Legacy Conversations: Steven C. Smith and William Stromberg

Author Steven C. Smith and composer & conductor William Stromberg discuss the lineage that connects John Williams and the great composers of the Golden Age of Hollywood, including Bernard Herrmann and Max Steiner

Hosted by Maurizio Caschetto

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John Williams is the film composer who, more than any other, took the great tradition of the Golden Age of Hollywood’s film music and updated it for modern audiences through his own unique voice. Thanks to the impressive box office success of such films as Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Superman, the late 1970s saw a resurgence of the classic symphonic film score as intended by the great composers of the Golden Age: Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Alfred Newman, Dimitri Tiomkin, Miklós Rózsa, Franz Waxman, were the forefathers of what is commonly referred as “the Hollywood sound”, i.e. the lush, romantic orchestral vernacular in vogue during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, mostly based on the great tradition of Late Romantic symphonic music from Europe, of which all the aforementioned composers were all natural descendants. This type of vibrant, colorful and emotional musical accompaniment defined Hollywood’s film music until the dramatic turn of the tide known as the end of the studio era in the early 1960s. John Williams restored almost single-handedly that tradition with a sincere, heartfelt homage to those musical stylings and a new renaissance of film music began.

To understand better the context in which this happened, it’s necessary to go back a few decades. John Williams started his career in Hollywood in the mid-1950s as a session pianist for studio orchestras, working under such composers as Dimitri Tiomkin, Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann. That experience was absolutely essential for him to learn the job of the film composer, watching those esteemed professionals from the piano bench and acquiring insight and methodology from that very unique perspective. His work as a composer during the 1960s, mostly for comedy pictures and television shows, was a long and productive period where he was able to flex his compositional muscles in a wide variety of genres and types of productions that later during the early 1970s would bring him to tackle bigger and more ambitious projects that gave him opportunities to show his penchant for a large orchestral sound, as heard in such scores as The Cowboys, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, but also in his adaptation score for Fiddler on the Roof.

The huge box office success of Jaws in 1975, and then Star Wars in 1977, both scored by John Williams, brought the classic Hollywood music style again at the center of the stage. Both movies boast musical scores that harken back to the great tradition of Korngold, Steiner, Newman and their fabulous romantic symphonic scores, but also nodding to the modernism and more unconventional stylings of a towering figure like Bernard Herrmann, all filtered and reinterpreted through Williams’ own unique musical personality.

This is the starting point of this new episode of the Legacy Conversations series on The Legacy of John Williams podcast, featuring two very esteemed and distinguished special guests who are among the most respected authorities on the subject of classic film music: author Steven C. Smith and composer/conductor William T. Stromberg.

Steven is an Emmy-nominated documentary producer, author, and speaker who specializes in Hollywood history and profiles of contemporary filmmakers. He is the author of two acclaimed biographies: Music by Max Steiner: The Epic Life of Hollywood’s Most Influential Composer (Oxford University Press), and A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann (University of California Press). The latter received the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award, and was the main research source for the Academy Award-nominated documentary Music for the Movies: Bernard Herrmann. Both books are widely considered as some of the finest literature ever written on the subject of Hollywood’s film music and are essential reading for anyone studying the subject—Smith’s impeccable writing illustrate both the lives and the art of these magnificent, multi-faceted, even complex artists and human beings, giving the reader more than just a glimpse of their character and soul. They’re entertaining, informative and authoritative books on two of the greatest composers who ever wrote music for films.

William T. Stromberg is a respected composer and conductor working in the film music business since the late 1980s. Together with his artistic partner John W. Morgan, he produced an impressive amount of brand-new recordings of classic film scores from the Golden Age of Hollywood by Max Steiner, Bernard Herrmann, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman, Dimitri Tiomkin and other illustrious composers. These beautiful award-winning recordings (released on the Marco Polo label during the 1990s and early 2000s, and subsequently on the independent label Tribute Film Classics, founded by Bill together with his wife Anna Bonn and John Morgan) are widely considered benchmark performances of Golden Age film repertoire, in the tradition of the iconic 1970s recordings conducted by Charles Gerhardt for the Classic Film Scores series released on RCA Reader’s Digest. But while Gerhardt’s brilliant recordings were mostly suites and themes, Morgan and Stromberg have always reconstructed and recorded the complete film scores, including material never before heard and reinstating the composers’ original intents. The preparation work was sometimes done from original manuscripts and sketches collected from the film studios’ libraries or the composers’ personal archives, while other times the scores had to be fully reconstructed by taking down material from the surviving original recordings, remaining as faithful as possible to the material and also recapturing the feeling and the tempi of the original film performances. The list of the recordings is truly impressive and includes premiere complete recordings of iconic scores like Max Steiner’s King Kong, The Treasure of Sierra Madre and Adventures of Don Juan, Erich Wolfang Korngold’s swashbuckling masterpieces The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk, Bernard Herrmann’s Mysterious Island, Fahrenheit 451, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro, to mention just a few.

