Articles & Essays

“A Steppe is a Steppe”: How Hitler Helped to Create Hollywood Music

By Paul Chihara

Most critics and historians of film music consider Max Steiner's soundtrack for King Kong to have been the first great Hollywood film score. The movie was released in 1933, the same year in which Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Thanks to one of the many ironies of history, politics and art, the “Golden Age” of film music was almost exactly coextensive with the sordid human tragedy known as the Third Reich (1933-1945). During those years, the fledgling movie industry in Hollywood attracted the genius of Old-World musicians from Vienna, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Budapest and elsewhere – composers at the height of their creative powers, versed in the classical and romantic musical tradition – to participate in this new form of mass entertainment. They were neither students nor pioneers, but rather established, active European composers, among the best of their generation. And they created what many consider to be the finest scores ever written for the film industry.

In addition to Steiner, this early group of émigré composers included Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Dimitri Tiomkin and Miklós Rózsa. Born and educated in Central and Eastern Europe, they were already prominent musicians, eminently successful in the world of classical music and opera. All of them escaped the Holocaust - several just barely - and made their way, often precariously, to a new world and a new industry. They brought with them the music of their old world, just as that world was beginning to destroy itself.

Both Korngold and his friend Steiner were considered Wunderkinder in early twentieth-century Vienna: Korngold was so designated by Mahler, and Steiner by Richard Strauss, who was his godfather. Steiner studied piano with Brahms, and Korngold studied composition with Alexander Zemlinsky. Dimitri Tiomkin studied composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with Alexander Glazunov, who also taught Prokofiev and Shostakovich. And perhaps the most significant influence on the music of the new industry in Hollywood was a composer who left Berlin just as Hitler was coming to power and who never wrote a complete film score, but who immigrated to Los Angeles and taught at UCLA: Arnold Schoenberg. Without his teaching and influence on such composers as Bernard Herrmann, David Raksin, Alfred Newman and Leonard Rosenman the music of film noir would have developed very differently than it did. It would never have become a successful marriage of expressionism with jazz – arguably the most original and profound of musical styles to emerge from Hollywood films.

Korngold made no attempt to make his score for Robin Hood–still considered by many to be the greatest film score ever–sound particularly English. Other than a passing reference to “Sumer is icumen in,” there are no British folk tunes in the score, no parallel progressions of chords in first inversion, no kitsch diaphanous, modal string textures, no pipes or viols or simple pastoral percussion. What we hear is not pastoral chamber music but a full symphony orchestra in all its glory. The voluptuous score is closer to the romantic world of Der Rosenkavalier than to Sherwood Forest. (What a blessing for a young Japanese-American like myself, growing up in a relocation camp during the Second World War, in Minidoka, Idaho, and later in Seattle--far from the opera houses or concert halls of Vienna or of New York–to hear such magical music, married to equally magical images. That's entertainment – and a lot more!)

In 1920, at the age of 23, Erich Korngold had composed a successful opera, Die tote Stadt (The Dead City), which became a worldwide success, with performances throughout Germany as well as at the Staatsoper in Vienna and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. This was among the works banned by the Nazis after they came to power in 1933. Korngold first came to Los Angeles in 1934, at the invitation of director Max Reinhardt, also a Viennese Jew, to adapt Mendelssohn's music from A Midsummer Night's Dream for a film version of the Shakespeare play, with Mickey Rooney as Puck and choreography by Bronislava Nijinska. He then returned to Vienna, where he was conducting opera and teaching at the State Academy when, in 1938, Warner Brothers invited him back to Hollywood to score the music for a lavish, swashbuckling movie, The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn. Shortly thereafter, the Anschluss occurred that linked Germany and Austria together--the first major step in Hitler's master plan to create the New World Order. Korngold was lucky to have escaped when he did. Robin Hood won him an Academy Award for Best Original Score, and Korngold said later that this movie had saved his life. It was appropriate that his first international success as a movie composer should have been in his own romantic operatic style of composition, an “opera without singing,” as he himself described his scores. (This is an approach to film scoring that was mastered two generations later by John Williams, another genius trained in classical music--and in his case also jazz--who studied at UCLA and at Juilliard.)

