Film Music: A History

It was great excitement that I noticed James Wierzbicki's new history of Film Music (Routledge). First, because film music is a subject on which I'm poorly schooled; second, because it looked like a great potential addition to a film history class, with nice periodized divisions between "silent" film; the transition to sound; classical film music; and post-classical developments. The intro lays out the promise: "I wanted to concentrate on film music's norms, not its wonderfully aberrant masterpieces. This is not to say that Film Music: A History is a celebration of mediocrity. Rather, it is simply an effort to explain the development of the film music that at various times was considered by both its practitioners and its audiences to be respectably normal" (xii).

The book, it should be noted, is more monograph than textbook. For the classical period, in particular, I was disappointed to find not much detailed discussion of how film music works in a particular film or of the how exactly the noted film scores "are just notable drops in a very large bucket." There's a version of the genius-of-the-system argument here, and I as a newcomer to the topic could have used more explanation. Instead the account emphasizes the intellectual history of changing musical aesthetic arguments about film music and specifically musicological questions (does Hollywood use leitmotifs in the Wagnerian sense?). The specialized knowledge is welcome, but Wierzbicki, a musicologist, may simply be speaking to a different scholarly readership than me.

The book's biggest and strength lies in its impressively extensive research, which I think will especially interest scholars of the silent period. Also, its account of the driving forces (industrial and conceptual) behind the changes in film music is worth teasing out in how we write film history more broadly.


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