Sunday, October 25, 2009

Herbert Stothart's Score

Have you ever listened, and I mean really listed to the Wizard of Oz score?  Now, I’m not talking about the songs by E.Y. Harberg and Harold Arlen, which are obviously classic in themselves and probably some of the most recognized songs ever written.  But I mean the music behind the scenes while the dialogue is running.  It is so carefully and meticulously composed to create the magical and exotic mood for each moment of the film and is omnipresent.

It’s easy not to realize what the composer did since you’re so caught up in what’s happening to the characters in the story.  Let me take you through a few of them so that next time you watch the film, you can listen to that layer of genius just under your attention most of the time.

The movie opens with a version of the theme of “Happy Little Farmer” as she’s running down the dirt farm road with Toto, which I’ve always thought was cute.  It also almost instantly pauses for a more austere moment letting you know that this is not going to be a simple story. 

Also, listen for when Ms. Gulch parks her bike to go into Uncle Henry and Aunt Em’s house.  It’s thoughtful score cleverly combining life on a farm in Kansas with the menace that is about to invade Dorothy’s life.  For whatever reason, the editors dialed out the music cue when Uncle Henry lets the gate hit Ms. Gulch’s butt. 

However, the music that continues as Ms. Gulch is in the family home is also very rich.  You can only hear the rest of this by buying the Deluxe Edition double CD set of “The Wizard of Oz Original Motion Picture Soundtrack” that was released in 1995.  This set has all of the music cues for the Wizard of Oz that was included in the film, and also music that was dialed out or completely dropped.

When Dorothy starts out on her journey and meets the Scarecrow, the score is a kind of light-hearted, exotic, swingy-tempo’d feel with clarinets and a xylophone that is playing under the dialogue.  It’s so easy to miss because it’s such an important point in the movie as these two characters meet, but the music has such a rich tapestry in this section.  But I love how the composer is toying with various themes that are to come in the film.

And just a side note, but not really...there were large chunks of musical numbers and scoring taken out of the Wizard of Oz between when it was tested with audiences in Santa Barbara in 1939, and when it was premiered.  All of them are on the CD mentioned above.  Here is a look at one musical sequence that was cut from the film; an extension of "If I Only Had A Brain." If I Only Had a Brain - Original Length

There is a moment when Dorothy is in the witch’s castle later, and the music is so forlorn.  The mood is dark, sad and always makes my skin tingle because the composition is so deep and think with emotion for Dorothy who is now a complicated world away from the simple life of her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry.

Let me now introduce you to Herbert Stothart who is the genius musician who composed the music for the Wizard of Oz.  I think many people don’t know of him because they focus on Arlen and Harberg’s songs, and rightly so.  But one must really take a step back and digest the incredible contribution that Herbert Stothart made to this film.  His score is the raw emotion and underpinning of the whole story.

A quick look in Wikipedia tells us that Herbert Stothart He was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and studies in Europe and in Madison, WI, where he later taught. “Stothart was first hired by producer Arthur Hammerstein to be a musical director for touring companies of Broadway shows, and was soon writing music for the producer's nephew Oscar Hammerstein II. He composed some of the music in the famous operetta, Rose Marie. Stothart soon joined with many famous playwrights including Vincent Youmans, George Gershwin and Franz Lehár. In 1929, Stothart was signed to a large Hollywood contract by another would-be playwright of the day, Louis B. Mayer.”*

He composed the scores for at least twenty-four films, many of which were Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer films.  Some of these were A Night at the Opera, After the Thin Man, Anna Karenina, China, David Copperfield (1935 version), The Good Earth, The Green Years, Idiot's Delight, Madame Curi, Northwest Passage, They Were Expendable, Mrs. Miniver, Mutiny on the Bounty, National Velvet, Naughty Marietta, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Pride and Prejudice, Rasputin and the Empress, A Tale of Two Cities, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, The Wizard of Oz, What Every Woman Knows, The White Cliffs of Dover, and The Yearling. **

Each of the studios back in those days had their own “sound.”  I’ve heard that Warners and 20th Century Fox had a more brassy sound to their film scores.  MGM was known for their emotional string sound of their in-house orchestra, a sound that has always been near and dear to my heart.  This all had to do with the composers on staff at the studios, and also the one or two rooms each studio had to record most of their scores; how the sounds resonated from their studio walls, etc.

Stothart won the Oscar for his scoring on Wizard of Oz.  And remember, that’s the exact same year that “Gone With the Wind” won all of its Oscars.  But obviously, Stothard’s work on Oz beat out Max Steiner’s work on Gone With the Wind.

The real key and the real genius of Herbert Stothart’s work in the Wizard of Oz in my opinion was his ability to draw on whatever he needed to evoke the strongest possible response from the audience.  He mixed in classical composers’ work such as Mendelssohn’s Opus 16 #2 (when Toto is getting away from the witch’s castle to find Dorothy’s friends) in with his own concoctions ranging from dark to glorious (when they see Emerald City for the first time) to make us feel that we are in this strange, sometimes nightmarish world with Dorothy.

I really hail Herbert Stothart for what he did with this film and for how he makes me feel every time that I see it.  I gave just a few examples, but every moment of the film's score is so carefully composed. So, next time Wizard of Oz happens to be on TV or DVD, or if you’re seeing a special presentation in a theater (the only real way to see this movie), give your attention to the music behind the emotion, and think of Herbert Stothart.

* ** Research from Wikipedia page: