Ben-Hur chariot race

When It Comes to Film Music, When In Rome…

…I do as the Romans do. I recently got back from a trip to Switzerland where I hopefully wrapped up the research for my book on the music of Charlie Chaplin. After a week of furiously plowing through scores and correspondence at the Chaplin Archives in Montreux, I decided to take ten days of much needed R&R in Italy, all of which was underscored by a proper playlist of appropriately chosen film music.

Film Music In Venice

Though famous musical Venetians like Vivaldi and Monteverdi helped me navigate their slender, tourist-clogged streets, some film composers also accompanied me through this most magical of cities. While changing trains in Milan, my trip from Montreux got delayed by almost two hours which put me arriving in Venice around 11 p.m. While I didn’t get the full daylight visual effect I had been expecting emerging from the train station into this watery wonderland, there was something even more magical to do so in darkness.

As the lights played on the canal with the light from the street lamps reflecting on the water and the dome of San Simeone Piccolo beckoning me forward, Alessandro Cicognini’s classic “Summertime in Venice” theme from David Lean’s SUMMERTIME was playing in my earbuds. Of course, this was no accident. I wanted to have the full Venetian effect—both visually and musically. Cicognini’s poignant melody and the strumming mandolins (even in Mantovani’s easy listening arrangement) conspire to melt even the most landlocked of hearts—and it works.

“Summertime in Venice” from SUMMERTIME (Alessandro Cicognini)

As I explored Venice over the next four days (primarily by boat, simply because there was a breeze out on the water), Victor Young’s memorable barcarolle for the Venice portion of THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN gently undulated in my ears. I had dreamed of visiting Venice for years and as the arpeggiated harp lines gurgled under the sweeping strings and mandolin, tears sprang to my eyes. Thankfully my fellow visitors were understandably too entranced by the wonder that is Venice (as well they should be) to give me a second glance.

“Barcarolle” from THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN (Victor Young)

In George Roy Hill’s A LITTLE ROMANCE (1979), the two teenage lovers flee Paris and their parents to kiss under Venice’s Bridge of Sighs at sunset. Forget that the view from this particular bridge is the last look at Venice that condemned prisoners used to see after being sentenced at the Doge’s Palace en route to the prison next door.

Georges Delerue’s Oscar-winning score (which owes more than a tip of the hat for its win to Vivaldi) plays up the romantic element of this mythical spot. And while the view from the promenade bridge down the canal is clogged with overbearing tourists vying for the perfect photo op with their ever-present selfie sticks, one generous soul graciously offered me his spot at the railing, which was unnecessary but greatly appreciated.

“Venice” from A LITTLE ROMANCE (Georges Delerue)

Film Music in Rome

I stopped for a few days in Bologna to visit friends that I had met last year while researching at the Chaplin Archives in the library at the Cineteca di Bologna. The city will always hold a special place in my heart because of its association with this particular project. This time around, the visit was all about the human element before moving on to Rome.

While there is no place like Venice, the tourist-clogged streets (and the unbelievable heat, which I was hoping to beat) made that leg of the trip more stressful than it needed to be. Rome too has its fair share of tourists. But the size helps open up the space and as long as you stay out of the main shopping areas, it’s easier to breathe. But it was the sense of history that struck me about the Eternal City.

Coming out of the Metro stop to go to my hotel, I ran smack dab into the Colosseum. I felt just like a Roman emperor being escorted into the city on his ceremonial chariot with a pair of fine steeds in front of me…except that the heat hit me like an oven blast and I was dragging my carry-on luggage in the middle of a throng of fellow sweaty tourists. But the vision still remained in my head while Hans Zimmer’s magisterial musical evocation of ancient Rome thundered in my earbuds. While the Colosseum may have seen better days over the last few thousand years, the fact that it remains standing at all is reason enough to be awestruck. Zimmer’s music captures the glory that once was…and yet still remains.

“The Might of Rome” from GLADIATOR (Hans Zimmer)

Not far from the Colosseum lies what’s left of the Circus Maximus. Perhaps more than anywhere else I visited in Rome, the ghosts of ancient Rome hover in the air. Nestled between the Aventine and Palatine hills, this once glorious structure is now just a stretch of dirt with the ancient median still marking the circular chariot race route. Now a public park with traffic roaring by on all four sides, the Circus is eerily quiet—as if time stood still. With Miklós Rózsa’s “Parade of the Charioteers” from BEN-HUR ringing in my ears, I could almost see Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd racing to the death.

“Parade of the Charioteers” from BEN-HUR

Rózsa accompanied me once again as I explored the ruins of the Roman Forum. The pomp and circumstance of his score for JULIUS CAESAR perfectly underscored my steps as I trudged through the remains of basilicas, shrines, and other remnants of the Senate. There were no togas (though plenty of sandals) walking among the towering, free-standing pillars and crumbled filigree nestling in the weeds. But no other spot in Rome conveys the rise and fall of an empire with more grace and dignity, the perfect backdrop for Rózsa’s majestic music.

“Caesar’s Procession” from JULIUS CAESAR (Miklós Rózsa)

While I wanted to walk the Appian Way with Respighi’s Pines of Rome and Alex North’s music to SPARTACUS as my companions, I had to forego that trip on the outskirts of the city to bask in religious cultural overload. St. Peter’s Basilica is justly impressive, though almost ruined by selfie-hungry tourists ignoring the service going on to snap tacky shots of themselves grinning alongside the decaying bodies of dead saints. But as long as I kept my eyes heavenward, I could ignore the tacky throngs and revel in the faith (and money) that created so much beauty.

“The Sistine Chapel” from THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY (Alex North)

The Vatican Museum contains four miles of cultural overload with one impressive painting and sculpture after another. Again, the experience is almost ruined by impatient tourists rushing through the experience just to get to the pot of gold at the end, not to mention the numerous gift shops that litter the museum. But no matter how much great art you’ve seen over the last four miles, nothing quite prepares you for the Sistine Chapel. Ignoring the many posted signs and constantly patrolling guards, kids run screaming through the supposedly silent holy space, while shutterbug adults discreetly try to snap an illegal shot of Michelangelo’s magnificent creation, rather than experiencing the wonder and majesty of such a divine work. Thankfully, I had Alex North to help block out the yelling and constant sshh‘s from guards and tourists alike. While I doubt any music could ever quite match the magnificence up above my head, Michelangelo and North combine “the agony and the ecstasy” that comes from traveling to major tourist spots in the summer.

At some point in the future, I hope to visit Vienna and bow down at Max Steiner’s birthplace, take a Shakespeare tour underscored by the music of William Walton and Patrick Doyle, and perhaps even fly to Berk for some dragon training. Sure, it’s fictional but film music travels with me wherever I go.