From the Silver Screen to Symphony Hall: Concert Works by Film Composers

This post is the first of an occasional series called Hidden Gems, in which I will bring to light some lesser known/under-appreciated works in the classical repertoire. It is partially inspired by Timothy Mangan’s “Neglected Symphonies” series.


It’s probably fair to say that film scores are one of the most widely heard forms of classical music today. Of course, to call a film score “classical” in the first place has been the subject of much debate over the years (maybe I’ll add my two cents to this discussion at some point) but regardless, one can’t deny the enormous presence that movie music holds in popular culture. (Just ask any random person on the street to sing the main theme from Star Wars and more likely than not, they’ll probably be able to do so!)

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Admit it, the Star Wars theme is now stuck in your head! 😉

However, what average moviegoers don’t often realize is that a number of beloved film composers have also written music for the concert hall, totally absent from the medium of film. Many of these works vary greatly in style and form, with some departing completely from the composer’s “cinematic sound.” Even so, mostly all of them tend to be less familiar to listeners than their film score counterparts.

Let’s explore a few and bring some to light…

1. Bernard Herrmann: Symphony No. 1 (1941)

Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) was an American composer and conductor who gained considerable fame for his work in the movies, penning scores for notable films such as Citizen Kane, Fahrenheit 451, and Taxi Driver. However, he is most well-remembered for his association with the “Master of Suspense” – the director Alfred Hitchcock. During his career, Herrmann wrote music for many of Hitchcock’s films, including Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, North by Northwest, and perhaps most infamously, Psycho. (Side note: Vertigo and its accompanying score are both among my top three favorite films/film scores. If you’ve never heard the music or seen the movie, as soon as you finish reading this post, go out and watch it!)

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*SCREECH SCREECH SCREECH SCREECH SCREECH*

In addition to his work in film, Herrmann composed a number of concert works in his lifetime, including an operatic adaptation of Wuthering Heights, a cantata based on Moby-Dick, and the elegiac For the Fallen, a short tribute to the victims of World War II.

He also composed one symphony, which was premiered in 1941 with Herrmann conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. The piece was well-received but (sadly) is rarely performed to this day. It’s a shame too, because this work is really magnificent. Inventive melodic and harmonic structure abound, reminiscent of the lush neo-Romanticism of Samuel Barber, with glimpses of Bartók and Janáček. In my mind, this piece is a musical journey from darkness to light. It starts with a brooding first movement (opening with a  great unison horn theme) and progresses through a sarcastically playful scherzo, a conflicted slow movement, and ends with a triumphant, gleaming finale. Take a listen below – you won’t be disappointed. (This piece as well as some of the others in this post are also available in a Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.)

2. Michael Kamen: Quintet (2002)

Few musicians were able to bridge the realm of classical and pop music as effortlessly as Michael Kamen (1948-2003). His list of musical accomplishments is wildly diverse, featuring, in addition to music for film and television, songs, arrangements, and other collaborations with popular music artists such as Pink Floyd, Queen, David Bowie, and Metallica (the list goes on and on). In particular, his musical contributions to film include scores for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Iron Giant, Mr. Holland’s Opus, the first X-Men film, and the HBO series Band of Brothers. Sadly, Kamen passed away from a heart attack in 2003, at the age of 55.

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Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves – great score, “meh” movie (with the exception of Alan Rickman and Morgan Freeman’s roles.) The less said of Kevin Costner’s performance, the better…

Kamen also wrote a handful of concert works during his career (including a rockin’ electric guitar concerto for Eric Clapton). Shortly before his death, Kamen was commissioned by the Canadian Brass to write them a piece for brass quintet. This was the result. Simply (yet aptly) titled Quintet, the work is brief but beautifully profound statement by a composer who left the music world all too soon.

