Composers in the Movies: Studies in Musical Biography

By York, Steven | Notes, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Composers in the Movies: Studies in Musical Biography


York, Steven, Notes


Composers in the Movies: Studies in Musical Biography. By John C. Tibbetts. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. [xvi, 365 p. ISBN 0-30010674-2. $45.] Illustrations, index, bibliography, notes.

There has been a great deal written about movies, movie music, and composers, but John Tibbetts's Composers in the Movies: Studies in Musical Biography is the first to explore the history of feature films and documentaries specifically about composers. For many viewers, these films served, and continue to serve, as introductions to these composers and their music. For example, the film Amadeus (1984) introduced many moviegoers to Mozart and his works. Who can forget the dramatic scene in which Mozart (Tom Hulce) dictates, with his dying breath, sections of his Requiem to "rival" Salieri (F. Murray Abraham)? In his introduction, Tibbetts acknowledges his fondness for composer biopics, applauding them especially for their inclusion of great music, which plays an important part in "enhancing the image and enlivening the biography" (p. 3). He also admits, and discusses throughout the book, that accuracy has not always been a hallmark of these productions. He concludes that, since Hollywood studios had full research resources at their disposal, "any alterations in the historical record were made deliberately, according to the working contexts of industry and consumer exigencies and demands" (p. 3).

An associate professor in theater and film studies at the University of Kansas, Tibbetts considers commercial films from Hollywood, independent films, and documentaries produced for television and the big screen, dividing the book into roughly four sections. The first deals with composer biopics created during Hollywood's "studio era," 1930-1960, with one chapter being devoted to A Song to Remember (1945), based on the life of Chopin and starring Cornel Wilde. Next Tibbetts examines biopics of popular and "Tin Pan-Alley" composers. Chapters 4 and 5 are biographical sketches of filmmakers Ken Russell and Tony Palmer. The final chapter focuses on more recent films, such as Amadeus (1984), and Testimony (1987) about Shostakovich.

In the first chapter, "The Classical Style: Composers in the Studio Era," Tibbetts describes films produced between 1930 and 1960, known by film historians as the "classical period" of the studio system and called by Tibbetts the "golden age" of the composer biopic (pp. 18-19). The films represented here were made by large Hollywood studios and by smaller British and American studios working independently or in collaboration. They represent the lives of seemingly tragic yet triumphant composers from Schubert to Johann Strauss, Jr., and Gilbert and Sullivan. Tibbetts finds the following to be among the most commonly held agendas of these productions: "I) They conform the "life" so as to make it congruent with the narrative structures and formulas common to [other genres]; 2) They "normalize" and contain the artist's life ... ; 3) They pluck the musical texts out of their historical contexts . .. [and] transmute them into collages and pastiches deployed via the programmatic and leitmotif techniques of late-nineteenthcentury "Romantic" composers (pp. 20-21).

Tibbetts presents these films chronologically and, for each film, gives a synopsis as well as its history in terms of release dates, production problems, remakes, historical accuracy, and reception. The sheer number of titles cited here-including original productions, remakes, and derivative titles -leaves the narrative flow somewhat bogged down.

From the same era, Tibbetts devotes an entire chapter to the commercially successful film A Song to Remember (1945) starring Cornel Wilde as Frédéric Chopin and Merle Oberon as George Sand. Clearly, this film made a life-long impression on Tibbetts. He describes his first viewing of the wholly fabricated scene in which "Chopin embarks on a suicidal concert tour to aid Polish freedom fighters. …

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