First, who were Hans J. Salter and Frank Skinner? Vienna native Salter, a pupil of Berg and Schreker, fled Germany after Hitler's insanity took hold of that nation. He came to Hollywood and began a career much like Korngold, but never developed that kind of reputation either on the concert stage or in films. Not that his reputation in the latter realm was not high – he simply got a slow start and became strongly associated with the horror genre. In that field he wrote some of the most memorable music ever to come out of Hollywood.
Frank Skinner was born in Illinois and emerged from the modest background of dance-band arranging. He and Salter became friends and both, after serving as orchestrators for other prominent film composers, eventually got to write scores of their own. Salter accounts for most of the music in the first headnote, with only Sherlock Holmes and The Voice of Terror written by Skinner. The others were the work of Salter, though Black Friday was the result of collaboration with Charles Henderson and Charles Previn.
The score for The Ghost of Frankenstein is one of the most atmospheric in the horror genre you're likely to hear. If you can imagine creepy chords, ethereal strings and other dark musical effects, you'll have an idea of what this score sounds like. But it also has a very human side and never features orchestrational or atmospheric effects for their own sake. The cue Monster Kidnaps Child/Monster's Desire begins with a contrabassoon, drum roll, and shimmering strings that impart a deliciously eerie atmosphere, after which gentle, lovely music, representing the child, alternates most imaginatively with the dark sounds of the monster. There are many excellent cues among the twenty-one provided here (not counting the opening Universal title music).
The Son of Dracula and Black Friday are each comprised of only one cue, the first lasting 1:22, and the latter 1:49. Man Made Monster has two, lasting about five minutes. Thus the forty-five minute Frankenstein score gives the best account of the music of Salter, though these smaller morsels have their attractive moments.
Skinner's Sherlock Holmes music is appropriately less dark and divulges an eclectic personality from the American composer. There's nothing dance hall-ish here, and Skinner does manage to deftly capture the mood of stylish mystery associated with the Holmes series. His musical persona sounds a little less distinctive than that of Salter. He was good at creating moods and colors, but didn't sound as thematically talented as his friend. There are eight cues here and about fifteen minutes of music from the score.
The sound is excellent on this disc and the playing of this Bratislava-based group is quite convincing, not least because of the dependable leadership of William T. Stromberg, who, with composer/arranger John Morgan, is spearheading this valuable film music project for Marco Polo. By the way, the profuse notes were especially informative – kudos to Bill Whitaker.
Now, for part two – who was Roy Webb? New York-born Webb was once a very prominent composer of film scores, having written an incredible three hundred, including ones for Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, Might Joe Young, Bringing Up Baby and many other famous efforts. That he has become a largely forgotten figure speaks volumes of the unjust neglect most film composers have endured. These scores were all written for the films of the Russian-born director, Val Lewton.
Cat People is deftly scored and features many attractive themes. Its moods are less lurid and sinister than those found in Salter's Frankenstein effort. In fact, after the threateningly opening title cue most of the music is warm, even Romantic in places. The horror cues, The Evil Call and Horror Sequence, while effective, are not particularly unsettling in their moods.
The Seventh Victim contains the same music in the opening moments of its Main Title as that in Cat People (and I Walked With A Zombie). This may be the best score on this disc: try the Principal's Office, whose attractive, melancholy theme is lushly scored, or the following cue Mary Sees Jacqueline. The late musicologist Christopher Palmer tried to promote this score by arranging a suite from it. It's easy to see why this music appealed to him: it has a mesmerizing quality in many of its slow moments, and the more dramatic ones are ripe with color and atmosphere.
Bedlam, The Body Snatcher and I Walked With A Zombie offer fewer cues, but much of their music is appealing. Edinburgh, from The Body Snatcher, features a brief soprano solo that might come across effectively, but here the singing by Maria Knapkova sounds somewhat strange. Perhaps that's what conductor Stromberg wanted, but to my ears it doesn't work. The other vocal music, Chant and the End Title, in I Walked With A Zombie, is most effective – and eerie.
Again, the performances by the Slovak Radio Symphony are quite good. Stromberg is incisive and alert, as usual, and the notes and sound are excellent. If you are interested in American film music, these two releases are most essential.
Copyright © 2000, Robert Cummings