Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Paul Creston

Paul Creston in 1943
Paul Creston circa 1943, at age 37

When I and my compositional colleagues were ignorant graduate students (yes, ignorant and arrogant: I thought I was so freakin’ smart in my mid-twenties, only to realize, as real life unfolded, how colossally naïve I really was), when we were ignorant graduate students, among the nastiest things me or my colleagues could say about a piece of music was that “it sounded like movie music.” Putting aside for a moment the fact that there’s some really fine movie music out there, this statement was meant to address music of melodramatic expressive content characterized by super-extreme degrees of contrast and seemingly pedestrian thematic content. Music about which one could blithely say “oh, that sounds like a chase scene”; or “that sounds like lonely, dark streets noire music”; or “that sounds like a fight scene” or a “love scene”, or a “knifing in the shower scene”, etc.: music of seemingly obvious, usually over-the-top expressive content. 

I’ve grown up, and speaking generally and entirely for myself, I no longer consider movie music to be intrinsically inferior to stand-alone, self-contained concert music. It’s just different, because it serves a different purpose than concert music. The overweening importance in movie music is to create a sonic environment that reinforces and deepens the dramatic action on screen, which (not incidentally) is precisely what most opera music does most of the time: it reinforces and deepens the actions and the feelings of the characters on stage. 

With rare exceptions (Leonard Bernstein’s score for the movie On the Waterfront and John Corigliano’s score for Altered States, for example), movie scores do not seek to be particularly “original”. A film composer has to be able to evoke moods and situations by tapping into the collective memory of the audience. Over time and with repetition, we – as an audience – have become accustomed to what, for example, a chase scene is approximately supposed to sound like; ditto a love scene, ditto a stabbing in the shower scene, etc. (Every now and then a film maker will cross an audience up, and plant music in a scene that creates an aural non-sequitur with the visual action on screen. The effect can be ludicrous or superb, depending. As an example of the latter we’d note Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant use of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Blue Danube Waltz in 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

On then, to Paul Creston and the prescribed work. There was a time when I would have ignorantly and arrogantly dismissed it as “movie music” for its broad expressive strokes and it’s in-our-faces dramatic language. But thank goodness: here at the age of 65 I’ve managed to dislodge my head from by butt and have come to appreciate (and more importantly enjoy) Creston’s work for the uninhibited, passionate, in-our-faces music that it is. Is it Brahms? No. Is it even David Diamond? No. But I’ve learned in my maturity not to batter something for what it is not, but rather, to try to understand and appreciate something what it is. And this work is – wait for it – explosive fun!

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