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Composing : Was tchaikovsky the original film score composer? by Michael Joseph DeRosa

Michael Joseph DeRosa

Was tchaikovsky the original film score composer?

WAS TCHAIKOVSKY THE ORIGINAL FILM SCORE COMPOSER?

Before there was film, there was programmatic music. Tchaikovsky’s ballets and operas have a clear visual content to follow, but not his beloved fantasy overtures such as Romeo and Juliet, and the 1812 Overture. Clearly he had a visual content that he was following, (a film that was playing in his mind’s eye.) There is a distinct “program” in Romeo and Juliet to follow in his composition, that brings the visions to listener, as we follow every blow of the sword fight where Romeo kills Tybalt to his tragic death with Juliet. Or the attack of Napoleon’s French soldiers in the 1812 Overture to their retreat and defeat as the triumphant Russians bells ring out. The same can be said of Tchaikovsky’s other programmatic works such as: The Tempest, The Storm, Hamlet, Festival Overture on the Danish National Anthem, Sleeping Beauty, etc.

Music has always had a tendency to “borrow” from preceding great composers, whether credit was given, (such as Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini), or not. The current use of “temping” in film scores brings forth such criticisms such as John Williams is ripping off Korngold in Stars Wars, but who was Korngold ripping off? Until recently I thought the 1938 score to “The Adventures of Robin Hood” was using Tchaikovsky’s 4th and 6th symphonies as the score, until I discovered it was Korngold’s score. So where does it all begin?

Certainly we all stand on the shoulders of giants. Tchaikovsky himself was groomed by the “Russian Five” of whom both Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov are renowned for the programmatic tone poem “A Night on Bald Mountain.” There is always more to be gained by going to the source of something than by imitating an imitation. So where does it all begin? Do we stop at the very earliest films or should programmatic music count as “films” before there was even celluloid? If we do, then who was the best example of this type of composition? Who would be the original?

So I ask again: “WAS TCHAIKOVSKY THE ORIGINAL FILM SCORE COMPOSER?”

Dillon M. DeRosa

Great post dad. We both share our love for Tchaikovsky and I have to agree. If not the original-film composer he sure would've been the best. He's shown countless times again how strong of a programmatic composer he can be through his ballets, fantasy-overtures, and symphonies. As well, we can't deny his gift for unforgettable themesfrom nutcracker, swan lake, to the love them in Romeo & Juliet. He would've been a successful and strong thematic composer for film.

If film was around when Tchaikovksy was alive I have no doubt he would've wrote film scores.

Joanna Karselis

The earliest programmatic music I'm aware of is Vivaldi's Four Seasons. There are clear indications of the scene that each piece is accompanying, so Vivaldi is potentially the earliest programmatic composer.

Joel Irwin

Music for film certainly helps our minds eye visualize but as you stated, before there was film, there were 'suites' of orchestral music to enable the listener to visualize things without watching video.

As a child, I grew up constantly listening to Resphigi's "Rome" trilogy - especially the opening one - Pines of Rome. To this day, the music takes me to places and times - always somewhere different. The orchestrations are exquisite and the melodic mood keeps changing and making 'turns' (especially at 3 minutes where it goes light and slow). I have never actually watched and studied the score. 67 minutes of wonderful visualizes.

What I have studied over the years in composing classes I have taken is the full orchestra score for "Pictures At An Exhibition". While originally written for piano by Mussorgsky, there was subsequently a full orchestra version by Maurice Ravel. If you want an opportunity to study a score designed to support your mind on a trip, I highly recommend you get the orchestral score and read it while listening to the music.

Joanna Karselis

Joel, Respighi's Rome is one of my favourites! He also writes very nicely for the violin in that suite, so if you're thinking of studying the score, there may be violin writing gems hidden in there for you. Mussorgsky/Ravel are good tips. There's also Berlioz's An American In Paris (not to my taste but admired by many).

Michael Joseph DeRosa

Resphigi's Pines of Rome is also one of my favorites, Joel. Mussorgsky is credited as writing one of the first "tone poems" by a Russian composer. Tone poems are certainly programmatic, and composers have always been inspired to write music based on their surroundings. Joanna is also correct in pointing out that Vivaldi's 'The Four Seasons' is a programmatic piece, and we could say the same for any opera or ballet. However, I'm not sure if any of these programmatic pieces we've mentioned would make a good film score, unless of course the film was designed around it, as for instance has been the case with Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. Classical pieces have been used in countless films, (Strauss's Thus Spake Zarathustra in '2001: A Space Odyssey', Beethoven's music in 'A Clockwork Orange' and countless other's, especially when it's public domain.) So my supposition about Tchaikovsky was not meant to be, was he the "first" film score composer, as we can trace the roots of programmatic music probably as far back as the Greek choruses. My question is of course subject, and as I said "who was the best example of this type of composition?" More over, if we're writing an original film score, then who would be someone you might pick to "temp" or use as a template to write an original film score?

