Reviewed in the United States on 31 July 2020
The book was published in May 14 of this year. I'm not arriving very late to this party; still, ten reviewers have already filed their reports on "Music By Max Steiner." I scramble for something original to say. I'll take the via negativa.
DO NOT BUY THIS BOOK IF —
1. You do not love movies, the music composed for them, or the peculiar genius required to marry them. Here is Steven Smith quoting Max Steiner himself: "Many so-called serious composers are still unwilling to give serious attention to film music. They insist on weighing it against the symphonic music of the classicists and find it wanting. In the first place, their intent and function are entirely different. Good film music is written for a specific purpose and if the film composer fails to recognize the dictates of the picture, he may write a great symphony but it will serve him badly" (p. 218).
2. You're not interested in being present at the creation of a dynamic art form that one of its exponents helped to invent, then refine. As Smith perceptively notes, Max Steiner did not create out of whole cloth music for motion pictures, any more than D. W. Griffith invented close-ups, tracking cameras, and so forth. But, like Griffith, Steiner was the first major figure in that industry to synthesize the basic tropes and recast forever the mold into which others poured their works. Jerry Goldsmith (1993): "the techniques developed by Steiner for '[King] Kong'; are basically the same techniques we use today. … I'm doing what I'm doing because of it" (114). Musicologist Christopher Palmer: "[In 1933 'Kong' was] a landmark: it showed the power of music to terrorize and to humanize" (114). Palmer's observation should settle the old question of whether the moviegoer "hears" a movie's score: yes, but subliminally so. What Steiner and all his successors try to do with audio is what the picture's actors, directors, and editors are reaching for visually: to stir the audience to FEEL. Time and again in this book, Smith points that up in Steiner's work and quotes him to show that he knew exactly what he was attempting.
3. You'e not interested in the ups and downs, joys and perils, victories and tragedies of one immigrant family's life, from Vienna to the United States in the decades leading up to and after World War II. Steiner and his parents just barely made it out of Austria before Hitler's Anschluss: a lesson of which we need to be reminded in an especially ugly, xenophobic era of American history. Nor would you want to read this book if you are uninterested in how one father, wedded more closely to his work than to his family, overcompensated by unhealthy child-rearing that may have influenced his son's eventual suicide.
4. You're not the least bit interested in how Steiner polished to sublimity some movies you may have heard of: besides "Kong," "'The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1936), "Dark Victory" (1939), "Gone With The Wind" ("GWTW," 1939), "Now, Voyager" (1942), "Casablanca" (1942), "The Big Sleep" (1946), "Johnny Belinda" (1948), "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948), "White Heat" (1949), and too many more to mention here. Notice how versatile these movies are. Note also how many were produced in the same year. In a ten-year tenure are Warner Bros.—whose films' famous fanfare he also created—his average output was about ten movies a year. One score he composed in two weeks. Most of his pencil sketches for his scores ran 90 – 250 pages. For "GWTW": 457 pages.
5. You may not care about pencil sketches. That's how most composers work to this day: laying out the basic themes and chords, with instructions to orchestrators on dynamic levels and to which instruments the components should be assigned for maximum impact. Steiner's greatest orchestrator was Hugo Friedhofer, himself an Oscar winner for "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946) and the fellow who helped Steiner figure out how to rhapsodize a 1931 chestnut that Steiner despised: "As Time Goes By." Steiner was also a pioneer in using click-tracks and streamers in recording sessions, but I guess that holds no fascination for you, either.
6. You're probably not interested in why Steiner didn't win an Academy Award for "GWTW." Google will tell you which film in 1939 did. Smith will tell you why.
7. Don't read this book if you don't like to laugh. Steiner had a rapier humor that bled into his instructions to Friedhofer. A typical example: "INDIANS WITH LADDERS. . . . Knock Knock—Who's there? Ladders? Ladders-who? Ladders-pray we will finish this picture! . . . INDIANS AGAIN. (I wish my stocks would climb like these INDIANS.) . . . [Here we need] 4000 Violins, 72 Basses, 22 Trombones, 14 Tubas, 11 Toilet plungers. . . . THOSE BASTARDS never stop climbing walls!" (189).
8. Friendly rivalries? Who cares about them? Here's Steiner in passing conversation with his colleague Erich Korngold ("The Adventures of Robin Hood," 1938):
STEINER: "Erich, we've both been working at Warners for about ten years now. During that time it seems to me that your music has gotten worse, whereas mine has gotten better. Why do you suppose that is?"
KORNGOLD: "That's easy, Steiner. It's because you've been stealing from me and I have been stealing from you." (340).
9. How, and with what, to score your biggest hit at the age of 71.
ON THE OTHER HAND: if you have the least interest in any of these subjects, and much more, press the "Buy" button this very moment. Steven Smith has already written the definitive consideration of Bernard Herrmann ("A Heart at Fire's Center," 1991). Now he's done the same for Max Steiner. Mr. Smith deserves our gratitude and thanks for a page-turning biography that doubles as an insightful musical analysis, written in simple layman's terms. Bravo!
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