3. Jerry Goldsmith: Fireworks: A Celebration of Los Angeles (1999)

As a composer, Jerry Goldsmith (1929-2004) made invaluable contributions to the sound of modern film music, covering an impressive swath of genres ranging from science fiction to horror. Some of his most famous credits include: Alien, the original Planet of the Apes, five Star Trek films, Poltergeist, The Omen (his only Oscar win), Chinatown, Gremlins, The Mummy, and Mulan. Interestingly, he also wrote the wonderful music for the original versions of Soarin’ Over California at California Adventure and EPCOT. (The current iteration, Soarin’ Around the World, features a score by Bruce Broughton but still contains homages to Goldsmith’s original. The ride itself? Not as good IMHO.) Recently, Goldsmith also received a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Goldsmith only contributed five works to the realm of concert music (at least, according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia). This includes the cantata Christus Apollo, which is set to a text by Ray Bradbury, along with the extremely dissonant and anguished Music for OrchestraOn the lighter side is Goldsmith’s piece Fireworks: A Celebration of Los Angeles. Written in 1999 for a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, this is music that is glittering, show-stopping, and unabashedly “Hollywood.” (There are some great moments for the horns in the piece as well!)

4. James Newton Howard – 133… At Least. (ca. 2012)

James Newton Howard (b. 1951) is yet another composer who has written music for a wide variety of films. Especially notable for his longtime collaboration with M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Signs, Unbreakable, the awful The Last Airbender), Howard has also provided scores for Disney films, The Hunger Games series, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Howard’s current output of concert music is rather small so far. In addition to a violin concerto and the orchestral work I Would Plant a Tree, he has also composed a short piece for violin and piano. 133… At Least. was written for the violinist Hilary Hahn and her Grammy Award-winning encore project In 27 Pieces. (Both musicians had previously worked together on the score for Shyamalan’s underrated film The Village, which is another one of my all-time favorite scores.) This brief showstopper clocks in at just under two minutes, but is chock-full of vivid musical ideas. The video below adds a unique, yet fitting visual representation of the piece.

5. John Williams: Soundings (2003)

Star Wars. Harry Potter. Jaws. Indiana Jones. Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Hook. Jurassic Park. E.T. What film from the pantheon of pop culture hasn’t John Williams (b. 1932) written music for? Among his numerous scores and countless awards, lies an impressive collection of concert music. Let’s end with not one, not two, but THREE pieces by the undisputed master of film music.

The first, Soundings, was composed for the Walt Disney Concert Hall’s opening festivities in 2003. Essentially a one-movement tone poem for orchestra, the style of the work might surprise those who are only familiar with Williams’ film scores. Instead of writing a rich, melody-laden showpiece, Williams chose instead to experiment with harmony and orchestral color, both of which are well-suited to the fantastic acoustics of Disney Hall. Regardless, Soundings is a thrilling work (especially in live performance) and still contains something for every listener to enjoy. (Williams himself wrote a great program note about the piece, which can be viewed here).

Williams: Horn Concerto (2003)

OK, even though I am a horn player, you can rest assured that my blog is not going to be completely horn-centric! (There are plenty of other blogs for that.) Still, I would be remiss if I didn’t include John Williams’ horn concerto in this list.

Written for Dale Clevenger, the former principal horn of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the piece reflects both Williams’ love for the instrument as well as literature (each movement is accompanied by a literary quote). Like Soundings, which was composed around the same time, this piece bears only fleeting resemblances to Williams’ well-known writing for horn. The solo parts in the concerto are often angular and deeply expressive, making this a tricky work for both the performer and at times, the listener. (I admit, it took me a number of listens before I could fully appreciate the work.) Still, the concerto contains some wonderful colors and reaps many rewards for those willing to revisit the piece multiple times.

The fifth and final movement was composed as a nocturne, a composition meant to evoke the night. Filled with lush string chords and the most “Williams-like” horn part of the concerto, the music cycles through a variety of moods before dying away into silence. (The whole work, but this movement especially, contains echoes of Benjamin Britten’s fantastic Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings.) The final movement is posted below – if you like what you hear, check out the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page to listen to the whole work.

Williams: For New York: Variations on Themes of Leonard Bernstein (1988)

Stylistically, For New York is the probably the closest in this list to Williams’ famous cinematic style. In 1988, Williams (along with seven other composers) were asked to write a short orchestral variation based on Leonard Bernstein’s song “New York, New York” from the musical On the Town. These miniatures were later compiled into a “birthday bouquet” and performed as a suite in August 1988, for Bernstein’s 70th birthday concert at Tanglewood. William’s ebullient, playful contribution not only contains clear allusions to “New York, New York,” but two other Bernstein favorites as well – “Lonely Town” (also from On the Town) and “America” from West Side Story. Listen for some brief hints of “Happy Birthday” as well!

What do you think of my list? Any pieces that you would add? If so, feel free to leave a comment below!

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