Friday, March 26, 2010

Myth, Magic & Reality: Orchestras Feeding America

Usually, like any arts organization in the country today, the Harrisburg Symphony would be making a pitch to its concert-goers for contributions to help support the orchestra. But at this weekend's concerts - Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm at the Forum - they're accepting donations of food items for the League of American Orchestra's nationwide drive called “ORCHESTRAS FEEDING AMERICA.”

The Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra is one of six orchestras in Pennsylvania – along with the symphonies in Allentown, Altoona and Reading, plus the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Philadelphia Sinfonia – and over 150 orchestras in 41 states across the country participating in the project this month. That number may be down (so far) from last year's 250 in all 50 states, but the project isn't over – the deadline is May 15th – and more orchestras are adding on to join the cause regularly.

Did you know that in 2008, 17.1 million households across the United States were “food insecure,” up from 13 million households in 2007. Households with children reported at almost double the rate of households without children.

Imagine what the number must be like in 2010 with so many people who are out of work or have lost their homes or their retirement investments and benefits? Think how many people who used to feel comfortably secure are now too embarrassed to report such a need or feel ashamed to “resort” to help like a neighborhood food pantry?

Some of the foods on the “most requested” list include
dry and canned soups
powdered or canned milk
peanut butter
canned beans
canned fruits and vegetables
canned meats
fruit juices
macaroni and cheese

Items they cannot accept include
items in glass jars or bottles
unlabeled or dented cans
any open or resealed package
any perishable or homemade foods
expired products.

The food drive also cannot accept monetary donations at this time or non-food items like clothing or diapers.

Please help the orchestra help the community raise contributions of food items for local food pantries.

The concert is called “Music of Myth and Magic” but you can help make a little magic yourself by bringing in a few of these items which you can leave with the ushers when you enter the Forum for the concerts on Saturday night at 8pm or on Sunday afternoon at 3pm.

And thanks!

- Dr. Dick
(I've posted about the music on this weekend's concerts here and here.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Myth & Magic: Part 2 - Strauss' "Death & Transfiguration"

This weekend's concerts with the Harrisburg Symphony take place Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum. Called “Music of Myth and Magic,” the program consists of four works, three I'd already written about in an earlier post – Paul Dukas' “Sorcerer's Apprentice,” a work most famous for its use in a film, and two scores originally composed for films: Prokofiev's “Lt. Kije,” and “On the Waterfront” by Leonard Bernstein.

This post presents a little background to Richard Strauss' “Death and Transfiguration,” which will conclude the first half of this concert conducted by Stuart Malina.

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It might seem odd for a guy who's turning 25 to be contemplating the End of Life. But that's how old Richard Strauss was (see photo, left, taken at that time) when he wrote his fourth tone poem, “Death and Transfiguration” (Tod und Verklärung), completing it in 1889 (Mahler had been working on his 2nd Symphony, the “Resurrection” at the same time, a different approach to a similar program or story).

A “symphonic poem” or “tone poem” is basically a musical work that describes the action of a story in an orchestral composition but without a text. While many compositions may imply a story or some dramatic event or mood – Beethoven's “Eroica” or his 5th Symphony – these are more abstract (see earlier post). Even though Beethoven and Vivaldi both depicted singing birds and thunderstorms in their music and Clement Janequin used singers to imitate the sounds of bugles, drums, cannons and gunfire in his madrigal “The Battle of Marignan” (published in 1531), the idea of taking a literal story – specifically, a literary one – and turning it into a musical score as realistically told as you might with a movie was something you could say Franz Liszt invented. At least he's usually given credit for it though more for the term than for the concept.

Composers had used symphonies to “tell stories” before – Hector Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique is a good example – but Liszt (who himself wrote two symphonies, one inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy, the other by Goethe's Faust) was thinking about something on a less expansive scale where the story could be told in a single movement. In the past, they would've been called “concert overtures,” not to be confused with overtures that helped raise the curtain on a staged work with music (either an opera or incidental music for a play, the 19th Century equivalent of a film-score). But since these theatrical overtures often told or implied the story in condensed form, they usually only took these ideas and converted them into themes representing characters or emotions or concepts in the story which were developed along symphonic lines. Though one could get the gist of the story from this material, it wasn't a literal translation of the plot into a logical musical format (or even a musicological one). The music could give you the sense of the story but it might not necessarily follow the course of the action, perhaps the difference between reading the Clift Notes or a Reader's Digest condensed version than reading the original story that inspired the music.

