Choral Quarrels: The Dangers of Choral Music in Films - by John Caps

Miklos Rozsa: Quo Vadis - album cover The last thing most modern movie directors want to hear from their newly hired soundtrack composer is that he or she is planning to use a chorus in the new film's music score. What could be more intrusive to a movie's rolling narrative, to a viewer's concentration (or a director's authority), than the sudden dramatic presence of fifty voices – even wordless choral singing – forcing their way to the forefront? We will see shortly, here, a few examples of highly accomplished choral scoring that, none the less, were rejected from their films, precisely because of the vivid impression they would have produced, the interruption they would have caused, had they been allowed to proceed. "It would have imbalanced the whole film", and no director would stand for it. Film score advocates may think this yet another example of anti-composer prejudice on the part of studio overlords, and yet there is a point to be made about the profligate power of music to exaggerate a dramatic moment on screen -- and you can hardly sing-out in bigger capital letters than with a forthright chorus; no matter if it's a tight-harmony madrigal group of six or a mighty studio choir. Filmmakers are wise to be cautious. And yet...

...And yet composers continue to be tempted by the glories, subtleties and variety of the choral alternative on the soundtrack. After all, when it works well – is well composed and well placed – the effect can be memorable not only in the sense of musical worth but in a cinematic sense.

Sergei Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky - album cover The most obvious films where a bracing choral sound has often been heard are historical or religious-themed ones: stories where noble choirs are already on site, their sound already, as it were, in the air. Grand historically archaic choral music by Miklos Rozsa was applied generously to the soundtrack of Quo Vadis (1951) about ancient Rome in the time of Nero: it was appropriately blunt and thrusting choral music to support both the epic scale of the film and the antiquity of the setting, although it should be said that Rozsa's tonal approximation of ancient harmony, scored in parallel perfect 4ths and 5ths, owes more to his own personal Hungarian Magyar heritage than to the Roman empire. Still, the imperial point was made by the choral sound itself and it is that presence we remember most from the score. As much as fifty years later that same vocal authority was still being exploited, whether in John Debney's resurrection music from Passion of the Christ (2004), John Barry's royal court music for Britain's King Henry II in The Lion in Winter (1968), or Basil Poledouris's pagan chorus "The Riders of Doom" for Conan the Barbarian (1982). Those were each anthem-like choral declarations – that is, they tended to be complete pieces unto themselves, rather than just choral effects, for which a section of film had been set aside to be vocalized. Others that come to mind are John Barry's "Christmas Song" in The Last Valley (1971) Rosza's choral rendering of "The Lord's Prayer" in King of Kings (1961), Ennio Morricone's "On Earth as it is in Heaven" from The Mission (1986), or the "Exsultate Justi" in John Williams's Empire of the Sun (1987). When Patrick Doyle's stirring choral lament "Non nobis Domine" caps the battlefield scene in Henry V (1989), both the grandeur of courage and the tragedy of war (as Henry carries a dead drummer boy across the field of the dead at Agincourt) are sounded in musical terms. Perhaps the most moving choral battlefield-lament on film has been Serge Prokofiev's music for Alexander Nevsky from 1938 but we'll stay with more recent candidates for this survey. Such films actually pause in deference to specific choir music and, because of their historic or reverent contexts, cinematic and dramatic balances are preserved. True also of John Williams's choral "Hymn to the Fallen" to memorialize lost lives and spent-courage after the horrendous WWII battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan (1998).

Burt Bacharach: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid - album cover But it needn't be high drama where these special choral inserts are spotlighted. Recall the half-satiric, half-prescient jazz-scat chorus that interrupted the odd/mod western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Burt Bacharach contributed complex contrapuntal choral writing to a bouncy jazz-waltz meter and arranged a vocal blend that sounded more like a 1960s television commercial chorus than film scoring and yet harmonized and syncopated it in perfect coordination with an otherwise silent montage of bank robbery scenes being pantomimed on screen. How these wily characters, Butch and the Kid and their shared girlfriend, charmed their way into a series of bank vaults, cash offices and money trains is all told with the help of that five minute choir cue: multi-part jazz singing alternating with a kind of quiet modern saraband. At the time, such a creative use of choral writing in the middle of an erstwhile western received both praise and blustery criticism. It took some more adventurous critics to point out that what Bacharach's mod chorus did for the film was to suggest the idea that it wasn't just a posse chasing Butch and the Kid; it was the changing times.

