Max Steiner is one of the founders of film music as we know it today, along with the likes of Franz Waxman, Dimitri Tiomkin and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. His musical credentials are without doubt. He was born in Vienna, his grandfather was a musical impresario, his godfather was Richard Strauss, he studied for a time with Gustav Mahler, and in his film music he used Richard Wagner's method based on leitmotifs. He was a prodigious student of music, studying violin, trumpet, organ and piano and completing a 4 year course in a single year. He conducted concerts from the age of 12 and worked in Britain extensively from the age of 18. It was following the outbreak of War in Europe that he accepted an invitation to move to New York where he spent a number of years working on theatre productions, conducting, orchestrating and arranging for many shows and musicals. On broadway he was to work with George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Sigmund Romberg before he moved over to Hollywood initially to work for RKO and then for Warner Brothers.
He continued to work in Hollywood from the 30s right through to the 60s, and his name was attached to many films during that time. As musical director he worked on several musicals among them "Top Hat", "The Gay Divorcee" and "Follow the Fleet". It is primarily as a composer that he is now known, and his films include such iconic movies as "Casablanca", "King Kong" and "Gone with the Wind", whose theme tune "Tara's Theme" is instantly recognisable. Although there are lesser themes for the other characters, "Tara" is the name of the house and its plantation. His music for "A Summer Place" is also instantly recognisable with its gently relaxed lyrical mood. He received numerous Oscar nominations, winning the award three times for the films "Now Voyager", "The Informer" and "Since you Went Away". His name is now attached to the annual "Max Steiner Award" for film music which recognises Steiner's pioneering role in the early development of the craft.
Steiner's musical language is very direct. He doesn't mess about with subtle nuances but gets straight to the point, whatever emotion is required for the movie. It has to be said that Steiner is not averse to borrowing the occasional tune or idea, and at times his music can seem a little clichéd to modern ears. He has also been criticised at times for occasionally "Mickey Mousing" the film, i.e. following the action too closely as in a cartoon. However on the other hand, he was an early pioneer of the art when film music was still trying to find its feet. While working under enormous time pressures he was still willing to experiment in genres from classical to the light popular styles of the time, and was able to create some extremely powerful and dramatic scores such as the truly ground-breaking "King Kong". One thing to note is that in his overtures, he frequently incorporated an orchestral fanfare as his signature for the opening titles. Although his style is often instantly recognisable, those few bars leave the listener in no doubt that the movie has a Steiner soundtrack.
Among many albums of music by Max Steiner, we can readily recommend the compilation double album named after his most famous film Gone with the Wind. Individual soundtracks of note include the following:
There is also an interesting review by Steve Vertlieb of the "King Kong" film score on the American Music Preservation website.
The film "Casablanca" is of course famous for the song "As Time Goes By" which was written by Herman Hupfeld. Dooley Wilson who played the part of Sam, was a singer and a drummer but not an expert pianist. The piano instead was played offstage by studio pianist Elliot Carpenter, and Wilson learned to expertly mime the correct notes so that it looks convincing on screen. Max Steiner incorporates the song into various parts of his film score.