Joel Irwin

Possibly off topic, but perhaps the most, or one of the most, pieces of classical music ever used in film is the opening to Beethoven's Symphony 7 Movement 2. (the opening 3 minutes) It is short haunting melody in A minor (at least my version is) which is repeated and layered as it progresses (with increasing dynamics and countermelody).

In my opinion, it is amazing how he opens with repetitive E's as he changes the underlying progressions and moves the melody into the middle of the chord. Then a movement to repetitive Gs. Then the tonal center moves to the maj equivalent - C and through a series of chord progressions final back to A-. I was always amazed how effective this melody and arrangement was done with so few and many repetitive notes all done in diatonic 1 to 5s and a series of modulations through 2 and 5. About the only other composer I know who was a 'master' of note brevity was Antonio Carlos Jobim.

I always wondered what was it about this opening that has intrigued so many filmmakers - was it the melody, the way chords and tonal centers moved, the layering, something else, or a combination of the above.

What I have felt and always told by my profs is to study the masters to pick up ideas for our own sounds and scores. No matter how 'modern' the music seems to get in today's films, there is still no substitute imho for studying and following the 'masters' - especially if the composer works with live acoustic instrumentation.

Michael Joseph DeRosa

In writing a potential score for my own screenplay, I couldn’t get a lush romantic theme of my own to sound the way I heard it in my head. I was using “Note Performer” to produce the sounds on Sibelius. Every orchestration I wrote reminded me or a bad church organ. Then it occurred to me that one section of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet used the triplet accompaniment I was trying to orchestrate in the woodwinds. So transcribed Tchaikovsky’s entire orchestration for that section into Sibelius, and then replaced all of his notes with my own melody and parts, while keeping his exact orchestration. In other words I used his orchestration as a template for my own score. The result was miraculous! It produced exactly what I was hearing in my head. Despite years of studying composition and orchestration, there is nothing like learning from the masters. I highly recommend this technique. There is a huge difference in knowing how to orchestrate, and being a master orchestrator, as great composers such as Beethoven, or Tchaikovsky, etc.

Michael Joseph DeRosa

I whole heartedly agree with you Joel, “…there is... no substitute… for studying and following the 'masters' - especially if the composer works with live acoustic instrumentation.”

Joel Irwin

Michael - great idea as the Masters 'stole' :) from their predecessors as well. Just as you should know (and often shared here as a separate topic), I also use Sibelius for my scores (and not my DAW which is currently Sonar Producer) and I have multiple versions of "Note Performer" - while it is rather well integrated, I personally have never liked the 'sound' - it really didn't meet muster for me for a releasable score. So I normally use alternatives that can be loaded and played through Kontakt. My two primary orchestrations are "Cinesamples" and I also often use "Miroslav" (the older GIG samples which I converted to Kontakt though I also purchased the current one with its own sampler) for a more lush string sound (Cinesamples legato never quite resonated with me - no pun intended). Perhaps some day I may add on EWQL. I am still trying to stay away from any sample sets that require security dongles like Vienna. I am also fond of the various Abbey Road drum sets (and Soundset Project drum maps for Sibelius) and after 15 to 20 years, I still use Dan Dean for solo instrumentation (strings, woodswinds, and brass). My Yamaha C7 piano comes from sampletekk.com - best place to get pianos imho.

I include a single reference here of a recent score just so you can hear all of the above in action. I much prefer currently to score in sheet music so it can 'conceptually' be used either for electronic or live performance.

https://soundcloud.com/joelirwin/rumspringa-prelude (an Amish dramatic thriller released at the end of 2018)

Dillon M. DeRosa

Thank you for the insight Joel, and your piece was lovely. I personally use Noteperformer when writing my scores in Sibelius first, but then take it to my DAW Cubase to be mocked up with better sounds from many different companies via Kontakt (Cinesamples, Orchestral Tools, Spitfire Audio etc). As you mentioned, Noteperformer isn't the best sounding mockup however it does an excellent job getting you close to how the orchestra will sound & balance compared to the original Sibelius Soundset.

