This post is brought to you by Canon Fodder: a musicology blog that takes a humorous, vernacular and belligerently educational approach to classical music. Canon Fodder is written and produced by Molly Phelan and Lydia Zodda, former Bay Area residents and performers, and active Awesöme Orchestra admirers.
Listen...Gone with the Wind, like so many other period films, is a more accurate depiction of the time it was made than the time it tries to depict. It's pretty uncomfortable to watch in 2017. But, this film score influenced generations and it's part of the reason we even have film composers instead of just mix-tape like compilations in the background. The complete score is #2 on the American Film Institute's "Greatest American Film Scores" (Star Wars took the top spot), but today we're just going to look at the theme that opens, closes and totally saturates the film. Speaking of which, here's the whole movie in gif form in case you don't have 4 hours.
PIECE: "Tara's Theme" from Gone with the Wind
COMPOSER: Max Steiner
ERA: 20th Century, Film music
GOOD FOR: Wearing ballgowns and crying beautifully, maintaining delusions about shameful American history.
Max Steiner was born in Austria in 1888 and was named after his grandfather who ran a major theater in Vienna and is the guy that convinced Johann Strauss II (THIS GUY) to write some operetta. Oh, also his godfather was Richard Strauss (THIS GUY). With a life so rich in Strausses, it's not surprising that he was a child prodigy and was full-time professionally composing/arranging/conducting by the time he was 15. He went on to study with Mahler (THIS GUY) and got a four-year degree in a year.
So...yeah he's pretty good at music.
In 1929 he moved to California and started writing film scores which is where he found tremendous success, eventually gaining the nickname "the Father of Film Music". He got into film music right when the idea of sound in film was still pretty new. At that time film scores were largely just re-using popular classical works (think 2001-A Space Odyssey. Hey, there's a Strauss again!) and generally avoided underscoring dialogue in case audiences didn't understand that the music wasn't actually happening in the scene. So, the only places you would hear underscoring was in a saloon or a bar where the music was diegetic (music heard by the character in the film). Steiner wrote his own scores and added underscoring even in situations where there clearly wasn't an 80 piece orchestra in the background of the scene. Turns out, audiences were not as simple-minded as directors feared and they absolutely loved what Steiner was doing.
When it came to Gone with the Wind, director David O. Selznick initially did ask him to use pre-existing classical works and gave him three months to turn in a score. Steiner completely ignored that request and for the next three months, he worked 20 hour days with the help of doctor-administered Benzedrine. At the end of it, he had churned out a nearly three-hour-long score, which was at that point, the longest film score ever.
Steiner believed every character should have a theme, basically, a clear melody associated with them and the biggest and grandest theme in all of Gone with the Wind goes to the O'Hara plantation, Tara. Now, before you say "Wait! Tara is a place, not a character!" let's look at this Max Steiner quote about it:
As you recall, everyone has a theme, and Scarlett's father, Gerald O'Hara, is an Irishman and has a respectable little Irish theme of his own. He is the one who tells Scarlett that "...to anyone with a drop of Irish blood in them, why, the land they live on is like their mother." This is also the first of many appearances of the Tara theme after the opening titles.
Remember that Irish thing because it's going to come back in a second. The Tara theme reemerges regularly any time Scarlett feels the pull of home throughout the film, including opening credits, the final scene and also somewhat bizarrely over her father's gravesite reveal. It is meant to convey the universal feelings of nostalgia and homesickness as well as all the myths of southern grandeur (that ignore all the shameful and nasty truths) so let's walk through how Steiner does it!
It opens with a fanfare, preparing us for something big. Next we hear a quick little strain of "Dixie" ("...wish I was in Dixie, hooray, hooray")which...yikes...but it certainly does establish the O'Hara family's Confederate pride. It's followed by a little folky Irish horn solo that sounds quite a bit like Gerald O'Hara's theme music, reminding us of that adage about Irish people loving land. This is a pretty genius opening, in that Steiner has managed to establish how strong the connection between Scarlett and Tara is, in three different ways, over about six measures.
Then the theme begins in earnest. It uses big wide intervals which make all those classic wide overhead scenic shots feel extra grand. Steiner puts French horns, woodwinds and high strings in the foreground; all instruments which generally are used to evoke pastoral settings and noblity/heroism*. At one point the strings and the horns do a bit of call and response which nicely mirrors the way Tara is always calling Scarlett back. It gets a little sad and solemn for a while, but as in the film, it is rebuilt into "as fine a plantation as it ever was". By the end, we hear the melody in the grandest (and loudest) form yet, as it leads up to the kind of grand old Hollywood fanfare Steiner helped establish in our musical minds forever.
*I'm not saying this film portrayed nobility/heroism, I'm just saying that's what these instruments are usually trying to evoke/symbolize.