By Sigurd Neubauer
He’s the host of Classics on Film: from the Golden Ages. Vincent Caruso’s show on SiriusXM radio draws demographics from all walks of life. Because of the diversity and inclusivity of his audiences, combined with his love of music, Caruso has made it his mission to make classical music available and real.
For generations of Americans, The Ten Commandments not only represents Hollywood at its finest, but the film is also accompanied with dramatic and riveting music. Since its release in 1956, the film – which features Charlton Heston as Moses – has for many decades played a prominent role in American life as it was broadcasted on television every year during the eve of the Easter holiday.
Heston, an iconic American in his own right, became synonymous with Moses on and off screen and represented the golden age of Hollywood history where men were heroic and women beautiful. At the time, confidence in post-World War II America was surging, which in turn translated into a flourishing era for artistic expression where Hollywood blockbuster films such as Ben-Hur (1959) and Cleopatra (1963), among many others, stand out for their magical music.
While the composers of yesteryear’s blockbuster successes have long been forgotten, they are nonetheless enshrined in film – as well as in classical music – history for their artistry and innovation.
Perhaps the most famous of them all, Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1987-1957), who is by many musicologists considered a composer in the tradition of Richard Strauss, was invited as early as 1934 to Hollywood by Warner Brothers. Korngold’s orchestration for The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) along with The Sea Hawk (1940) are widely considered some of his best. His violin concerto, which was not produced for film, remains popular and is frequently performed.
Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995) composed the music for numerous blockbusters, including The Thief of Bagdad(1940) Ben-Hur, the latter considered to be his cinemusical masterpiece.
Elmer Bernstein (1922-2004), the composer of The Ten Commandments, was particularly prolific by writing the theme songs or other music for more than 200 films and TV shows. Bernstein studied composition under Aaron Copland, among others.
Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) is mainly known for his collaborations with celebrated film director Alfred Hitchcock. He composed the music for Psycho, North by Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Vertigo.
Another legendary Hollywood composer was Max Steiner (1886-1971) whose main success was composing the music for Gone with the Wind (1939). The music for King Kong (1933) was another success.
For those of us born and raised long after Hollywood’s golden age had drawn to a close, its allure and cultural mystique continue to intrigue me. So too does the world of film music, which is a topic that I have never fully understood despite my life-long love of classical music.
After attempting to self-educate myself on the matter by listening to Vincent Caruso’s weekly show on SiriusXM, Classics on Film: from the Golden Ages, I reached out to the radio personality to discuss yesteryears’ blockbusters and how their music not only impacted American life but classical music as a genre.
“Tone poem composers such as Richard Strauss, Antonín Dvořák and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov helped pave the way for film music,” Caruso says.
“Opera was for many centuries the art form that combined music and theatre. The introduction of the movies provided a different medium for music and acting.”
Caruso, a New York City-based classical music and film score music radio host, has spent the past 25 years brining the art forms to diverse audiences across the nation.
His shows draw demographics from all walks of life. Because of the diversity and inclusivity of his audiences, combined with his love of music, Caruso has made it his mission to make classical music available and real. “I don’t think classical music should be compartmentalized,” he says, adding that this is why he brought in film music under the classical music umbrella.
Caruso’s passion for film music was ignited during childhood when a family living next door in Brooklyn, New York, hosted children from across the neighborhood to watch the Wizard of Oz.
“Everyone was waiting for the date that it would be broadcasted on television as it was a big event in the neighborhood. The music scores from films such as The Ten Commandments and Cleopatra captivated me,” Caruso says. Another favorite film from his childhood was The Adventures of Robin Hood whose famous score was composed by Korngold.
At the time of Caruso’s childhood, during the 1970s and 80s, music scores and recordings of soundtracks weren’t readily available. His passion for film music continued to intrigue him, including feeling “swept away” by Jerry Goldsmith’s (1929-2004) music from Star Track movies.
Herrmann’s score for the Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), which was based on a novel by French author Jules Verne, also caught his ear.
“It was when I started watching the movies that I began paying attention to the soundtracks,” the radio personality recalls. Little by little he began to purchase the various soundtracks as it enabled him to revisit his favorite films through music. “This is how my imagination wandered around a little,” he adds.
Film music is seldom played in its entirety, however.
“The film composers are competing with the visual aspects of the film. But most of the music is not played in its entirety in the film,” Caruso explains adding that this is also true for John William’s Indiana Jones. “The music is first heard in its completeness when Marianne is introduced.”
Caruso is also fond of attending concerts where both the film is played while its music is simultaneously performed by an orchestra.
Caruso describes it as “a fantastic experience,” including for the musicians. “The musicians typically smile more than usual during performances as many of them have grown up with these films.”
This type of programming remains popular with audiences across the nation and often brings multi-generation families together, including grandparents, children and young people out on dates.
What makes these concerts so special is that the audience often laughs and cries as the film progresses. “It enables us to connect as a society and even globally, especially now that films are played internationally,” he says.
“When the New York Philharmonic does it, it sells out every time. The orchestra even has to schedule additional performances.”Caruso relishes in sharing these experiences with his listeners, emphasizing that he’s never getting tired of it. “Audiences are demanding more programming of this kind.”
For Caruso, film music is a continuation of classical music. The range of music from traditional blockbuster films to short films are expanding which is why he dedicates his show to analyzing the scores that provide other types of soundscapes. But he doesn’t stop there; he’s also passionate about the ever evolving genre of classical music and how it, literally, plays out in the field of video games.
“People never stop creating,” he says referring to Joe Hisaishi as an example. The contemporary Japanese composer whose music is gracing various animated movies produced in his native country has become popular in the United States as well.
One of his most popular songs is “One Summer’s Day,” from Spirited Away (2001).
“The power of film music is very universal – just like classical – it connects generations. Lot of people have grown up with movies, and now also with video games.” For Caruso, the continuously evolving art form of classical music resembles “a huge cornucopia of delicious treats to enjoy, celebrate, share and continue to innovate with.”