According to the online dictionary, die.net, the GOLDEN AGE is “the first and best age of the world, a time of ideal happiness, prosperity, and innocence; by extension, any flourishing and outstanding period.” When discussing Golden Age film music, we’re talking about a specific period of time in Hollywood, a time when the studio system flourished, cranking out a number of films each year. But with the advent of television in the 1950s, the studio system began to break down allowing the rise of independent filmmakers in the 1960s.
Though excellent film music was composed for silent films, especially in Russia (think Prokofiev’s ALEXANDER NEVSKYand the scores of Shostakovich), as sound pictures took hold, directors and producers began to recognize the dramatic value of music in films. Though it is difficult to pinpoint the exact date that Golden Age film music began, Max Steiner’s score for KING KONG (1933) is generally accepted as the start of modern film music as we know it today.
For nearly 30 years, a veritable cornucopia of film composers made their living under the Hollywood studio system. Every studio had their star composers that defined the “sound” of their pictures. At Warner Bros., Erich Wolfgang Korngold defined the Errol Flynn swashbucklers while their three-hanky melodramas were usually handled by Max Steiner. M-G-M had “more stars than there are in heaven,” including star composers like Miklos Rozsa, Herbert Stothart, Bronislau Kaper, and Andre Previn. Over at 20th Century-Fox, Alfred Newman ruled the roost, not only as the chief composer but also as head of its powerful Music Department. And that’s just off the top of my head! What the Golden Age provided was a golden opportunity for many of these composers to flee the troubles in Europe in the 1930s and carve out a successful career within the confines of Hollywood.
Contrary to what some film music fans believe, great film music did not die along with the Hollywood studio system in the early 1960s. Much of the glow surrounding music from the Golden Age stems from its nostalgic association with that period in Hollywood history, an age in which many believe it was “the first and best age” of Hollywood. But that narrow-minded view negates nearly fifty more years of film music. Not every Golden Age score is a gem, nor should every score written after that be labeled trash. But the Golden Age holds a special place in my heart and I will be exploring it more in depth in later posts.