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January 9, 2004
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Time Tells the Tale
by Nathaniel Finston

Editor's note: The following article was written for the 1948 edition of Music and Dance in California and the West (published by the Bureau of Musical Research, Inc., Hollywood). Its sentiments are relevant today. The article's author Nat Finston, born 1895 in New York, spent his early music career as a conductor and violinist/concertmaster for several prestigious orchestras before becoming musical director of the Capitol Theatre in New York City in 1919 (the largest theatre orchestra then in existence). He began scoring motion pictures in 1920, and joined Paramount Pictures in 1928 as founder of the studio music department. Finston left Paramount in 1935 for a ten-year tenure as head of M-G-M's music department, then resigned from the studio system to create his own production company, Symphony Films Inc. (distributed through Allied Artists) – its first release, Song of My Heart (1947, based on the life of Tschaikovsky). The Nat Finston Orchestra recorded most notably with Bing Crosby. Finston died in 1979 in Los Angeles.

Nathanial Finston
Nat Finston, 1940
Courtesy of The Herbert Stothart Collection, Los Angeles

In the summer of 1928, Paramount Pictures, like all the other companies, went into sound; recordings were made in the Victor Studios at Camden, New Jersey. Later, in November, the music and sound departments in Paramount Pictures' studios, in Hollywood, began the first music department for any picture studio on the West Coast. It was my good fortune to be then an executive and the musical head of this major film company, and to convert and install the music requirements, at the transitional point, from silent to sound pictures.

Everyone knows how pictures sounded, and what the music consisted of in those days – rather lowly and fairly insignificant. But no longer do you hear the horrible sizzling sounds from the screen; no longer the limited and rather immature music and renditions. Musical instruments are now recorded and reproduced with great fidelity; in fact, were you in the next room, you could hardly tell whether it was a recording or the actual rendition by the performer in person.

However, we have not reached the ultimate by far, although great progress has been made by the combined efforts of research and technical groups in music and sound. While sound recording has made important advances, too often we are still hampered with "reproduction" in theatres and other public places because of their acoustical or mechanical shortcomings.

The art of music, or music as an art in pictures, has not advanced that rapidly, nor as far – although progress has been made. Take for instance, play, operetta, opera or even the drama: over and over again one wishes to hear excerpts of this music. It is tuneful in many instances, and reaches classical and academic heights. L'Arlesienne music is constantly played in concert form even though set incidentally to a drama. The Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, Victor Herbert, Sigmund Romberg and Rudolf Friml operettas, to say nothing of Johann Strauss, all have haunting and lilting music that can be performed as separate and solo numbers. Wagner, Puccini, and Verdi excerpts can all be played in three- or four-minute selections but who asks for "The Ride" or "Sunrise Music" from a given picture epic; or "Dance of the Hours," "Ballet Music," "Magic Fire," or the "Entrance Music" from any recent pictures?

The time must come (and I hope very soon) when picture music is of sufficient importance and musical value that it will be requested, heard and respected at critical performances by major musical organizations. The music at present, for the most part, is only the "picture frame to the picture." There was such a time in grand opera, ballet and incidental music to dramatic plays, when the music was undistinguished, uninteresting, and rather inferior. Contributions by great composers changed that, but music in pictures is not yet of sufficient stature to be given the same importance and prominence.

This must and will also come, of course. It may be that composers, given a freer hand, or subjects better integrated to music, will help to hasten this advance. There abounds smart orchestration and experienced musical craftsmanship which undoubtedly result in good and interesting overall musical jobs in pictures that still cannot rate the musical importance (to the story) that Wagner, Herbert, Coward, and a host of others, have rated for their music to dialogue, action, ballet, costumes and scenery.

Yet we have made great progress in less than twenty years, and there is reason to be optimistic that "music in pictures" will merit a very important concert rating and value as extant in operettas, dramas and ballets.

It should be said, however, that too often the inspired musician is hampered in many ways and by many people around picture production; in other words, the last word musically or "power of decision" rests too often with a "power executive." If uncompromising story material will not be sympathetically librettoed to give music a chance, if spacing in dialogue will not permit music to be heard, if box office, or commercial whim, is the only barometer – and if the apostle of such judgments is a high-place executive "protecting" these problems against the "highbrow" musicians – then the advancement of important picture music will continue to be delayed. But, in other ages, the developments of arts, crafts and science took time – so today, it will again [take time] to develop sound and music in pictures.

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