Composers are a jealous lot. The insecurity of the work makes them that way. Fearful that they will not be able to come up with it again the next time they are called on to create meaning and emotion out of thin air and mere sounds, they are inclined to look on the music of their colleagues and find it wanting. This is to assure themselves that, at least on a comparative scale, they are not entirely devoid of talent.
Nowhere is this more true than in Hollywood. Movie composers, whether they like it or not, are in a fiercely competitive business, and a man whose work is in fashion this year may wait in vain for the phone to ring next year. What’s more, movie composers create music under exacting technical conditions and in a race against unreasonably brief deadlines.
And so most movie composers, if they’re convinced that you will hold what they say to you in confidence, will quite serenely sit there and put the knock on almost all of their colleagues. They’ll say so-and-so is banal, or he doesn’t know his craft, or that he’s been repeating himself for years, or that he steals from Stravinsky. The latter of course is hardly worth mentioning, since just about everybody steals from Stravinsky.
There is, however, one composer who seems to be utterly immune to the derogations of his colleagues – Hugo Friedhofer. We may deduce from this that his music has nothing whatsoever wrong with it. Because if there were anything wrong with it, one of his colleagues would by now have found it.
To tell the truth, Hugo is held in reverence by all his colleagues. And this isn’t simply because he’s been at it longer than any of them – although anyone who has composed music for the movies for 50 years certainly deserves a decoration for sheer stubborn persistence, to say nothing of blind courage. No. There is something very, very special about Hugo’s music, something extremely difficult to define, and everybody knows it. There is an identifiable style, something uniquely his. And it is all the more mystifying in that it isn’t obvious. There are no gimmicks, no tricks.
And that something that is unmistakably Hugo is there no matter what the surface style in which he is required by the movie to write. Consider it this way: Mozart, Bach, Haydn, Handel, and others working in what is somewhat inaccurately known as “pure” music were able to write always in their own styles. But Hugo had to create a score that sounded Greek for BOY ON A DOLPHIN and Mexican-Spanish for VERA CRUZ and ONE-EYED JACKS and German in parts of the THE YOUNG LIONS and just plain American for THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES.
And he did create the desired effects and moods. And yet within these varied styles, there is never for a moment a loss of his own style, his own identity. This is a very remarkable accomplishment, and it is all the more so when you consider that Hugo’s self-deprecating ego would never demand the conscious imposition of an imprint.
That he is one of the true masters of the composer’s craft is recognized by everyone. Now it is possible to be a great technician without being a great artist, but it is probably not possible to be a great artist without being a great technician. Given then that Hugo is a consummate technician, what we must then consider is what he has above and beyond craftsmanship, that something that makes him a great artist.
One element is the sheer humanity of this man’s enormous and gracious soul. Another is a soaring and lyrical romanticism that is held well back of the borders of sentimentality by his unflagging and fastidious taste. There is reticence in Hugo that would never permit of overstatement. And so he has given us countless scores that penetrate only the more deeply into us because they never embarrass us with the overt and obvious emotions. Hugo’s music finds the secret places in our feelings, and we feel warmed to learn that others feel joys and subtle shades of sorrow we suspected that no one else had ever felt. And that makes us feel less alone.
What these musicalized emotions have done to enhance the movies in which they were heard is a long discussion unto itself. Suffice it to say that they have illuminated well over a hundred pictures, and you will sometimes come across one of them on late-night television and hear about eight bars of music and know it is Hugo’s.
And now, incredibly, it is his fiftieth anniversary in his profession of film composer, and we should address a few words directly to him.
Some of us know you intimately as a friend, some of us know you as a professional colleague, and some of us know you only through your music.
It’s time for you to know something, dear, dear Hugo; know that we love you.
The Best Years of Our Lives LP Entr’acte EDP 8101 – From the bonus disc; a 45 rpm single
Hugo Friedhofer, a 50th anniversary tribute spoken by Richard Hatch