The profound expertise and knowledge of both Steven C. Smith and William Stromberg make them the ideal guests to talk about the lineage that connects John Williams to the great tradition of the Golden Age of Hollywood’s film music, especially to composers like Max Steiner and Bernard Herrmann. While Steiner is considered the true pioneer of film scoring as we still know it today, Herrmann is a composer who found in cinema his most profound inspiration eschewing any kind of simple categorization. In this conversation, Steven and Bill talk and reflect about Steiner and Herrmann as towering figures in the history of film music and how it’s possibile to find echoes of these composers, albeit in different and subtle ways, in the music of John Williams and his approach to movie scoring.


Max Steiner (born in Vienna in 1888) arrived in Hollywood in 1929, after several years spent composing, arranging and conducting for musicals, operettas and vaudeville theatre, first in London and then on Broadway, where he collaborated with legendary musicians like George Gershwin and Jerome Kern among others. It was a time of great innovation and change for the film industry: movies started to have sound and the “talkies” came on the scene, changing forever the shape and nature of cinema. Suddenly studios started to realize they needed a veritable army of composers, arrangers and musicians to write, orchestrate and record music for the movies. Steiner was put under contract at RKO Studios as orchestrator, occasionally also composing original music for the films’ main and end titles—most of the early sound films were musicals or music-centered pictures, while standard dramatic films still weren’t requiring an original music score, save for the beginning and the end of the picture, as the audience wasn’t expected to understand “where the music is coming from”. It was pioneering producer David O. Selznick who asked Steiner to compose an unprecedented amount of dramatic accompaniment music for the 1931 film Symphony of Six Millions, and, from that moment onward, a new artform was born. Steiner followed with two other milestones of original music composed and synchronized to the film, Bird of Paradise (1932) and The Most Dangerous Game (1932), but the most celebrated paradigm shift happened in 1933, with the score for the fantasy adventure film King Kong. For this film, Max Steiner wrote 70+ minutes of music accompanying the film for most of its duration (100 minutes). It was a revolutionary score on many fronts, mostly because of its sheer scale and complexity, its groundbreaking technical achievements in terms of synchronization to the on-screen action and adherence to the storytelling, but also on its purely aesthetic and musical values.

For the first time, a fully-fledged symphonic score composed with great panache and virtuosity was meticulously accompanying a motion picture as a crucial ingredient of the drama, helping the audience to believe the story they were seeing on screen and boosting the film’s box office success immensely. Cinema was still a relatively new craft, but Steiner was the first to discover and apply a method that, in spite of all the progresses, discoveries and technological updates, has been used by all film composers since then. John Williams and Steven Spielberg showed a great deal of knowledge, respect and admiration when, in 1993, they nodded affectionately to the monster classic of 60 years before in their spectacular dinosaur extravaganza Jurassic Park.

The Golden Age of film scoring began under the thunderous notes of Steiner’s magnificent Kong score, with peers and colleagues working in other studios (namely Alfred Newman at 20th Century Fox) at the forefront of this revolution with him. More European composers settled in Hollywood – many of them escaping an escalating situation of dictatorship across the continent – and started to explore this new artform: Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman, Dimitri Tiomkin, Miklós Rózsa were all distinguished, classically-trained composers, and most of them were also active writing serious works for the concert hall, but all found a new source of inspiration working for the booming Hollywood film industry. An incredible amount of fantastic music was written for many decades by all these gentlemen, including some of the finest and most memorable film scores ever composed in the history of the artform. Steiner ended up being one of the most successful and celebrated film composers working in the industry from the early 1930s until the late 1950s, winning three Academy Awards, one Golden Globe and many other accolades during the course of his long career. Some of his scores like The Informer (1935), Gone With the Wind (1939), Casablanca (1942), Now, Voyager (1942), Since You Went Away (1944), The Big Sleep (1946) and The Searchers (1956) are rightfully considered among the pinnacles of film scoring for their dramatic qualities, the impeccable writing, the lush orchestrations and fluent lyricism.

