Music Lost in the Jungle: Modern Orchestral Works written in Standard Tonality

Deep in the forests of contemporary art music is a powerful beast, driven close to extinction by encroaching musical styles. The tonal symphony, once a titan of the concert hall, has long been on the decline. Unpopular with composers who favor new harmonic languages and instruments, these law-abiding denizens of the common practice period tend not to reproduce; while the works of Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart are frequently performed by symphonies across the world, prestigious symphonies seldom premiere new music rooted written in standard tonality.

This is largely as it should be. At the Violins and Videos Symposium on New Music yesterday in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the winning pieces of a violin and piano composition contest were performed before an audience and panel of musicians. Per the rules of the competition, these pieces were strictly tonal, and though expertly written, some found the experience dull. After all, why dig up a style of music explored to death a century ago?

The answer to this question has probably been answered by concert hall composers who continue to write pieces in a tonal style. However, specific works and composers are unknown to me. To my knowledge, it is the film industry that has in recent decades provided the best outlet for musicians craving to write a symphony in C major. 

Mr. Holland's Opus

Richard Dreyfuss received his last Oscar nomination to date in the 1995 musical drama Mr. Holland's Opus. Following 30 years in the life of an aspiring composer who finds unexpected joy working as a music teacher, Mr. Holland's Opus is a warm movie meant to tear at the heart strings. Michael Kamen, perhaps best known for his film scores for Die Hard and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, penned a thematically rich soundtrack that culminates in an abridged version of An American Symphony, a composition 'written' by Holland and performed in the film's rousing final scene. Meant to attract the patronage of mainstream filmgoers, Kamen's short symphony is conservative in its harmonies and instrumentation, betraying its late 20th century origins only in the finale, where a drum set and electric guitar are featured prominently. Innovative? No. Fun? I think it is.

The complete symphonic work lasts 17-18 minutes. Unfortunately, I couldn't find it online in its entirety. Below is the final scene of the film, in which an ensemble performs the finale of Kamen's symphony.

An American Symphony

August Rush

The fictional story of child protege Evan Taylor, aka "August Rush," is a schmaltzy affair that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The music that propels the film's plot is pretty compelling, however. August Rush is scored by composer Mark Mancina. Mancina was given the challenging task of scoring August's musical journey and providing musical identities for August's parents, one a guitarist and the other a classical cellist. These elements all come together in the film's final act where, as in Mr. Holland's Opus, the title character conducts an original symphonic work. Rhapsody in C is somewhat more adventurous than An American Symphony; though rooted in a key, Mancina's piece is a medley of musical themes and genres ranging from Bach to rock. 

Below is the final scene from August Rush. What is an undeniably soppy conclusion gains genuine emotion thanks to the Rhapsody playing front and center. Perhaps one section too long from a stand-alone perspective, the composition is very intelligent and effective in the context of the film.

August's Rhapsody in C Major

Well written music is good music. I prefer the post-tonal repertoire myself, but if modern composers can write compelling, harmonic works like these, I'm willing to consider traditional harmony as relevant in the 21st century.

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Replies to This Discussion

Nice post, Noah.  I think we just barely scratched the surface of this discussion in the Violins & Videos symposium, so thanks for giving us an opening to continue!  For those who were not at the symposium, the discussion that Noah is alluding to was about tonality in music - is it still relevant, desirable and interesting to 21st century composers, performers and audiences?

First, let me clarify - there were no rules in the Simply Stunning competition that said anything had to be tonal! The only rules were length - 3 minutes or less - and instrumentation - violin and piano.  The "suggestion" of the competition just said "Your piece will be discussed and studied along with Debussy's "Beau Soir", Fauré's "Après un rêve", Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise", and others as an example of expressive melody lines, gorgeous harmonies, and pieces that violinists and pianists love to play."   Composers could choose any harmonic language they wanted, to create such an atmosphere.   There were many entries that were not tonal - interestingly enough, these did not make it to the short list, in spite of an international panel of judges that included non-tonal and post-tonal composers. 

The ReMix 2014 competition had no stipulations of musical language at all - simply the invitation to score the films.  Again, most of the film scores were tonally based.   Two of the scores that seemed to get the most appreciation from the symposium audience, and from the international voting public, were Mike Tauben's "mi'au myau", a wonderful jazz piece and Bethany Brinson's "The Umbrella", a very moving piece for strings and woodwinds.  Both of these are very much based in tonality.

I don't know about "Symphonies in C major" being limited to film music!   I assume you're using that as an example of form, thematic usage, and harmonic language, and not specifically referring to That Key.  There are many composers today writing symphonies or symphonic music, in all musical languages and "keys"   Here are some that spring to mind:

Rautavaara: (notes from CD of his 8 symphonies) "Einojuhani Rautavaara may well be the most popular symphonist alive today. On the occasion of his 80th anniversary, Ondine pays homage to its longtime house composer by releasing the first-ever edition of the complete eight symphonies, in a special box set. Rautavaara is recognized as the greatest Finnish composer after Jean Sibelius. He has often described symphonic music as a journey through human life. Written between 1955 and 1999, the eight symphonies form a central pillar in Rautavaara s extensive artistic output and showcase the many stylistic periods in his fruitful career. They are hauntingly accessible to the listener and have proven wide audience appeal. The Seventh Symphony, Angel of Light (1994), became a best-seller and spurred Rautavaara to considerable international fame (including a Grammy® nomination), leading the Philadelphia Orchestra to commission the Eighth Symphony, The Journey (1999), for their centenary celebrations."   Angel of Light - 4th movement

Here's a piece from one of my favorite composers, Thea Musgrave: Song of the Enchanter

Program notes:  "This short work, written in the winter and spring of 1990, was commissioned by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra to honour the 125th anniversary of Sibelius' birth.  It is based on an episode from the Kalevala, the great Finnish epic, where Väinämäinen, the hero-God, has fashioned a magical five-stringed instrument from the bones of a giant pike. Orpheus-like, he plays upon it and enchants the people. All listen and all weep, their hearts melted. Even Väinämäinen weeps and his tears 'bigger than cranberries' fall into the clear waters of the deep blue sea. A sea bird dives down to retrieve his tears - they have ripened into pearls."

I especially like the places in the score where Thea quotes directly from Sibelius's music.  Speaking of Sibelius, you can hardly beat his 4th symphony!  Karajan - Sibelius 4th   Many of the comments on this piece say it is like the best film music!

What do others think - have we had enough tonality or is there still room for tonal composers?   My vote is that tonality, like gravity, will never really go out of style.  We did however, invent airplanes on our gravity-based planet, so there's room for brilliant invention in any direction!!

One of folks who attended our Symposium last Saturday sent us a couple of great links outlining the role of music in films.   Here's the message from Cliff in Holly Springs, NC:

As an epilogue to Saturday's event, here's a great example of the importance of music to movies.  Compare the final scene from Star Wars without music . . .
To the version with the music . . .
Thank you, Cliff - what a difference the music makes!

I just watched that link a couple days ago through my favorite film music website, Film Tracks. Highly recommended site for anyone looking for thoughtful, albeit tonal-biased reviews and discussion.


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