Charles Gerhardt

Charles In Charge

Before there was Lukas, Bob, or Doug, before there was Silva Screen, Chandos, or Naxos, one man was responsible for excavating classic film scores from obscurity—Charles Gerhardt. With his series of Classic Film Scores recordings for RCA in the 1970s, Gerhardt (1927-1999) introduced a whole new generation to music from the Golden Age.

As a 14-year-old band nerd growing up in Grand Prairie, Texas (’nuff said), my first two score purchases—THE OMEN and STAR WARS—won Oscars. As a result, I used the Academy Awards as a crash course in film music, figuring that every nominated score was sure to be of equal caliber. (No comment.)

Even with Oscar as my guide, there were scant opportunities to hear older scores outside, or even inside, their respective films. In the pre-Blockbuster, pre-Netflix days, the only way to get a copy of most of this music was to peruse TV Guide, make sure you had control of the television at the appointed hour, demand silence from other family members, and place the tape recorder at just the right angle to the speakers to grab a less-than-pristine copy of the music, complete with dialogue, sound effects, and family life in the background. With only the afternoon and primetime movies, and the Late, Late Show to choose from, the odds of recording a particular score were slim.

Enter Charles Gerhardt and his Classic Film Scores. Not only did the series of 14 albums contain tracks from many of my sought-after Oscar scores, Gerhardt introduced me to composers and films I had never heard of. So who was Charles Gerhardt and why did he inspire such devotion from this geeky new film score nut?

Gerhardt began his career in classical music, working at RCA Records transferring 78-rpm recordings of Enrico Caruso to tape in preparation for LP pressings. He assisted at recordings for artists such as soprano Kirsten Flagstad and pianist Vladimir Horowitz, and worked with conductors like Leopold Stokowski and Charles Munch. Serving as the RCA liaison with Arturo Toscanini in the conductor’s last years, he took Toscanini’s advice and studied conducting.

In 1960, Gerhardt began to produce records for RCA and Reader’s Digest in London. He partnered with recording engineer Kenneth Wilkinson of Decca Records (RCA’s affiliate in Europe), recording 4,000 sessions over a span of 30 years. The Reader’s Digest recordings created so much work that another orchestra and conductor were needed. In January 1964, Gerhardt and orchestra leader Sidney Sax formed a group of top London orchestral and freelance musicians for use in the recording sessions. Later incorporated into the National Philharmonic Orchestra, the group recorded numerous soundtracks, including Jerry Goldsmith’s THE OMEN, ALIEN, and THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL.

Peter Munves, head of RCA’s classical division, approached Gerhardt with the idea of recording an album of music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Munves had been impressed with Gerhardt’s recordings of Korngold’s music for the Reader’s Digest series. “Korngold was one of my gods,” said Gerhardt. Another coup was securing producer George Korngold, the composer’s son, who had his own personal copies of his father’s music.

The Sea Hawk: Classic Films Scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold featured tracks from 10 different Korngold scores. Recorded in London’s acoustically generous Kingsway Hall, the album set a high standard for its pristine analog recording. The brilliant SEA HAWK brass fanfare that launched the album heralded something special. In track after track, Gerhardt elicited rousing playing from the National Philharmonic. The album was a sensation, with favorable reviews from Royal S. Brown in High Fidelity and even the stodgy New York Times. The album charted on Billboard for the first time in December 1972, at #37 and built until November 1973, when it became the best-selling classical album in the country. In one year alone, the album sold 38,000 copies and became the fifth-best-selling classical album of 1973. With a surprising hit record on their hands, it was only natural that more volumes would follow. Further albums showcased the work of Max Steiner, Alfred Newman, Dimitri Tiomkin, Bernard Herrmann, Miklós Rózsa and Franz Waxman. Later volumes revolved around music associated with particular movie stars.

The albums contained suites and isolated cues, rather than recordings of full scores, all meticulously prepared for optimal listening pleasure. Gerhardt said he wanted “to restore neglected symphonic film scores to the kind of musical status which years of bowdlerization had been responsible for diminishing, even destroying. I wanted to go back…and systematically explore the substance of the great movie scores of the late ’30s and ’40s, in direct relation to the picture, as dramatic entities. The tunes we know, of course, but what of the contexts in which they were originally employed? I determined to re-create these scores or selections from them in the original orchestrations, and this could only be done by going back to the ultimate sources—the composers and their music as they originally wrote it.”