Howard Shore: The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring - album cover More often the formal choral sound has appeared on film soundtracks not as a spotlighted interlude like the aforementioned, but just as tonal coloring to, for instance, add an aura of mysticism to a sci-fi or fantasy plot. Think of Howard Shore's bulky scores to the Lord of the Rings series (2001-3) which employed fairly conventional gothic background music but then layered-in some distant choral voicings to enhance the mood. Although Shore concocted a number of specific choral moments such as in the "Great River" or "Eventide" sequences for unison voices, or the boy soloist and choir during the "Breakup of the Fellowship" sequence, mostly he relegated his chorus to a backfield line. Its purpose was to add a gloss of prestige to the production and many films have benefited atmospherically that way. Alan Silvestri's memorable choral-crescendos in the nuclear submarine rescue adventure film The Abyss (1989), James Horner's boy choir effects in the mad scientist score for Brainstorm (1983), Alfred Newman's reverent choral décor for the miracle play Song of Bernadett (1943), Danny Elfman's "Ice Dance" from the fairy tale Edward Scissorhands (1990), even John Williams's eerie 'glissing' choir covering both ends of the scale as we first met the possibly dangerous alien creatures inClose Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) are all good examples of such non-thematic choral sweetening.

And so, all sorts of ways of incorporating choral music continue to this day in films: absolute thematic music (think of the choral folksong medley attributed to Alfred Newman and Ken Darby in How the West Was Won (1962), ambient coloring (like Bernard Herrmann's Obsession; Ralph Vaughan-Williams's Scott of the Antarctic (1948); even Henry Mancini's Me Natalie (1969); even eccentric appearances like the grunting whooping chorus at the end of Morricone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). It all keeps the choral quarrel going into the next generation and the next.

Jerry Goldsmith: The Omen - album cover Ethnic-oriented choruses have been another occasional focus of soundtrack composers over the years from Elmer Bernstein's revivalist singers delivering their gospel message to Denver mining camp-dwellers in The Hallelujah Trail (1965) to the vocal welcome at the beginning of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) wherein a Swiss "naturjodel" ensemble called Ose Schuppel sings a Balkan-flavored folksong, later subtly referenced in the sly instrumental score by Alexandre Desplat. If gothic/pagan choral music can, with a stretch, also be called "ethnic" Jerry Goldsmith's chanting chorus in the devil-worship film The Omen (1976) certainly made a big impression in this category, though his diabolic choral incantations were borrowed from Carl Orff's 1937 "Carmina Burana" which, in turn, merely parroted Stravinsky. Still, for that gaudy horror film, it was most effective scoring.

John Barry: The Lion in Winter - album cover The most interesting choral scores have been those whose functional narrative music used opening choral anthems to develop variations and references thereafter. It was one thing for John Barry to write his magisterial choral opening to The Lion in Winter along with two or three a cappella choral songs for the court setting, but his real accomplishment in that Oscar-winning score was to pace the film dramatically by placing choral interludes throughout the film that acted as scene-markers and helped support a cinematic flow. A choral presence, thereby, can be as effective doing mere prosaic dramatic duty as when it is singing-out the main theme. Recalling Rozsa's King of Kings, its score was at its most emotional not at the height of its hymns but, for example, when compassionate choral harmonies slid in behind the already-familiar Christ theme as Jesus quelled a demon-possessed peasant. There, chorus humanized the miracle.

Vladimir Cosma: Clerambard & Alexandre le Bienheureux - album cover In all such ways, the choral alternative continues to be intriguing and can tempt even the most defensive directors to consider the possibilities. Danger still lurks, there, though. We are thinking of the French film Clerambard (1969) with its mock-baroque score by the Romanian/French composer Vladimir Cosma. The storyline plays like a fable and that very eccentricity is what permits, indeed welcomes, Cosma's choral surprises. Philippe Noiret plays a grumpy, failed aristocrat whose run-down estate has been turned into a textile factory and whose family is employed there in futile drudge work while he dallies, procrastinates and complains. Then suddenly one day – is it a dream or a true miracle? – Noiret has a vision of St. Francis of Assisi who convinces him to divest all his worldly burdens, reconsider his life and thaw his stingy heart. Where St. Francis once famously "preached his Gospel to the birds" now Noiret has his own aviary encounter wandering in the forest of his estate. Composer Cosma uses the opportunity to encourage a most original chorus indeed. His is a madrigal chorus performing a baroque theme we have already heard in the score but now articulating that theme through a series of bird calls – that is, the choir members mimicking the birds: first, a counterpoint of twitters leading to a chirped version of the theme, then gentle commentary from a cuckoo, etc. A lyrical legato passage for male voices returns us to the twitter of the opening and then the cuckoo brings Clerambard back down to earth for an ending. Only because Cosma's thematic material is strong and his choral writing so sophisticated is this creative cue saved from seeming merely humorous or absurd. Instead its boldness inspires admiration and could have drawn the filmgoer closer to the main character, but here is where the choral quarrel manifests as we warned: for, presented with this rather brilliant bird-chorus, director Yves Robert decided to cut the scene so that only a fragment of the music now remains in the film, way in the background. Cosma's bird calls, of course, fully exposed, would have drawn attention to the composer and away from the film. There is one more choral moment however when, in the end, Clerambard is inspired to head off on a horse cart to preach his new-found Franciscan message to the world: Cosma introduces a swinging unaccompanied gospel choir, both jazzy and fervent, to see him off

