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Alfred Newman: How the West was Won - film score

Rhino/Turner R2 72458 (2 discs)


David Aspinall

Of the men who originated the 'Hollywood sound' in the '30s, Alfred Newman was the only one born in America. Steiner and Korngold were Austrian, Waxman German, Tiomkin Russian, Rozsa Hungarian. In Hollywood's system it was axiomatic that the composer submerge his personal (and national) identity in the dramato-historic demands of the assignment at hand. In those heady days when even Oscar winners (Korngold excepted) were expected to contribute 6-10 scores per year to the studio assembly line, even the most impenetrably Mittel-European accents could fake mid-American, musically anyhow. First cousins of Mahler, Schoenberg and Bartok were compelled to compete with Copland in the development of an American sound. As WW2 started, while Max Steiner indelibly repaints the Civil War south in Gone With the Wind, and Dmitri Tiomkin self-consciously gropes his way through the Capra-cornpone conventions of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe towards his mature style, Copland himself applies his unique idiom to Of Mice and Men and Our Town. After he had become America's favourite composer for the horse opera (Duel in the Sun, Red River, High Noon), Dmitri explained how a Russian could be so at home on the range: 'a steppe is a steppe is a steppe' was his summation. Paradoxically, Steiner's South (via Vienna) and Tiomkin's Range-and-vodka have now become as American as Copland's Appalachia.

Alfred Newman, however, was the real thing. Born in New Haven, Connecticut, oldest of 10 children born to Jewish parents, at eight a piano prodigy, at ten studying in New York with Sigismond Stojowski. Besides being teacher of Oscar Levant, Stojowski is best known for his caustic musical judgments, such as his dictum that Saint-Saëns' Second Piano Concerto began with Bach and ended with Offenbach. Which quip might just as well describe the fate of the typical Hollywood composer (although by the '60s the acerbic Bernard Herrmann might have amended it to include Bacharach).

Newman, though, was no musical snob. Broadway and Brahms were in his blood. In fact, he was present during Broadway's infancy, conducting on the Great White Way by age seventeen, and, still well shy of thirty, leading premiers of Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers and Hart, and Irving Berlin. It was the latter who brought Newman to Hollywood as music director for the early sound version of Berlin's Reaching for the Moon. And, ironically for one now remembered as the quintessential Hollywood composer, it was as master of musical adaptation that Newman won seven of his record nine Academy Awards; the first for Berlin's Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938), the last for Lerner and Loewe's Camelot (1967). The first original Newman score to achieve recognition was the Gershwinesque Street Scene (1931), reused for How to Marry a Millionaire and many urban nightscapes.

But if Newman knew New York, he knew the rest of America as well as any composer who wrote its history and geography in musical notation. Whether capturing the confidence of colonial pioneers, or, a year later, depicting depression dustbowls, both for John Ford (Drums Along the Mohawk, The Grapes of Wrath); whether faithfully recreating a gentler, kinder era (Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie, O.Henry's Full House); whetherpainting the presidents (Young Mr. Lincoln, Wilson, Jackson in The President's Lady); or while simply dressing America's natural landscapes, (old California in The Mark of Zorro, Utah in Brigham Young, Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop and Seven Year Itch), Newman uncannily caught the spirit of the situation with disarming ease, and whatever the setting, always sounded absolutely at home. He underscored action better than anyone. (Korngold didn't like underscoring screen busy-ness, though he did it memorably; but action sequences often brought out the worst mannerisms in Rozsa and Tiomkin.) Yet Newman really excelled at interior action - that is, the world behind the eyes, that which Rozsa called the soul of cinema - he found musical forms for the screen's third dimension as well as anyone ever has. Witness what Newman did with some of sound cinema's great silent sequences: an ambitious young starlet, a statuette and multiple mirrors (All About Eve); a wild Yorkshire moor and windblown heather (Wuthering Heights); a gypsy girl on an errand of mercy to a helpless cripple (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Laughton version); a bereaved father tenderly holding a daughter's journal (The Diary of Anne Frank).

All of which made Newman the ideal musical illustrator for the vast Cinerama canvas How the West Was Won (1962). This ambitious tribute to America's pioneers called on all the composer's versatility, even if it seldom sounded the depths of his spiritual well. Newman and vocal arranger Ken Darby recalled this as one of their happiest collaborations, and it shows. The traditional and original materials are woven into a seamless tapestry which, in its melodious exuberance, taps the richest vein of America's mythos. This film (and score) could hardly have been created but a few years after - in the late '60s Uncle Sam took a psychic mauling from which he has not recovered. But Newman would not survive to see the creeping cynicism of the '70s. Like Steiner who also left this life at the beginning of the decade, he was the child of an optimistic age. West, film and score, reflect the self-assuredness of a nation convinced of its divinely ordained destiny. (Of which South Pacific's 'Cockeyed Optimist', Nellie Forbush, may well be the symbol - re Pacific, a sidelight: it is said that Richard Rodgers was so moved by the Newman/Darby soundtrack arrangements that he wept at the first rehearsal.)

The original West MGM soundtrack highlighted Debbie Reynolds' vocals and Ken Darby's reworking of folksongs. This limited Newman's score to about half the LP's forty minutes, though his thematic material survived more or less intact. The severe truncation had one indubitable benefit - it emphasized the variety of Newman's invention. The Rhino CD, however, allows us to evaluate Newman's full accomplishment (and in splendidly natural sound, by the way) . Many sequences, mere snippets on the LP, are presented in their original extensions. Here are cues that did not survive the final cut, also alternate takes. By end credits, after two2 hours of film music the like of which they don't write anymore, we may well wax nostalgic about how much we took for granted in 'The Golden Daze', before the myths of old Hollywood evaporated. It took Kern, Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart and Berlin - children of Jewish immigrants - to distill the essence of American popular music, and to raise it to heights unreached since. It took another composer of Jewish descent, Aaron Copland, to create a distinctively American sound for the concert hall. But it was left for Newman of New Haven to sum up for the movie soundtrack the energy, the effervescence of America before her soul fled.


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