The violinist discusses gems of discovery during the glittering age of film music, ahead of the release of his new album The Golden Age of Hollywood: Concert Works for Violin and Piano

Patrick Savage playing Miklós Rózsa 'Variations on A Hungarian Peasant Song'^J Op 4

Violinist Patrick Savage © Benjamin Ealovega

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Watch any Hollywood movie with a soundtrack from the first half of the 20th century and there’s a good chance you’ll hear a ravishingly beautiful violin solo - an intensely expressive, honeyed tone, delivered with effortless charm. Los Angeles at the time was a magnet for violin super-heroes, including the man who influenced the sound of cinematic violin playing more than any other, Jascha Heifetz.

While the composers of old Hollywood were generally accomplished pianists, they called upon the magic of the violin to make the tenderest, most direct appeal to the heart. What more fitting instruments to present a selection of their classical pieces?

Considering the astonishing pedigree of the violinists of the era, my recording project was daunting, particularly faced with the responsibility of premiering three works.

Fortunately, I was surrounded by a pretty extraordinary team of people.

My recording partner was the pianist, Martin Cousin. His artistry and musical intelligence are paired with an unflappable temperament, so it’s hard to imagine a more ideal recording colleague. I don’t know how apparent my nerves were during the recording sessions, but they were countered by his sense of calm.

Our recording sessions were produced by the legendary John Fraser, backed by the masterful team of engineer, Philip Siney, and editor, Julia Thomas. John Fraser’s multi-award-winning career at EMI Classics included long working relationships with Itzhak Perlman and Yehudi Menuhin. As intimidating as that should have been, John was a consummate musician-whisperer with the gift of putting a player at ease, and his musical imagination was genuinely transformative for this project.

So, a little history behind the music: from the advent of talkies in the late 1920s until the mid-century ascendance of television, American filmmaking experienced a spectacular boom in prosperity and innovation - Hollywood’s Golden Age.

The monolithic film studios could offer their composers material success and an instant global audience, but many film composers at that time regarded their true calling to be music for the concert hall. Unfortunately, the classical world wasn’t exactly welcoming film composers with open arms, and fine music was overlooked. Turning a spotlight on that music became the theme for this album.

As fascinated as I am by movie history, the album actually began life with my long-standing crush on Korngold’s Suite from Much Ado About Nothing. But what to record alongside the Korngold? Which other Hollywood composers had written glorious concert pieces for violin and piano?

During Covid lockdowns I was remotely introduced to William Rosar, an eminent film music historian who helped guide me in tracking down candidate works. I was also indebted to many kindly university librarians across the United States, willing to trawl through old boxes of composers’ papers.

It seemed right to focus on composers working during Korngold’s era, so I established some ground-rules for repertoire:

  • the composer should be best known during their working lives for film scoring (at least in the US) and their heyday should be during Hollywood’s Golden Age
  • pieces must not be film score excerpts or film score arrangements
  • works should be composed pre-1960 and written for violin and piano (or arranged for violin and piano by the composer themselves)
  • one work per composer

And following those guidelines, I hit multiple dead ends. Music that I’d been whimsically wishing into existence - perhaps something by Hollywood founding fathers like Max Steiner or Alfred Newman… turned out to either not exist or to be impossible to find.

But with persistence, music started to materialise and eventually a seven-composer lineup came together: Erich Korngold, Franz Waxman, Robert Russell Bennett, Heinz Roemheld, Jerome Moross, Bernard Herrmann and Miklos Rozsa. Astonishingly, three of the works were unrecorded: Herrmann’s 1927 Opus 2, Pastoral (Twilight), the magnificent, Recitative and Aria, by Moross and Roemheld’s irresistibly charming, Sonatina

Pastoral (Twilight) for violin or viola and piano, composed by Herrmann at age 16, presented interesting challenges - perhaps more for piano than violin. Pastoral gives a fascinating insight into the developing musical identity of this uniquely influential American composer, and it finds him in an uncharacteristically lyrical mode. It gives the impression of being created in a spontaneous rush of inspiration and youthful exploratory zeal. Editorial revisions might have smoothed out one or two rough corners for performance, and small inconsistencies between parts took some analysis to resolve. In recording Pastoral, the simplicity of the silvery, meditative violin line is countered by episodes of prodigious virtuosity for the piano, and the onus is quite heavily on the pianist to weave this seamlessly into a single, coherent narrative.

Jerome Moross, composer of Recitative and Aria scored the 1958 Western epic, The Big Country, among many other films. The Recitative introduction, evoking wide, desert horizons, and the cowboy theme of the virtuosic Aria are grand and orchestral in scope - an enormous challenge to a single violin, especially with the almost relentless increase in intensity through the aria.

Roemheld’s Sonatina for violin and piano contains a unique inner movement entitled Sempre Senza Vibrato. The violin plays a folksy, almost child-like lament. Then it’s repeated identically, and repeated again. In the meantime, the piano weaves an increasingly elaborate dance around that hypnotic violin line, progressively pulling focus. Fighting the urge to vibrato and grow in energy and intensity through that movement is one of the greatest challenges on the album. There was always the sense through Sonatina that we were being toyed with just a little by a composer with a mischievous sense of humour.

Uniting this varied album is the fact these composers were emphatically melodists. Their deepest roots were in the late romantic era and in folk and popular music. They clearly did not see the future of music through the lens of Second Viennese School.

And in all of these works, the influence of the dominant violinists at the time is powerfully felt.

The easiest violinistic decision to make on this project was to avoid imitating the style of the era. No-one needs a bargain-basement imitation of Louis Kaufman, Mischa Mischakoff or Heifetz. This was music written to be timeless and every generation will play it differently. I hope that violinists will hear this recording, incorporate these special works into their repertoire and place their own unique stamp on them.

The Golden Age of Hollywood: Concert Works for Violin and Piano by violinist Patrick Savage and pianist Martin Cousin will be released on 5 April 2024 on Quartz Music.

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