Liszt's idea was to take a poem or a play or a short story or novel and transform it into music, even though in many cases his tone poems are little different from other composers' “concert overtures.” Rather than telling a story with a plot line, Liszt's most famous symphonic poem, Les Preludes, is more about abstract philosophy and the emotional reactions it inspired, so it's really an exception to whatever “rule” he may have had in mind. Musical terms, of course, are never precise and it's pointless to argue about the niceties of these differences.

Usually, there's a work, let's say, Nikolas Lenau's poem about Don Juan, a favorite literary subject even before the 19th Century, though Lenau isn't re-writing the same Don Juan (or Don Giovanni) story that inspired Mozart. A composer likes this work and is inspired by it, feeling it's suitable for musical treatment. That's how Richard Strauss, at 24, composed his first major tone poem, Don Juan.

His next poem, already in the oven when he conducted the premiere of Don Juan, had a different inspiration. A few years later, the composer wrote that he wanted
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“ present in the form of a tone poem the dying hours of a man who had striven towards the highest idealistic aims, maybe indeed those of an artist. The sick man lies in bed, asleep, with heavy irregular breathing; friendly dreams conjure a smile on the features of the deeply suffering man; he wakes up; he is once more racked with horrible agonies; his limbs shake with fever–as the attack passes and the pains leave off, his thoughts wander through his past life; his childhood passes before him, the time of his youth with its strivings and passions and then, as the pains already begin to return, there appears to him the fruit of his life’s path, the conception, the ideal which he has sought to realize, to present artistically, but which he has not been able to complete, since it is not for man to be able to accomplish such things.  The hour of death approaches, the soul leaves the body in order to find gloriously achieved in everlasting space those things which could not be fulfilled here below.”
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Like a typical composer who has both abstract and emotional interests in what might inspire him to write a particular piece, he also told a friend in another letter, that
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"It was an idea like any other... Probably the musical need, after Macbeth [which begins and ends in D minor] and Don Juan [which begins and ends in E minor] to write a piece that begins in C minor and finishes in C major!"
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He took this dramatic idea – not about someone watching a man die but of describing death as a process of living told from the perspective of the dying man – and set it to music, section by section as he outlined it.

Maybe because symphonic poems were supposed to be based on some pre-existing literary work, he felt the need to ask a friend of his, Alexander Ritter, to take his idea and turn it into a poem. It's important to note that the story-outline came first, then the poem was tailor-made to fit Strauss' musical conception. The poem was printed as the preface to the score when the work was published.

The choice of Ritter for this task is significant.

Strauss had grown up in a time when Wagner was writing what today we'd call “contemporary music” and his controversial aesthetic concepts were all the rage. But there were those who, like many people who dislike their time's brand of “contemporary music,” were very much opposed to Wagner and his music. One such person was Franz Strauss, Richard's father, who was one of the leading horn-players in Munich who often had to play Wagner's operas with all those great horn solos. Even though Strauss grew up listening to the orchestra's rehearsals, he was forbidden to hear Wagner's music until he was “old enough.” He was 16 when he first saw the score of Tristan und Isolde even though his father had played its world premiere in Munich 15 years earlier.

Franz Strauss was hired to play principal horn for the world premiere of Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1882, his 18-year-old son going along. (Keep in mind, Richard Strauss had already written his first horn concerto the year before, very much inspired by the classical ideals his father had raised him in.) Wagner's music both fascinated and revolted the young composer. After his first encounter with Siegfried, the third opera of Wagner's Ring, he wrote to a friend,

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I was bored to tears... it was dreadful... not a trace of connected melodies... chaos... Wagner even uses a trumpet mute to make it all absolutely and unspeakably dreadful. My ears were buzzing with those ugly chords, that revolting wailing and howling... words fail me to describe to you just how frightful it all is.”
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Two years after Parsifal, the 20-year-old composer and, by now, employed conductor, met Alexander Ritter, a composer and violinist (also married to a niece of Wagner's) who, basically, “turned him on” to the music of Liszt and Wagner, the whole “Music of the Future” movement that embroiled German Music in the last half of the 19th Century and which his father had so hated. Suddenly, this composer of conservative abstract works both in traditional chamber music and symphonic genre began to think of lavish tone poems in a Lisztian style, writing tone poems almost exclusively over the next twelve years: Aus Italien (completed in 1886), Macbeth (1887-1888), Don Juan (1888), Death and Transfiguration (1889), Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks (1895), Also sprach Zarathustra (1896), Don Quixote (1897), Ein Heldenleben (1898) before turning his attention primarily to opera by 1900.

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In these three video clips, you can hear Richard Strauss' complete tone poem, Death and Transfiguration, with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic:
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Death and Transfiguration is in several sections, paralleling the sections Strauss had outlined in his description quoted above.