Michel Legrand: La Piscine (The Swimming Pool) - album cover Michel Legrand experienced the same kind of music-mutiny trying to complete his careful choral score, also from 1969, for Jacques Deray's romantic murder mystery La Piscine (The Swimming Pool). The original Main Title music featured two voices (Legrand and his sister Christiane from the jazz group The Swingle Singers), then a serene chorus moving in around them, gradually adding dissonance to the harmony, hinting at the complications and betrayals in the story to come. Choral injections of new more jazzy ideas were then meant to follow the intrigues of the plot. But as Legrand would discover, once he had demonstrated the plan for his score to the director, "Deray's initial misgivings about any choral intrusion quickly turned to worries. Deray likely lost his footing during the recording sessions. What he heard frightened him; not the tunes themselves but rather their (choral) treatment. He asked over and over, Why the voices? Where do they come from? I tried to reason with him... but I had been too radical." And so Legrand had to redress his orchestrations and curb the voices. Only twenty minutes of music remain in the film (and it's the vocal bits that are best): one cue with two voices and solo violin; a single choral impromptu and only a few others. Some listeners will recall the similar 1980s fiasco when Jerry Goldsmith's playful use of choral forces in the fantasy film Legend (1985) was first curtailed and then dismissed in favor of a less intrusive, less distinctive score by the pop band Tangerine Dream. And with similar results, France's radical composer Antoine Duhamel created a whole eight-minute motet for church choir and timpani for Bernard Tavernier's sci-fi/social commentary film Death Watch (1980) yet only a fragment of it survives on screen, buried behind Max Von Sydow's monologue about a (fictional) composer who is supposed to have composed that music.

The lesson persists for any composer who thinks she or he wants to submit choral music to their latest soundtrack: beware. Unless the screen story includes Roman soldiers, ceremonial services, historical settings or miracle/fantasy tales, there'll likely be a quarrel about it. And yet...

John Williams: Amistad - album cover ...And yet when it works – when it is allowed to work and when it is especially designed to work, the choral presence in a film score can be tremendously rewarding. That proven friend of film music, Spielberg, worked productively again in 1998 with John Williams to apply a largely choral score to his new film about the historic African slave revolt aboard the 1839 ship Amistad. Here was music that represented the three aspects we have been describing in choral scoring during this survey: the ethnic slant, in this case African tribal affectations as filtered through Williams's style; an opening representative anthem, in this case "Dry Your Tears, Afrika" for mezzo soloist, tribal choir and hollow drum percussion with its 3/4 meter broken by a repeating three-measure chant in 4/4; and the subsequent use of that choir and that theme throughout the narrative functional parts of the score to follow. With the given distance of history and ethnicity, such a bold choral score was not only accepted by the director and the audience for Amistad but considered the film's finest single element, the heart and soul of the film.

Leonard Rosenman: The Lord of the Rings - album cover A propos of that, recall how Howard Shore's ambitious scores for all those Lord of the Rings epics referred to choral powers more as ambient support than for comment or narrative help. Chorus was there for padding and for the grandiosity it implied. But does anyone remember the 1978 animated version of the Tolkien stories by Ralph Bakshi with its piquant and detailed music score by Leonard Rosenman – his charming Hobbit march, the virtuoso orchestration and his most moving choral anthem for a mixed choir of children and adults in praise of Tolkien's wise man and guide Gandalf, here known as Mithrandir, the Grey Wanderer?

They sing:

  • Mithrandir, though you're hidden
  • We're still guided by your light
  • You're walking beside us
  • A friend in the night;
  • You will dwell in our hearts forever
  • Nevermore will we stand alone

For that space of time, at least, chorus owned the movie and the audience. As we have said, filmmakers are wisely wary of such choral distraction from their precious visuals. But when it works well, there is certainly a thrill to be had. No quarrel there.

by John Caps

The author: John Caps

John Caps has written on music for High Fidelity/Musical America and the New York City Opera; and on film music for Film Comment, Film International, National Public Radio, The Cue Sheet, and the University of Illinois Press's "Music in American Life" series.