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Friday, November 23, 2007

Herbert W Spencer


Herbert Spencer and John Williams work on the score to Star Wars

Agent Triple P has always enjoyed film music. Not your nonsensical collections of tracks brought together from elsewhere, not your electronic nonsense (with a few rare exceptions) but proper orchestral scores with themes and melodies as originally espoused by composers like Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Korngold is more popular now than a few years ago when he was largely reviled for being too "Hollywood" sounding. But that was not his fault, it was Korngold that set the musical language for Hollywood at the start of the Talkies and others simply copied him. As André Previn said " A great deal of film music began to sound like Korngold, as opposed to Korngold sounding like Hollywood."

By the mid-seventies, orchestral scores for Hollywood films had virtually disappeared; even the makers of the James Bond films had dispensed with John Barry in favour of a "more up to date" sound from Broadway composer Marvin Hamlisch. But then in 1977 George Lucas commissioned John Williams to write a fully orchestrated, old-style Hollywood Score for Star Wars and, as usual in the film industry, everyone else copied every element they could in an attempt to have such a success. Overnight orchestral scores reappeared in the movies.

John Williams called on a Hollywood veteran to Orchestrate Star Wars; someone he had worked with before on The Towering Inferno (1974).

Herbert Winfield Spencer was born in 1905 in Chile but moved to California and by 1933 had orchestrated his first film. He started a long working realtionship with Alfred Newman, one of the heirs of the Korngold style and together Newman and Spencer worked on The Black Swan (1942). This film was Twentieth Century Fox's attempt to emulate the success of the Errol Flynn Warner Brothers swashbucklers for which Korngold had provided the scores. The Black Swan was nominated for the Oscar for best soundtrack (won by another Korngold influenced composer, Max Steiner, for Now, Voyager (1942)) and Spencer and Newman went on to score 24 films together.

Spencer orchestrated most of John Williams great scores: the original three Star Wars films, the three Indiana Jones films, Superman (1978), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and ET: the Extra Terrestrial (1982). Spencer worked on many other films after Star Wars and his orchestration of Williams underrated score for Spielbergs epic failure 1941 (1979) is particularly effective. Spencer went back to his Hollywood beginnings and orchestrated the extracts from the classic scores of Korngold used in the spoof swashbuckler Zorro: the Gay Blade (1981).

Other composers copied the Williams style for fantasy films and Spencer orchestrated one of these, Laurence Rosenthal's Clash of the Titans (1981).

Spencer's last seven films were all with John Williams and he died in 1992 aged 87. Listening to Williams scores since then there is no doubt that there is something missing compared with the Spencer orchestrated scores. At their best (Superman, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), ET) Spencer's orchestrations brought a depth and subtlety not heard in any other film scores before or since.

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