The irregular rhythms of the opening clearly show the dying man’s halting breaths and heart-beat – and whether consciously or not, very similar to the music Wagner composed for the dying Tristan in Act III of Tristan und Isolde

The man rouses himself with his childhood memories (in the video, at 2:30) with a series of lyrical woodwind and violin solos above luminous horns and strings. But the pain intrudes again with a strike from the timpani and low brass (at 5:04) beginning a tumultuous battle scene as he fights for life (c.6.05).

As Ritter wrote in his poem: “But Death grants him little sleep or time for dreams.  He shakes his prey brutally to begin the battle afresh (at 6:47). The drive to live, the might of Death. What a terrifying contest!” 

At the end of this battle, the brass briefly announce a rising, triumphant theme (at 7:55) that will represent his eventual transfiguration and the realization of his ideals. 

Exhausted but wakeful after this battle (c.8:14), the artist’s life passes before his mind’s eye. This music continues into the second video clip.

A friend of mine once complained that all Strauss did here was rip off Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony which has a similar kind of "program." I pointed out two simple facts:

Strauss conducted the premiere of Death and Transfiguration in 1889.

Tchaikovsky composed his Symphony No. 6 (the Pathetique) in 1893.

It might also remind you of Sir Edward Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, an oratorio about the death and transfiguration of a dying old man, but Elgar composed his work in 1900.

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Part 2

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At 0:20 we hear more youthful memories, including something a little more playful (at 0:59). This turns into a series of struggles and triumphs, the longest section of the piece which begins at 1:53.  

The Transfiguration Theme rings out periodically during this struggle as does the intermittent recurrence of the heart beat, but at 4:38, after a determined statement of the Transfiguration Motive, he once more subsides, with weakening heartbeats portrayed by the timpani.

Death finally triumphs with an angry proclamation from the brass (at 8:10) — what Ritter called “the final iron hammer-blow.”  Annoying as editing on YouTube can be, the resolution of this dramatic moment is CUT OFF AT THE MOMENT OF DEATH (arrrrgh)!

(This reminds me of a conversation I had with a colleague of mine at UConn, also a former professor of mine in grad school, who was talking about some of Bruckner's motives being like a “memento mori” which I inadvertently referred to later as a “mOmento mori.” He laughed and said, “no, a MEMento mori is a reminder that Death is always with you; MOMento mori,” he said leaning forward with his hands about to grab me around the neck, “is the exact moment of death!” and then he laughed. So here is a fine example of the momento mori...)

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Part 3

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What follows, moving now to the 3rd clip which rudely cuts off that climactic chord, is Strauss’s evocation of “everlasting space” – shimmering chords building gradually from the initial upward leap of the Transformation Theme to a full and rapturous statement of it at 2:09, first in winds and strings, then triumphantly in the full orchestra at 4:52, building the tension to a heart-rending resolution at 5:36 where one could say the Transmigration of the Soul has now been completed. The work closes in a mood of quiet exaltation.

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There is, in a sense, an epilogue. Let's skip ahead 60 years to 1949. Strauss is now 85 and lying in his villa in Garmisch, having survived a tumultuous career as well as the recent challenges of World War II with his on-again/mostly-off-again relationship with Hitler's Nazi government (one more of mutual toleration than political fervency). The grand old man of German music is old, sick and close to death.

Near the end, he told his daughter-in-law, “It's a funny thing, Alice, but dying is just as I composed it in 'Death and Transfiguration'...”

It was not a coincidence that in his final work, the “Four Last Songs,” he includes the Transformation Theme in the epilogue to “Im Abendrot (At Sunset)” with its last lines,

“How weary we are of journeying: is this, then, Death?”

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Music of Myth & Magic - and a little Background

This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony plays a concert called “Music of Myth and Magic” which features four works on the program conducted by Stuart Malina: the suite from “Lieutenant Kizhe” by Sergei Prokofiev; Richard Strauss' “Death and Transfiguration”; the suite from “On the Waterfront” by Leonard Bernstein; and “The Sorcerer's Apprentice” by Paul Dukas.

The performances are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday afternoon at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg.

Two of the works are certainly comic and based on myth or legend. The other two are inspired by reality and are tragic or at least more serious. All four of them are, each in their own way, magical.

This post offers a little background information for The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Lt. Kizhe, and On the Waterfront. I'll cover Strauss' tone poem, Death and Transfiguration, in a separate post.

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Many listeners respond to a piece of music if they know “what it's about” – what story is it telling? If they know the story, they'll probably enjoy the music more. If they don't know the story, chances are good they'll make something up to accompany the music in their mind's eye.

