Encore: Music for the movies - from the Emperor of Abyssinia to the Count of Monte Cristo

'I Served the King of England'

For this edition of Encore we go to the movies, looking at two contemporary composers who have approached the art of composing for film from very different angles.

Music for the King of England

Jiri Menzel's recent film I Served the King of England features a scene called The Emperor's Banquet, where the Emperor of Abyssinia visits Prague, complete with his huge entourage. It's a wonderfully opulent scene, and the music that accompanies the scene does a marvellous job creating the atmosphere - more than a little evocative of turn-of-the-century Vienna. In fact it is brand new, composed by Ales Brezina especially for Menzel's long-awaited adaptation of Bohumil Hrabal's most famous novel.

Composing for film is a very specific craft. There are many ways to approach it, but what usually happens is that the composer is given a roughcut of the film and - more often than not - some horrible deadline, because the music is the last major thing added to a film, and by that point, there is a lot of pressure to get the film finished and into distribution. The composer sits down with the director to discuss where music should be, what type of music it should be, and how much music and so forth. And then he or she gets to work. A lot of composers nowadays work with computers, and can do a fairly convincing mock-up in their home studio, synchronized to the film, and then orchestrate it - or, as often happens, have someone else orchestrate the music - produce the parts, and go into the studio with an orchestra hired for the occasion.

Given that so much film music is very appealing and popular, it might seem surprising how rarely it is worked up into full-blown compositions. The reason is simply because it doesn't pay. Hiring a top-notch orchestra is very, very expensive, and the film studio knows it is not going to make big money selling the suite of music from a film. But they do often release collections of what are called "cues", that is the various snippets of music featured in the film. This is just what has been done in the case of I served the King of England.

Ales Brezina also happens to head the Martinu Foundation here in Prague and on our website you can find several of our interviews with him.

A three-hour suite to accompany a silent classic

We move on to movie music of a completely different kind - music written to accompany a silent film. Not many people know that The National Film Archive in Prague is one of the greatest film archives in the world. One of the many treasures it holds is the 1929 silent film the Count of Monte Cristo by French director Henri Fescourt. In the early 90s old prints were painstakingly restored, and composer Jan Klusak was commissioned to write a score to accompany the film.

Jan Klusak
In the days before the talkies, movie theatres had pianists or organists and even small bands, to provide music for silent films. They had cue books to work from, if they didn't want to just improvise, with snatches of music entitled for example "chase", "danger", or "love scene." But Jan Klusak is a great deal more ambitious than this. He has provided a sumptuous suite of music, almost Wagnerian in scope, for a film almost 3 hours long. It is a huge undertaking, and since there was so much music recorded, it was possible to make a suite from it.

Jan Klusak was born in 1934, and has had quite a tumultuous life, especially under communist rule, because he was labelled an enemy of the state. Nonetheless, he has had a successful career not only as a composer, but as an actor in film and on the stage, sometimes even providing music for films in which he also appears as an actor. His music for the film the Count of Monte Cristo has been released on CD performed by the Bohemian Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jaroslav Opela.

CDs reviewed in this programme are provided by Siroky Dvur