Motion-Picture Music

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Motion-Picture Music


one of the components and important means of expression in a motion picture. Initially, during the silent film era, motion-picture music, unlike creative art, had a purely utilitarian character. A pianist played the accompaniment to the film, and special albums were put out for the benefit of musicians. However, even then attempts were made to create an original musical score for each motion picture (for example, C. Saint-Saëns’ music for the premiere of the film The Assassination of the Due de Guise, 1908). After the invention of recording equipment in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, a sound track was created for each film, and music became a structural part of the film.

With the birth of the sound film, a distinction was drawn between two kinds of motion-picture music. Foreground music is concrete and has a very specific source in the film (for example, the sound made by something or someone actually depicted in the frame, such as an instrument, radio operator, or someone singing). Background music is a copyrighted, prearranged piece that more clearly conveys the idea of the film, characterizes the events, and expresses the hidden movement of the plot. When they introduce concrete musical material into a motion picture, composers frequently attempt to give their own interpretation of the musical images in life itself. Thus, they transform the foreground music into background music.

In the 1930’s the song became one of the most popular ways of describing a motion-picture character through music. Usually, the song was distinguished by simplicity, laconicism, a self-contained quality, and a catchy melody. I. O. Dunaevskii composed classic models of this kind of motion-picture music. His music, particularly the songs for the motion pictures Jolly Fellows (1934) and Volga-Volga (1938), became extraordinarily popular and are outstanding for their melodiousness, their leitmotivs, and their cheerful outlook on life. The tradition of motion-picture songs was further developed by the brothers Dan. la. and Dm. la. Pokrass and by T. N. Khrennikov, and later, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, by N. V. Bogoslovskii, A. la. Eshpai, A. N. Pakhmutova, A. P. Petrov, V. E. Basner, and M. G. Fradkin.

Outstanding Soviet symphonic composers such as D. D. Shostakovich, S. S. Prokofiev, and Iu. A. Shaporin began working in cinematography in the 1930’s, making an outstanding contribution to the development of motion-picture music. Prokofiev collaborated with the director S. M. Eisenstein in a genuinely creative way. Both artists worked on the problem of the sound and visual structure of the motion picture. Characteristic of Prokofiev’s score for Eisenstein’s films Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (part 1, 1945; part 2, 1958) were a sculpture-like clarity of musical images and a subtle blending with the rhythm and dynamics of the film. (In the film Alexander Nevsky the counterpoint between sound and action was perfected, particularly in the Battle on the Ice scene.) Most Soviet composers of the 1950’s and 1960’s tended to experiment, seeking new possibilities for combining motion-picture music with the action on the screen.

Soviet cinematography provides for the presence in a motion picture of a musical concept, which is constructed from both background and foreground music and often becomes the means by which a character is deeply but subtly penetrated. Filmmakers no longer confine themselves to a broad use of direct parallelism in motion-picture music, which intensifies a certain emotion or mood expressed on the screen. Increasingly, motion-picture music is used in counterpoint to the action. Relying frequently on the antithesis between the music and the image, counterpoint strengthens the dramatic quality of the events. The musical leitmotiv has undergone a significant evolution, to the point where it reveals the underlying theme of the film. Music is an important part of motion pictures about composers, singers, and musicians. In these motion pictures, music either performs a specific dramatic function (if the story deals with the creation of a piece of music) or is inserted into the picture as an interlude.

Music is a necessary part of animated cartoons, documentaries, and popular science films. Animated cartoons have their own laws of musical composition, the most common of which calls for a strict concurrence of the music and the action. In cartoons the melody literally repeats or imitates the movement on the screen, creating either a parodie or a lyric effect. The films by the American director Walt Disney, particularly scenes from Fantasia (for example, “The Dance of the Skeletons,” with music from the symphonic poem by Saint-Säens) are especially interesting examples of the use of music in cartoons. Motion-picture music is on a par with the other components of contemporary cinematography and frequently provides the key to the ideological and thematic basis of a film.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.