before it goes into production’ is adroitly tempered by Sigmund Romberg’s tilting against the hierarchical dominance of the producer.

Essays by luminaries such as Copland, Morricone and Korngold provide fascinating insights into both process and product. Just as interesting is the emergence of musicological and philosophical perspectives on film music, essays by Harold C Schonberg and Theodor Adorno’s collaboration with Hans Eisler both vital documents.

There are useful sections dealing with the intrusion of other music – rock and roll, jazz and pop – and its consequences for the status of composers and their art, and with ‘the postmodern soundtrack’ in the video and digital age. not everything deserves to be here (interviews with Jerry Goldsmith and Danny Elfman conspicuously) but the informed commentaries by editor Julie Hubbert that preface each section are excellent and well worth reading together.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica


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