Max Steiner conducting the recording session for King Kong (1933)
Max Steiner conducting the film score of King Kong (1933) Photo: L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University

Back in that era, Hollywood was at the epitome of its ability to produce movies that were literally “bigger than life”, in which drama, romance, adventure, comedy were often meshed in a single film, so the music score was an essential ingredient to put it all together and make the movie look and sound flawless. Steiner was probably the first of the composers of Hollywood’s first generation to understand all this and create musical scores that often accompanied the film from the first frame to the last. Gone With the Wind remains one of the landmarks in this regard, a movie for which Max Steiner wrote a score that is still one of the most ambitious ever written for a motion picture—in addition to the unprecedented amount of accompaniment music written for a single film, Steiner composed many themes and leitmotifs to enhance the epic tale on the screen in a very operatic manner. Even the dialogue is scored through Wagnerian recitativo style, much like an opera composer would do.

Steiner explored and pushed the envelope of film music probably further than any other of his contemporaries. He was a son of 19th century Viennese bourgeois society who witnessed the final days of the Austrian-Hungarian empire and an individual always projected into the future, looking ahead of his time and ready to adapt to any change of the zeitgeist. Despite the huge successes achieved over the course of his career, Steiner had to deal with family issues and economic troubles that often put him under a great amount of pressure to the point that his incredible pace of composing and amount of work (more than 300 film scores written from 1929 until 1965) were the real moments of joy in his life.

Max Steiner conducting his score for Gone With the Wind (1939) Photo: L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Brigham Young University Library

Nonetheless, he was a true pioneer of the artform and he’s still credited as the “father of film music” as we know it today and his spirit can be found in more recent films. When Steven Spielberg and George Lucas made Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, they were looking to recreate the sense of excitement, adventure and thrill that was typical of the movie serials of the 1930s and ’40s, but also nodding to the stylings of classic Hollywood films like Casablanca and The Treasure of Sierra Madre. As author Emilio Audissino points out in the book John Williams’s Film Music (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), Williams answered the call by writing a Steiner-esque score, paying homage to the composer both in the style of accompanying the action and through the great lyricism of the love theme for Indiana Jones and Marion, which Williams described “a bit like ‘As Time Goes By,’ ” back in 1981.

“Max Steiner really taught us all how to write music for the movies.”

John Williams

Bernard Herrmann (born in New York in 1911) was a totally different character and certainly a unique figure. Son of Jewish immigrants, he started developing a penchant for music since childhood. He won a composition prize at the early age of 13 and then studied music at the New York University under esteemed teachers as Percy Grainger and Philip James, and later at the Juilliard School of Music. Herrmann’s foremost interest was conducting and joined CBS Radio as a staff conductor, but soon he was appointed music director of the Columbia Workshop, an experimental radio drama series for which he composed and arranged music. He also became chief conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra, producing a series of radio programs featuring a great deal of contemporary music and introducing the audience to the then-unknown music of Charles Ives. Much like Steiner, Bernard Herrmann had one foot firmly set in the past (he was a great connoisseur of the classical repertoire and had an intimate knowledge of the works by many composers) and another aiming at the future. At CBS he became acquainted with the young burgeouning talent under the name of Orson Welles, with whom he started to collaborate on several radio productions, including the famous adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Herrmann was very fond of the medium of radio, in which he found an ideal vehicle for experimentation like unusual instrument combination, and compositional technique based on short motifs and repeated patterns, all of which would become staples of his writing for the movies.

Bernard Herrmann conducting the CBS Orchestra

When Orson Welles was ready to make his big splash in Hollywood, the director brought Bernard Herrmann with him to write the score for his ambitious, daring movie project called Citizen Kane. The 29-year old composer accepted the challenge and immediately set the course by working in an unconventional way. Instead of waiting to see a first cut of the film (the standard procedure in Hollywood back then), Herrmann started to write music based on the script and Orson Welles’ descriptions, setting the tone of the unpredictable story of tycoon Charles Foster Kane much like he would do as if Citizen Kane was a radio drama. Welles’ innovative storytelling technique and outlandish filmmaking style offered Herrmann a unique opportunity to score the film in a very new and unconventional way. The composer eschewed any kind of grand symphonic style typical of the heydays of RKO and Warner Bros. (which Steiner basically created) and also avoided strict synchronization to the actions on screen, but instead opted for a bleak, almost expressionist style, using low woodwinds and low strings, and developing short, haunting motifs as the main musical material through a series of often very brief cues. Not unlike King Kong eight years earlier, the score for Citizen Kane shifted the paradigm of what music could do in a movie, bringing the talent and genius of its composer to the forefront of the film scoring arena.