Gerhardt either consulted with them beforehand as to how to assemble suites from their works, or when this was not possible, composed the suites himself and submitted them to the composer for his approval.

“There’s…a school of thought,” he continued, “which maintains that each cue should be played note-for-note as the composer wrote it and not tacked on to any other—in other words that the whole concept of suites as such is perverse. I don’t feel that reproducing each cue literally shows up film music in its best possible light, because you’re bound to get a certain amount of meaningless repetition—meaningless without the film, that is—and effects such as ‘sting’ chords which similarly make little sense without their visual support. Some critics have also complained that my suites are too short and attempt to accomplish too much too quickly. My aim in the case of each album is to present a well-rounded ‘portrait’ of the composer or star representing each of his many facets; an eye may make fascinating study in close up, but it doesn’t give you much idea of the physiognomy as a whole.”

Though Korngold, Newman, and Steiner were no longer around to lend their expertise to their volumes, Gerhardt was fortunate to collaborate with Herrmann, Rózsa, and Tiomkin, who often showed up at the recording studio to lend a hand. Herrmann quickly composed six new bars of segue music in full score in between the CITIZEN KANE main title and the snow scene. Rózsa took The Four Feathers score in hand, “revising, improving, Rózsafying.” And Dimitri Tiomkin attended every recording session for LOST HORIZON, “[making] few comments, but those he did make showed that after nearly 40 years he still knew every note of his music.”

Gerhardt came up with the idea to build albums around a single movie star. Three volumes were dedicated to music for Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, and Bette Davis. Though these albums occasionally suffer from a “mixed-tape” quality, they offer a chance to hear composers that were not featured with albums of their own. Nestled among the tracks by the usual suspects sit gems like Frederick Hollander’s lilting SABRINA main title waltz, Victor Young’s heartbreaking love theme from THE LEFT HAND OF GOD, and a rare Hugo Friedhofer cue from THE SUN ALSO RISES.

The most successful of these star-driven albums centers around the music for Bette Davis films. Gerhardt received a great deal of help and encouragement from the legendary star in preparation for the recording. Bette was “very musical and very aware of the important role played by music in her pictures.” The album is obviously skewed toward Max Steiner, given his role scoring many of Davis’ pictures at Warner Bros. Of all the Steiner treasures on this album, my favorite is the Oscar-nominated BEYOND THE FOREST. Though largely forgotten today, the score features one of Steiner’s loveliest themes, while much of the music conveys the dark, menacing quality of Davis’ trashy Rosa Moline. Davis was so pleased with the album that she promoted it while out on tour.

In 1978, Gerhardt released the last two albums in the series. It must have come as shock to fans when, following a two-year hiatus after Lost Horizon, the first album contained contemporary suites from STAR WARS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. The album smacks of a quick and easy way for RCA to cash in on the current craze for the films, excellent performances notwithstanding. Just as John Williams’ music ushered in a renewed interest in film music, RCA’s support for the Classic Film Scores was waning.

The final album in the series, Spectacular World of Classic Film Scores, featured a disappointing compilation of previously released tracks from earlier LPs. Though it begins with an entertaining array of fanfares from five of the major studios, the only substantial new contributions come from the premiere recording of music from Tiomkin’s THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, and the final track, Daniele Amfitheatrof’s rarely heard “Dance of the Seven Veils” from SALOME.

With that one last rush of lustful abandon, the Classic Film Scores series came to an end. Without RCA’s support, Gerhardt had to scrap plans for future albums, including The Women (Great Hollywood Actresses), Dodge City (Westerns by Max Steiner), Frankenstein (Horror Films), and Things to Come (Sci-Fi Films), as well as separate LPs for music of Victor Young, Elmer Bernstein, and William Walton.