Generally, we can describe music that “tells a story” as program music. Music that doesn't is called abstract music, just music about music.

Beethoven's 6th Symphony, the Pastoral, doesn't really tell a story but the composer gave each movement subtitles – “pleasant impressions upon arriving in the countryside – scene by the brook – merry gathering of peasants – storm – song of thanksgiving after the storm” – and though he doesn't give you a phrase-by-phrase story, we can imagine what the music suggests.

Beethoven's 5th Symphony has no nickname and has no “program” but most people think of it as a struggle between a man and some crisis that happens to him – perhaps Beethoven and his own deafness – which he then overcomes in the final movement with its triumphant finale.

While this “localizes” the impact of the music, it remains universally relevant because the generic nature of its conflict not only succeeds as abstract music, it succeeds at fitting almost any kind of dramatic conflict one cares to set against it (witness the famous argument skit between Sid Caesar and Nanette Fabray from a 1950s TV show).

When I played some very energetic music from Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra for my students at the State Street Academy of Music, they responded by describing it in “action terms,” as if someone were being chased down a long hall-way, creating the details of a story even though the composer didn't intend it to “tell” a story at all.

The thing is, technically, music can't really “tell” you a story – what one person hears in it (or implies from it) may not be what someone else hears (or implies). Even when the composer writes music inspired by a story or to accompany that story in a ballet or a film, different people can still get different stories or details out of it, listening to it out of context.

In 1940, Walt Disney created a film that has become a classic but at the time was a commercial failure: cartoons set to classical music? It was called Fantasia.

Many people who grew up with this film – like me – now have trouble NOT thinking of a family of flying horses straight out of Greek mythology along with its strolling love-sick centaurs, a rollicking grape harvest (and that donkey!) with Zeus throwing thunderbolts at them when they hear Beethoven's 6th Symphony when the composer was thinking of something a little closer to the countryside outside Vienna in 1806.

Another part of this film became a classic in its own right: Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer's Apprentice. I doubt there are many people in concert halls today, hearing this music, who will not have the world's most famous mouse in their minds as he deals with a broom that has taken on a life of its own.

So, without further ado, here is that scene – introduced by Deems Taylor who sets up the story (based on an ancient legend) with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra... and Mickey Mouse in one of his most famous roles in “The Sorcerer's Apprentice” with music by Paul Dukas.
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Though it wasn't intended as a film score when Dukas composed it in 1897, he followed the story so carefully, it's what is often called “cinematographic” music – as if it were written for a film. It is not difficult to imagine the rising tension as the broom, having been shattered by the apprentice's anxious ax-blows with each splinter coming to life as a whole new broom until the whole situation is out of control.

Even the subtle nuances of the sorcerer setting things to right – the raised arms to separate and dissipate the flood waters – down to the final broom-to-the-butt final chords seem tailor made for Disney's animation (of course, it's the other way around).

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In 1933, Sergei Prokofiev, who'd recently returned to his native Russia which had now become the Soviet Union, wrote music for a film. The director, Alexander Faintsimmer, is unknown in the West today, as is Yuri Tynyánov, the author of the story it's based on. The film survives largely because of its film-score.

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UPDATE: an anonymous commenter sent me a link to the original film which I had not found in an earlier quick search and didn't know existed. You can see the entire film (with English subtitles) with Prokofiev's original music, here. The plot of the film is quite different than the traditional program notes usually supplied for the suite: the description below has been amended accordingly. By the way, I prefer using the Russian spelling "Kizhe" than the French "Kije" as it is usually spelled in the West.
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The starting point for the 'reel story' of Lt. Kizhe (in Russian, Porúchik Kizhé) is basically a typo. Tsar Paul I, Emperor of Russia (the son of Catherine the Great and infamous for being more than a little unbalanced himself) read a routine report about guard duties that should have included the words porúchiki, zhé... which means simply “the lieutenants, however...” but which an over-worked scribe hurriedly wrote down as Porúchik Kizhé. Hoping no one would notice the error, two ministers hand the report to the Tsar who naturally wonders who this Lieutenant Kizhe is.

Since it was neither polite nor safe to correct much less contradict the Tsar, his ministers were forced to create this “Lieutenant Kizhe” from scratch and turn him into a real person, though one who is "confidential and has no shape." The ministers turn him into a scapegoat for an incident that had annoyed the Tsar during the night - someone had shouted 'Guard!' - and so Kizhe is ordered into exile in Siberia. The ministers figure that's that.

