The Wizard of Oz

Auntie Em! Auntie Em!

Judy Garland in a gingham dress singing “Over the Rainbow” against a sepia-toned backdrop. That’s the musical image most viewers take away from THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939). But there is more to the score than some great songs by Harold Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg.

The Oscar-winning score (a bone of contention for nearly 70 years) is generally credited to Herbert Stothart–the “dean of the MGM Music Department”–but the credit is not entirely accurate. More on that in a post later this week.

The score contains one memorable cue after another, themes and motifs that have burrowed their way into our collective consciousness over time. The celeste that announces the arrival of Glinda (Billie Burke). The march into the Emerald City and the memorable “March of the Winkies,” with the classic “O-Ee-Yah!  Eoh-Ah!”

My favorite cue accompanies the classic cyclone sequence, which was actually written by George Bassman, not Stothart. It took Bassman three weeks to find the right balance for 90 seconds of music. (The audio sample is an extended version of the cue.)

Page of the "Cyclone" cue from THE WIZARD OF OZ

As snippets of Dorothy’s memory fly through the air, the music must change sometimes within a matter of bars. A distorted melody line from “We’re Off to See the Wizard” supplies the theme for Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton) and her fantasy alter egos, the Wicked Witch. “I wrote [the cue] and scrapped it five times,”  remembered Bassman in The Making of The Wizard of Oz. “Herb Stothart told me to work on it until I was happy with it. I wasn’t happy until the sixth version. Then it took me three or four days to lay out the sixth version for orchestration and two more weeks to score it.”

“[We used] an immensely large orchestra,” said Bassman. “Ninety instruments. Fifty was more common. It took the picture from the simplicity of Kansas to the beauty and grandeur of a different world and from black-and-white to color.” When Bassman was finished, it took 60 pages to score a minute and a half of music. “Theoretically, the cyclone could have been done in ten different ways. At least, ten different composers would have each done it differently. I chose to do it very much along the lines of what would have been done in a Disney film. The Witch had her theme. The dog had his theme. Music is essentially like a match or candle. You hold it to the film and it warms the scene. Or use a cool low flute and it makes the scene colder. Then, music either helps accelerate the action or retards the action or makes the action stand still. With the cyclone, we were accelerating the action—the house twisting and whirling—especially with the change in the film that would come afterward.”

As a child, Bassman’s many weeks of work on THE WIZARD OF OZ caused me countless nights of unrest. Today, his music is caught in the whirlwind of my memory.