If one were to arbitrarily name a few living composers of classical music, several might come to mind: Pierre Boulez, Arvo Pärt, Krzysztof Penderecki, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Sofia Gubaidulina, Peter Maxwell Davies, Thomas Adès, Marc-André Hamelin, Roxanna Panufnik, Jennifer Higdon.

But here’s the irony: while these composers do have a following, and their works are heard in the world’s concert halls, we are exposed much more often and more widely to the works of other composers whose names barely register in our minds. This is the lot of the film composer, whose music is sometimes taken for granted as ‘incidental’ to the movie, but which adds as much character and substance as any film actor could. And yet one often has to wait patiently after the film as the credits go up, to even learn their names. Julie Andrews put it succinctly at this year’s Academy Awards: “Great music not only enhances a film but cements our memories of it.” She added that the Godfather films would not be the same without Nino Rota’s music, or Breakfast at Tiffany’s without Henry Mancini, or Star Wars without John Williams.

Film music as a genre is often not given as much regard by classical music purists; it is perhaps perceived in some quarters as less “intellectual”, and for three reasons: firstly, that it is “subordinate” to the film as if this were a limitation; second, that it is music “on demand”, often written under pressure to a tight deadline; and lastly that by virtue of its very nature, a different “type” of composer is drawn to it, one who is perhaps more attracted to commercial success than being true to their art (whatever that might be).

All three of these stand on very shaky ground. Let us examine them one by one.

Much of the wealth of classical music rests in ballet and opera, and in both cases one could argue that the purpose of the music is to enhance what is happening on stage, but not necessarily to usurp the limelight. We might remember the music, but it still has a context for which it was written. We do not think any less of the operatic and ballet composers for venturing onto the stage. On the contrary, we regard Tchaikovsky even more highly for his ballets and Mozart for his operas.

Mozart’s genius was at its feverish best when he had a tight deadline; Rossini was the same. Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana is a one-act jewel which might not have seen light of day, had he not been spurred on by the deadline and the lure of a prize.

It is also pertinent to remember that even ‘serious’ composers that were fortunate to live in the era of the birth of the moving picture were excited by its potential and immediately took to this new art form. Camille Saint-Saëns wrote one of the first film scores ever, providing the music for the film L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise (1908).

William Walton was reluctant at first, saying “Film music is not good film music if it can be used for any other purpose”. Today concert suites of music from his films are performed as a matter of routine. Ralph Vaughan Williams, Erich Korngold, Franz Waxman and Dmitri Shostakovich are just a few others who wrote film music just as comfortably as they did symphonic works and other music for the concert hall.

But the film composer has become a subspecialty in its own right for some time now, and the burgeoning demand has allowed composers to devote much of their creativity to it. This year’s Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat (for his original score to the film ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’) is a good case in point.


He was introduced early to music, starting piano at five, and later trumpet and flute. He studied composition with Iannis Xenakis and Claude Ballif in France and Jack Hayes in the US. He drew inspiration equally from the French symphonists Debussy and Ravel as he did from jazz and more exotic world music from South America and Africa. The attraction to cinema also came early in his formative years. In an interview, he mentions the songs of 101 Dalmatians and the Jungle Book as an influence, and later Alex North’s music to Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. By his early teens, he was collecting soundtrack albums. He acknowledges a debt of gratitude to the music of Max Steiner and Franz Waxman and more recently to Maurice Jarre and Georges Delerue. “I learnt so much from them.”

Although Desplat wrote music for French cinema, Hollywood sat up and took notice after his success with Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003). Since then, his notable films include Casanova, Syriana (2005), The Queen (2006), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), The King’s Speech (2010), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 & 2, Renoir (2012), The Monuments Men and The Imitation Game (2014).

“The first thing is, you can’t write movie music if you don’t know how to write quickly”, he asserts in a BBC interview. He wrote the music for The Queen and The Imitation Game in three weeks. He can be occupied with as many as ten films in one year.

Desplat gets his cues from the film, being careful not to “restate the obvious”. For example, in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, he resisted the temptation to write in a swing or big band sound. “It had to be subtle—maybe just an echo of Duke Ellington.” He creates “whirling excitement” in The Imitation Game to reflect the machinery and Turing’s churning mind.

He regards the orchestra that will perform his score as his “main audience”. “If I stand in front of the London Symphony Orchestra, I don’t want them to laugh at me – or even worse, be bored.”

(An edited version of this article was published on 1 March 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)