Herrmann immediately understood the potential of the art of cinema and soon chose to explore more opportunities to write for Hollywood films, carefully picking and choosing the projects and the directors he wanted to work with. He became the unpredictable, most daringly original voice among Hollywood film composers, also never accepting to work as a staff member for any studio or accepting to work with orchestrators or arrangers. 20th Century Fox’s music director and esteemed composer Alfred Newman was a great admirer of Herrmann and helped him getting through various projects at the studio. At Fox, Herrmann worked on such films as Jane Eyre (1943), Hangover Square (1945), Anna and the King of Siam (1946), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), in all cases writing scores of unusual freshness and very personal stylistic traits. In the mid-1950s, Herrmann met Alfred Hitchcock and started the most important musical association of his whole career. Over the span of eleven years, the director and composer worked together on eight feature films, including some of Hitchcock’s greatest and most successful achievements—Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960) is a tryptich that represents one of the towering achievements in the history of cinema and film music. Herrmann became the musical analyst of Hitchcock’s cinematic obsessions, scoring the psychological drama and the inner feelings of the characters, enhancing fear, tension, and anxiety through brief, ingenious motivic cells and repeated patterns, but also sublimating the romanticism and even the eroticism (often only suggested on screen) with ecstatic lyricism.

Bernard Herrmann appearing on screen as conductor in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Photo: University of California, Santa Barbara Library

Besides his seminal work for Hitchcock, the composer worked extensively for fantasy and adventure films, including several with pioneering special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen. These worlds of fantasies offered Herrmann the ideal platform where to explore wild and even bizarre instrumental combinations and crazy orchestrations—Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) is characterized by an impressive sound for brass, organ and harps; Jason and the Argonauts (1963) is scored with an unconventional orchestra made of extended brass and woodwinds sections, plus a wide battery of percussion instruments; Mysterious Island (1961) has a gigantic orchestra featuring multiple harps and doubled percussions; The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960), by contrast, is accompanied by Neoclassical stylings. In Herrmann’s approach nothing follows an established pattern or a predictable road, but every musical choice is subjected to the film’s needs.

It’s virtually impossible to put Bernard Herrmann into any kind of box, nor define his musical persona with a precise definition. He was a man of many talents, yet a very complex character and a man of turmoil. After the abrupt break-up with Alfred Hitchcock, his very bad temper and irascible tendencies became even more pronounced and, in the late 1960s, he even left Hollywood for his beloved England, where he settled virtually until the last stretch of his career as a film composer, in which he saw a resurgence of interest and even devotion to his music from a younger generation of filmmakers. Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese and Larry Cohen gave Bernard Herrmann the last hurrah of his very distinguished career with a series of films and projects in which the composer put an incredible amount of creative energy—De Palma’s Obsession and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver represent the musical epitaph of a genius composer who until the end showed he was capable to go in new, exciting directions.

Bernard Herrmann conducting in the early 1970s

John Williams developed a personal friendship with Bernard Herrmann during the 1960s, when both composers were working at 20th Century Fox and also crossed paths at Universal Studios’ television branch. Williams always saw Herrmann as a very unique, personal voice and also a mentor of sorts during his early days as an up-and-coming film composer. Herrmann urged Williams to dedicate more time to composing works for the concert hall and, as Williams recollected several times, he was often a voice of advice and counsel on several topics about music and music-making.

“Benny was encouraging; he came to some of my recording sessions. He was never flattering, but always encouraged me.”

John Williams

Williams and Herrmann kept in touch until the latter’s final days in 1975. Over the decades, Williams has often expressed his admiration and appreciation toward the music and the art of Herrmann, carrying the composer’s legacy over the years and conducting quite frequently some of his music in sold-out concerts with the Boston Pops, the New York Philharmonic and the LA Philharmonic.