When it is discovered the annoying incident was an accident, the Tsar decides to call Kizhe back from exile and promotes him to the rank of Colonel.

Now the real challenge for the ministers begin. Even before they've figured out how to manage this, the ever insecure Tsar decides he must have an honest man as his personal guard - and of course that would be Kizhe, and he now promotes him to the rank of General.

When he returns (accompanied by the Troika music), our new General is "too tired" to appear before the Emperor who then decides that a young lady-in-waiting should marry Kizhe - immediately! (She is, however, in love with the younger of the two ministers who actually is the one who accidentally shouted "Guard!" when she pinched him that night the Emperor was so annoyed...)

When Kizhe doesn't appear at his own wedding, the older minister basically informs everyone that Kizhe's role in the government is so top secret he has no shape, then tells the priest to get on with the ceremony. Everybody congratulates the newlywed couple (even though the groom seems to be missing), the bride (looking unsure) air-kisses where the groom ought to be and they walk out together, arm in... well, air, reminding me of a scene from "Harvey."

At the wedding reception, it is announced General Kizhe is to be promoted to Major General and is given property and a chest of 10,000 rubles. Everyone looks very pleased and smiles at the empty chair, offering their congratulations.

But of all the misfortunes that Major General Kizhe should fall ill on his wedding night!

The next morning, when the Emperor demands Kizhe present himself so he can announce Kizhe will now command the Imperial Army, Tsar Paul discovers Kizhe is missing. Instead, he finds the young minister hiding under the marriage bed... uhm, looking for General Kizhe... all they could find were his boots which are then placed on a stretcher and taken off to the hospital. Where, unfortunately, Kizhe takes a sudden turn for the worse and is pronounced dead.

The Emperor is very distraught by this and orders a state funeral. While the procession passes beneath the palace windows, the Tsar tells the young minister to bring back the chest of rubles (which the young minister has already pilfered) but he tells him Kizhe had spent it on... on meals. Angered that his trusted servant has proven to be a thief, the Emperor demotes Kizhe, regardless of his deceased state, back to Lieutenant again – no, wait, to Private – and orders the minister to stop the funeral so the body can be returned to be buried as a mere private. To thank the young minister, he makes him a general.

Left alone in his chambers, the Tsar comments on how difficult it is to rule the state.

Though I'd never seen the film before, I found the treatment of the story much more amusing than I'd always read it in liner notes for the concert suite of Prokofiev's music – rather than being far away from the Imperial Capital, Lt. Kizhe is right under the Emperor's nose.

Prokofiev's concert suite from his film-score includes the “birth” of Kizhe, then a song about Kizhe, a celebration of Kizhe's wedding, the famous troika ride (the typical Russian sleigh pulled by three horses) which has since been used by other film-makers and advertisers whenever they need to create a “sound” suggesting winter and snow, and finally the death and burial of Kizhe.

Here's a clip of the troika.
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And here's a link to a scene from a ballet based on the suite. Some of the music for the “birth” of Kizhe originally took place during a scene when Tsar Paul inspects the troops: though the dancer in white (the emperor) prances about like someone from Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks (speaking of parodying bureaucrats), I suspect it's because he is at times both Emperor and the horse he rode in on...

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Leonard Bernstein was a young conductor and composer in 1954 when he made a brief visit to the world of the film composer, writing music for Elia Kazan's Oscar-winning film, On the Waterfront, with Marlon Brando, a story about union workers filmed around the docks of Hoboken, NJ. The story concerns two brothers, the younger (Brando) who wants to testify against a mob-boss (Lee J. Cobb) represented by the older brother (Rod Steiger).

You can read more about the film here - and the wikipedia plot synopsis here.

One of the most famous scenes in film history is the one between the two brothers in the back of the cab, especially (beginning at 3:40) when Brando blames his brother for his lack of success and says “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been SOMEbody...” Bernstein score is not simply “background” music for this scene: it sets the mood very powerfully.
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While The Sorcerer's Apprentice and Lt. Kije are based on fiction, the story behind Kazan's film was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of newspaper articles exposing corruption and racketeering along the New York waterfront. The film treatment takes it beyond the local aspect to a story of universal significance. Bernstein's music humanizes the struggle, both real and emotional.

Though embedding isn't allowed with this clip of the music Bernstein recorded later in 1960, you can listen to the first 9 minutes of the suite, here.

Bernstein wrote a great deal of music for the stage, much of it later converted to film, but “On the Waterfront” is the only work he composed originally as a film score.

(“On the Waterfront” Poster disclaimer: This image is being used to illustrate the article on the movie in question and is used for informational or educational purposes only.)

- Dr. Dick