EWQL is a great choice especially because of there very cheap $25 subscription models for access to I believe all of their sounds.

Stealing from masters is how composition is learned. Composition is just like any other craftsman skill like for example being a Blacksmith: You watch the master & copy how they do it for years until you slowly develop your own techniques. Obviously, plagiarism is a different story; however, stealing from the masters is something every composer throughout history as always done as it's one of the most efficient ways to learn.

Michael Joseph DeRosa

That’s an impressive DAW, Joel. The solo instruments are quite credible. The mix of course brings us out of the concert hall, and into the realm of film sound tracks, where staying under the dialog is usually the goal. It’s a nice piece and certainly captures the concept of an Amish thriller. I’m not a working film score composer as yourself, and I leave the technical expertise to my three sons. Dillon is the family’s working film score composer, and his brother Ryan is a working sound engineer. They still turn to me for compositional advice, (having studied composition a Juilliard.) I look to them for the technical expertise. For me the technology, such as Note Performer), allows me to hear what I’ve written. I set aside an opera I had written in 1972 my early twenties, when I calculated it was going to take me a year just to write out all the parts. I read back then that the University of Pennsylvania had a million dollar computer that could do what Sibelius does now, and decided to wait until it was more affordable. I’ve kept up with the times, but not as well as you perhaps. So what’s a nice Brooklyn boy doing in Houston? I’ll be in Bay Ridge on Friday with my sons, helping them get ready for a vocal performance in Manhattan.

Linwood Bell

Michael, does the heart good to see you and your son here. Like you, I'm lucky enough to make music with mine on occasion. One of life's greatest joys. I use digital performer for my daw of choice and sibelius for notation. I haven't bought note performer yet. I probably should, but I'm so use to how bad .sib sounds. lol Dillion's probably seen Alan Silvestri talking about cubase/dorico. If I had to buy new they'd have my money.

Joanna Karselis

Really interesting stuff guys. Two things- Joel, just so you know, I think EW libraries need a security dongle (I have to use an iLok with mine). And Linwood, I wouldn't switch to dorico just yet- I've been playing with it in the last few weeks and it's got a long way to go until it's a credible option. I'm sticking with DAW and Sibelius for now, and from what I can glean, that's the popular consensus.

Michael Joseph DeRosa

I agree Linwood, music is a gift meant to be shared, and it is one of my life’s greatest joys. I highly recommend getting Note Performer. They let you use two copies and it’s only a little over $100, (so maybe you could share that with your son, lol.) My son Ryan used to use Pro Tools, (which he got certification on in college), and I found it too steep a learning curve. Dillon began with Pro Tools but switched to Cube Base, and now Ryan has also switched because Pro Tools kept crashing his system.

I totally agree with Joanna about Dorico. It’s a great idea, but it’s just not ready yet. I bought Sibelius when it first came out, and chose it over Finale, (which at the time was the preferred notation program.) Dillon grew up with it. If that’s the consensus, then maybe I’m not as out of the loop as I thought. Here’s what I keep bringing up with my sons. What the DAW’s are missing is the complexity of what happens in a live concert hall. If the instrument samples are taken in a sterile environment, it leaves out all of the harmonic overtones that occur in an orchestra. When a trumpet sounds the strings in the orchestra vibrate, even when they are not playing, (as do all the other instruments.) This is not just the reverberation of the hall. I’m sure this would be an extremely complex algorithm to factor, but until it is addressed, there can’t be a truly realistic recreation of the orchestra.

Linwood Bell

My son's name is Ryan, as well. I saw it was on sale this month for $78. Maybe today I pull the plug!! There's so much stuff I want to get and I've already got too much. Here the Silvestri clips I was talking about: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GrDqGEQux7g

Linwood Bell

Joel's music I was already hip to from being a member for a while, ...but I just listened to Michael, Joanna, and Dillon. Wow! You are all so great. Wonderful music. Bravo!! So nice to have you here.

Michael Joseph DeRosa

Thank you for the compliments Linwood, but you are quite accomplished, yourself. I had always dreamed of writing jingles, but never found my way into the field. I was chatting on the phone with the head of the composition department at Berklee School of music, when Dillon won a scholarship there. He asked me if I was still composing, and told him that I was still writing but wasn't making any money at it. He said, "Oh, I see you're familiar with music composition." Anyone who can manage to make a living out of composing music of any application, has only to be proud of it. My compliments. Dillon has seen the Silvestri clips before and told me about them.

Linwood Bell

Yes Sir, if the pencil is in your hand it's all serious music.

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