Williams carried the spirit and the legacy of Bernard Herrmann through his own music as well, pushing the lesson of scoring drama through simple yet powerful musical ideas, creative orchestrations and a strong musical point of view. The score for Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is probably the closest descendant of Herrmann’s iconic Psycho, not much in terms of direct musical relationship, but in its aggressive, sharp character and its transformative power toward what we’re seeing on screen.

Max Steiner and Bernard Herrmann represent two pinnacles of the art of film music like very few in the history of the artform. They both achieved great artistic success through a life devoted to their craft, exploring possibilities, finding solutions and creating a lexicon that didn’t exist before them, always remaining true to their muse and producing an impressive amount of great music that will continue to be discovered, studied and enjoyed for many years to come. Their immense, invaluable legacy reverberates today in the music and the art of Maestro John Williams.


Special Thanks to Steven C. Smith and William Stromberg for their immense kindness and generosity.

Steven C. Smith Official Website: https://mediasteven.com

Tribute Film Classics: http://www.tributefilmclassics.com

The Bernard Herrmann Society

Max Steiner Collection at Brigham Young University


List of the music excerpts featured in the episode:

. Max Steiner, “Main Title” from All This, And Heaven Too (1940); Moscow Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Stromberg
. Bernard Herrmann, “Prelude” from Mysterious Island (1961); Moscow Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Stromberg
. Max Steiner (arr. John Williams), Theme from “Now, Voyager” (1942); Itzhak Perlman, violin; Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by John Williams – from the album Cinema Serenade 2: The Golden Age, Sony Classical, 1998
. Bernard Herrmann, “Memory Waltz” from The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952); Moscow Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Stromberg
. Bernard Herrmann, “The Balloon II” from Mysterious Island (1961); Moscow Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Stromberg
. Bernard Herrmann, “The Rainstorm” from Psycho (1960)
. Bernard Herrmann, excerpt from “The Lonely” from the television show The Twilight Zone – Season 1 (1959)
. Bernard Herrmann, “The Spring Sea” from The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947); London studio orchestra conducted by Elmer Bernstein
. John Williams, “Final Countdown” and “Monster Rebels”, from the episode The Reluctant Stowaway, from the television series Lost in Space – Season 1 (1965)
. John Williams, “Vision on the Stairs” from The Fury (1978) – original soundtrack album recording
. Bernard Herrmann, “Scotty Trails Madeline” and “Scene d’Amour” from Vertigo (1958); Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Joel McNeely
. Max Steiner, Theme from Bird of Paradise (1932)
. Max Steiner, “Main Title”, “The Island” from King Kong (1933); Moscow Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Stromberg
. John Williams, “To the Island” from The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
. John Williams, “The Raptor Attack” from Jurassic Park (1993)
. Max Steiner, “Entrance of Kong” from King Kong (1933); Moscow Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Stromberg
. John Williams, “The Great T-Rex Chase” from Jurassic Park (1993)
. Max Steiner, “The Snake – The Bird – The Swimmers” from King Kong (1933); Moscow Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Stromberg
. Max Steiner, Suite from Casablanca (1942); National Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Charles Gerhardt
. John Williams, “The Death Star/The Stormtroopers” from Star Wars (1977)
. John Williams, “To Cairo” from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
. John Williams, “Short Round Helps”, “To Pankot Palace” from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
. John Williams, “The Medallion”, “Desert Chase” from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
. Max Steiner, “Meeting with the Black Men” from King Kong (1933); Moscow Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Stromberg
. Max Steiner, “Aeroplane – False Hope” from The Lost Patrol (1934); Moscow Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Stromberg
. Max Steiner, “All Hallow’s Eve – Springtime – The Carousel” from All This, And Heaven Too (1940); Moscow Symphony Orchestra & Choir conducted by William Stromberg
. Max Steiner, “Battle With The Press Gang”, “Duel With De Lorca” from Adventures of Don Juan (1948); Moscow Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Stromberg
. Bernard Herrmann, “Prelude” from North by Northwest (1959); London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bernard Herrmann – from the album Music From the Great Movie Thrillers, Decca, 1969
. John Williams, “Anderton’s Great Escape” from Minority Report (2002)
. John Williams, “Luke’s First Crash” from The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
. John Williams, “Kelso’s Attack” from 1941 (1979)
. Max Steiner (arranger John Williams), Theme from “Now, Voyager” (1942); Itzhak Perlman, violin; Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by John Williams – from the album Cinema Serenade 2: The Golden Age, Sony Classical, 1998