Max Steiner: The Pioneer

Known by some as the ‘father of film music’, Max Steiner’s influence on the history of film is huge.  Max Steiner was born in Vienna, Austria in 1888.  Born into a musical family, Steiner began music early.  He took piano lessons with Johannes Brahms and by age 13 graduated from the Imperial Academy of Music.  At 14, Steiner composed music for an operetta and he began conducting and composing, even taking lessons from Gustav Mahler.  Steiner conducted orchestras in London from 1904 until 1914.  He was invited to New York City and began conducting and eventually orchestrating for Broadway musicals by composers like Jerome Kern and George Gershwin. 
Steiner conducting the score King Kong
In 1929, Steiner moved to California and became the General Musical Director for RKO Pictures.  His first official scoring credit went to Cimarron (1931) which eventually would win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  While at RKO, Steiner scored The Informer and King Kong and many others.  It was his time at RKO that Steiner brought the old-world composition technique to Hollywood.  Wagner-like leitmotifs became the standard for scoring.  Steiner won his first Academy Award for The Informer (also one of the first in the Original Score category).  Steiner filled his pictures with scores almost entirely through the film.  King Kong for example, is almost 77 minutes of music in a 100 minute film.  The orchestra used was one of the largest of the times as well.  Steiner left RKO to work for producer David O. Selznick’s studio.  Eventually Warner Bros. bought into Steiner’s contract, but could be loaned back to Selznick once a year.  Steiner stayed at Warner Bros. for more than 30 years.  One of his first assignments was Tovarich, featuring Steiner’s new Warner Fanfare.  Notable films from his Warner years include Sargeant York (1941), Now Voyager (1942), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), The Big Sleep (1946), Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). 

As per Selznick’s demand, Steiner composed the music for the epic Gone with the Wind in 1939.  Steiner completed the almost impossible task in three months, composing almost 3 hours of music.  The score was one of the few Oscar nominations that didn’t win.  AFI’s 100 Years of Film Scores ranked Gone with the Wind the second film score of all time. 

The other movie most commonly associated with Max Steiner is the 1942 classic Casablanca.  His romantic score is one of the most memorable parts of the film.  The main theme, As Time Goes By, was not actually written by Steiner.  It was actually written by Herman Hupfeld in 1931 and used in the original play Everybody Comes to Rick’s which Casablanca was based on.  Steiner eventually used the song in the film’s score as almost a love theme.  He also incorporated the French national anthem into the score, with both the anthem and As Time Goes By melodically adapting as the movie changes.  The main melody of the song has been used as Warner Bros. fanfare since 1998. 

Steiner continued to score films for Warner Bros, providing more dramatic, comedic and western scores, including Key Largo (1948), The Caine Mutiny (1954), The Searchers (1956), and A Summer Place (1959).
  By the time of his death in 1971, Steiner won 3 Academy Awards, and 24 nominations. 

Many of Steiner’s scores are not subtle; his underscoring is criticized for the same reason that made them great.  They followed the films almost too well, known as “Mickey-Mousing”, similar to the type of scores to a Disney cartoon.  Many of these scores seem cliché, but Steiner was one of the true pioneers of film music, bridging the European composition technique and the medium of film. 

Gone with the Wind - Tara's Theme: (Click here to listen)
King Kong - Entrance of Kong: (Click here to listen)
Casablanca Suite: (Click here to listen)

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  1. Very cool to know his history. Perhaps even more than Korngold, Steiner really seems to have defined scores during his era.

    It's obviously a style that has gone out of fashion, but it's impossible to think of that old school Hollywood sound without Steiner.