Korngold himself commented on his style of film composition in these wonderful words, which for me, as a composer of film and concert music, are an expression of honest and modest integrity: “Never have I differentiated between my music for the films and that for the operas and concert pieces. Just as I do for the operatic stage, I try to give the motion pictures dramatically melodious music, sonic development, and variation of the themes.”

In all, Korngold would compose eighteen film scores, all of them excellent, as well as adaptations of music by Mendelssohn and Wagner. Although the number of his movies is modest in comparison with that of others of his generation and background, those relatively few scores were hugely influential and left an indelible impression on all the film composers who followed him.

Korngold's friend and fellow Austrian Jew Max Steiner was working in London in 1914 when the First World War broke out. He was declared an enemy alien by the British government, but was allowed to leave for New York. He worked on Broadway for eleven years, with George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Victor Herbert, among others, and moved to Hollywood in 1929, soon to be joined by his friend Korngold. Among the movies that Steiner scored are many of the most beloved masterpieces of cinema: Gone With the Wind, King Kong, Casablanca, The Gay Divorcee (starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers), Now, Voyager, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Searchers. The number of his scores is staggering (300 films are credited to him, although he was supported by a staff of excellent composers and orchestrators), and the great variety of musical genres and styles is equally impressive. Perhaps the most astonishing element in his work is its consistently high quality, whether in fantasy, musicals, adventure, romance, historical drama or comedy–there was nothing he could not do, and his work was characterized by outstanding technique, panache and emotional lyricism. He was an old-school composer who wrote from the heart with little concern for academic theory or adventurism. The same could be said of Korngold and for almost all the other expatriate composers who migrated to Hollywood from Western Europe.

When complimented on having helped to create Hollywood music, Steiner replied, “Nonsense. The idea originated with Richard Wagner. Listen to the incidental scoring behind the recitatives in his operas. If Wagner had lived in this century, he would have been the Number One film composer.”

Richard Wagner, despite his well-known and often-declared anti-Semitism, remained Steiner's musical model from King Kong to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, from Casablanca to The Searchers. How ironic that the very people who were hounded, defiled and persecuted mercilessly by the Nazis would remain steadfastly loyal to Germany's musical traditions! When some of these expatriate composers returned to their native countries after the war, they discovered to their dismay that the shell-shocked survivors were no longer receptive to the romantic vocabulary of the nineteenth century, which they and other Hollywood composers still employed. The great musical tradition they had nurtured during the darkest years of Fascism had been replaced by a contemporary musical language that scorned the music of their “old-fashioned” German predecessors. Korngold, among many others, felt rejected and ignored by his own countrymen and former colleagues.

Franz Waxman, born in Silesia (now Poland) in 1906, began his film compositional career in Germany (orchestrating the classic film The Blue Angel (1930), starring Marlene Dietrich) and after 1933 in France with Friz Lang. He arrived in Hollywood in 1935, and composed the score for what what would become a cult classic Bride of Frankenstein, his first American film. Shortly thereafter he began his association with Alfred Hitchcock with haunting scores for four immortal films (Rebecca, Suspicion, The Paradine Case, and Rear Window). Perhaps his greatest score is also his greatest film A Place in the Sun (1951), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Cliff. This won an Oscar, as did his previous score for the legendary Sunset Boulevard (1950). Like other Jewish composers arriving in Hollywood, Waxman had a sublime lyric gift: he was perhaps one of the greatest melodists of them all.

Another artist from Central Europe was the brilliant pianist, folklorist and composer Miklós Rózsa, destined to become one of Hollywood's most beloved and successful composers and the winner of three Oscars. He was born to Jewish parents in Budapest, converted to Lutheranism and studied music at Leipzig. But in 1934, as the Nazis' power was increasing, he moved to Paris, and five years later he came to Hollywood with the famous director Alexander Korda, another Hungarian Jew, to work on The Thief of Bagdad. His score for Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound is a classic--the ever-popular version of it as a piano concerto appears frequently on pops concerts--and so is his music for the biblical epic Ben Hur and the uplifting Christian dramas Quo Vadis and King of Kings, which are accompanied by appropriately religious music. Rozsa's passion for the folk music of his native Hungary colors his melodies, his orchestration and the drama of his music, which is closer to the world of early Bartók than to that of Richard Strauss. His music is different from the German romanticism of Korngold and Steiner, closer to the harmonic world of German Expressionism in film noir, as, for instance, in his influential scores for Double Indemnity, Lost Weekend and The Killers, whose melody was later used as the main theme for the popular TV show Dragnet. Though Rozsa was not fond of Schoenberg's twelve-tone system of composition, he excelled in writing film noir scores, as did Schoenberg's principal Hollywood students Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Vertigo) and David Raksin (Laura, The Bad and the Beautiful). The three of them were among the principal creators of the music for film noir, which remains one of Hollywood's unique achievements.

Is there anything more American than the cowboy? And is not the Western the quintessential movie form of the rugged individual that we Americans honor as an idealized role model, and whose music we most associate with such paragons of male Americana as John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart, Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster? But the composer most often credited with having created the musical style for the American western is Dimitri Tiomkin, who was born in the Ukraine to a scholarly and musical Jewish family. He was educated in St. Petersburg and was recognized as an accomplished pianist and composer even before his graduation. More than any other composer, Tiomkin created the grand themes so often associated with the Big Sky of the American West--as with the steppes of Central Asia. He once said, comparing the vast expanses of Asiatic Russia to the American West: “A steppe is a steppe.” He composed the memorable scores for High Noon, Giant, Rio Bravo, Gunfight at the OK Corral, Friendly Persuasion and Duel in the Sun, among many other glorious Western soundtracks. In his orchestration, melodic style, harmony, and grandeur we hear echoes of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, although one must also acknowledge the significant influence of Aaron Copland, whose lyric grace and impressionistic loneliness, learned in Paris from Nadia Boulanger, also became the voice of the American Southwest. Tiomkin left Russia shortly after the Revolution, traveling to Berlin and then Paris (1922-1925) before immigrating to New York (1929) and eventually moving to Hollywood, where he scored his first major triumph, Alice in Wonderland, in the fateful year 1933. The theme of his most famous film song, “Do Not Forsake Me,” from High Noon, has been described by several Russian film historians and Jewish music scholars (primarily Jack Gottlieb in his authoritative Funny, It Doesn't Sound Jewish) as an adaptation of a Yiddish song, “Dem milners trern,” by the Ukrainian entertainer Mark Warshavsky.

Arnold Schoenberg, who, more than any other composer, changed the course of twentieth-century music, predicted that his twelve-tone system would “ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.” And indeed, after the war his system and the music of his famous disciples Berg and Webern inspired the new music of Western Europe. To the younger generation of German composers, Korngold, Rozsa and other film composers had become unpleasant reminders of the romantic music of the ‘thirties and ‘forties that they now associated with the Nazi era.

Schoenberg himself made several forays into film composition: his haunting concert piece Begleitungmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene (Accompaniment for a Film Scene) and his unfinished sketches for the Paramount adventure film Souls at Sea (1937) and the Pearl Buck feature The Good Earth. He wrote: “I have at last learned the lesson that has been forced upon me during this year [1933], and I shall not ever forget it. It is that I am not a German, not a European, indeed perhaps scarcely a human being (at least the Europeans prefer the worst of their race to me) but I am a Jew.”


Paul Chihara is a Professor of Music at UCLA and the Chair of Visual Media (film music). He received his doctorate from Cornell University and studied with the renowned pedagogue Nadia Boulanger in Paris, Ernst Pepping in Berlin, and with Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood. He has received many commissions from major symphony orchestras and won numerous awards, including Composer of the Year by the Classical Recording Foundation in New York in 2008. He has composed more than 100 motion picture and television scores.

The Schoenberg Family has recently given Mr Chihara the sketches for Arnold Schoenberg's unfinished film score The Good Earth, with permission to examine the sketches and decide if it might be possible “to create a film composition based on those sketches” and, if so, to proceed.

Article revised: October 19, 2011

Articles & Essays