When the CD format began to take hold in the early ’80s, RCA execs commissioned Gerhardt to remaster the entire Classic Film Scores series for the new medium. Gerhardt took advantage of the longer CD running time by including music from the original recording sessions that wouldn’t fit on the original LPs. For later remasters, Gerhardt compiled cues that had previously been issued on separate discs into lengthier suites and rearranged the track order on certain releases. The first of these remastered discs—Sunset Boulevard: Classic Films Scores of Franz Waxman—was released with no promotion or publicity.

Never content to leave well enough alone, RCA execs decided to go back and release the entire series remastered in Dolby Surround Sound, with some releases even reverting back to the original LP running time. Though Dolby does not completely mar the performances, it muddies the analog acoustics prized on the original LPs. Compare the Dolby-ized version of Waxman’s classic “The Ride to Dubno” from TARAS BULBA with the original engineering, which displays the pristine acoustics of Kingsway Hall and a superb performance by Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic.

Gerhardt retired from RCA in 1986 but continued to work as a freelance producer until 1997. He never appeared in public as a conductor, refusing all invitations due to his desire to remain private. He was diagnosed with brain cancer in late November 1998, and died from complications of brain surgery on February 22, 1999.

In an interview, Gerhardt paraphrased an anecdote attributed to Bernard Herrmann: “‘Since the movies will probably survive longer than any other art-form, the music composed for them will survive along with them, and will promote interest in the composers’ other compositions.’ In the last analysis, then, composing for films, far from being the kiss of death as far as the composers are concerned, is actually a pledge of immortality.” Charles Gerhardt saved Golden Age film music from the “kiss of death” by breathing life into a moribund art form. And that 14-year-old band geek deep inside me will forever owe him my undying gratitude.

Published in Film Score Monthly Online, March 2009

  1. Wonderful article. I’ve been contemplating presenting my music for use in film for a while, yet the “purity” concept really blocked me. I’ve lived with the “kiss of death” anecdote for a while, and I’m relieved to find this article, since between the lines, I also read the message that commercial presentation of music does not necessarily require the dilution of artistic value.

    Thank you,
    Dainis W. Michel

    1. Dainis, glad you liked the article. Having spent all of my many years of college as a music major and even more working in the classical music world and in conservatories, I can tell you there’s no love in that camp for film music. But I think the more classical composers that “cross over” (an unfortunate phrase) into the world of film and vice versa, the more audiences in both camps can see the commercial value of all sorts of music. After all, good music is good music, no matter the medium. :)

  2. Jim, just to let you know, the The Classic Film series did change the face of modern film music. When George Lucas was looking for music for his new film (Star Wars) he gave a copy of “The Sea Hawk” to John Williams and told him this was the kind of music he was looking for. And “The Rest is History.”

    1. I wish I’d known that. I would have put it in my original article. I can’t believe that never came up in the research I did for it. Oh well. Thanks for adding the comment. It enriches the article and brings everything full circle to today’s film scoring.

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  4. I am glad that RCA took a flyer on classic film music and released that series. I got introduced to a number of movies that way, hearing much of the music before I ever got to see the movie. (My passion for years was trying to see On Dangerous Ground on tv or at a revival house, because of that one track on the Herrmann disc.)
    You might write an article about Elmer Bernstein’s FilmMusic collection (which Lukas brought out as a massive, one-shot, box-set). After moving to California, I thought I had found the Holy Grail itself when I would find used copies of the original vinyl.
    Elmer didn’t have a record label, he released them by subscription! Amazing. We are most certainly spoiled by the current availability of film scores.

    1. It’s funny you mention ON DANGEROUS GROUND. I just checked it out of the library to watch the other day. Haven’t seen it in years. If you haven’t heard the LA Philharmonic’s performance of the “Death Hunt” from the opening of Disney Hall, you must. Guaranteed to give you goosebumps. You can see it on my YouTube channel:

      Actually the Elmer box set *would* make a great idea for a post…or posts. I’ll keep that in mind.

      And, yes, we are certainly spoiled by the availability of all this great music.

  5. I recently interviewed John Steven Lasher, whom you conveniently omit in your mention of record label executives, about his Entr’acte Recording Society. He remarked that the Gerhardt recordings were the raison d’etre for his becoming a record producer.

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