Hugo Friedhofer: A Profile

Hugo FriedhoferHugo Friedhofer is the only Hollywood composer who has achieved the special kind of immortality conferred by America’s foremost musicological journal the MUSICAL QUARTERLY: he has merited being the subject of scholarly discourse in those august pages. It happened a few years ago when Frederick Sternfeld wrote a lengthy critique of Friedhofer’s score for THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. How, like fourteenth-century masters of the madrigal, eighteenth-century prima donnas, and a crop of undated and unidentified drummers of Afro-Brazilian cults, Friedhofer has won his place in history. And the main title, the bridge, the love theme, and the montage have taken their places as historical forms along with the isorhythmic motet, the ritornello, the cabaletta, and the French overture. It must be noted, however, that Friedhofer was awarded his honors somewhat grudgingly, with reservations. For Sternfeld’s discourse bore the inaccurate title of “Music and the Feature Films”, which led one to expect a general discussion of anybody’s or everybody’s film scores instead of an analysis of only one composer’s score for one specific film. Scholars of the future, searching for material about one of the best of Hollywood’s composers, are hereby warned not to look for “Friedhofer, Hugo” or “BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, The” in the QUARTERLY’S annual Index. It remains innocent and unsullied by any reference to the commercial branch of musical art.

Superficial observers will distinguish Friedhofer from his colleagues by his beard, careful listeners by what might be called his classicism; I do not mean to suggest by this term that Friedhofer’s music is formalistic or that it sounds anything like the music of the classic masters. On the whole, it is contemporary in sound. But it is classical in the sense that it is economical, disciplined in both the range and the quality of its expressiveness, and keenly sensitive to the requirements of musical design,

As examples of the economy of Friedhofer’s writing, two characteristic passages might be cited, the wedding music in BROKEN ARROW and the nightmare music in BEST YEARS. The first of these is a three-part piece of the greatest simplicity. It begins with an English horn solo, in which the warmth of the tone color is somewhat attenuated by the austerity of the melody. The middle section is a duet for flutes, and here the coolness of the flute tone is complemented by a more florid melodic line. Then the horn solo is repeated. The accompaniment of the whole piece is nothing more than a widely spaced kettle-drum beat with a harp to reinforce the tonality and a bass drum to emphasize the percussiveness. The whole is rather archaic in style, perfectly descriptive of the scene it accompanies, and at the same time interpretive of the poetic and religious significance of -the ritual. As differentiated from the economy of material and instrumental resources of this sequence, the passage from BEST YEARS is economical in design. It employs the full orchestra except trumpets, and it underscores action that rises to a climax. The basic pattern of the music is the opposition between two ostinatos – a descending one in the treble and an arched one in the bass. Between them are string chords, tremolo, that move chromatically and are punctuated by occasional horn and trombone sonorities. To appreciate the economy of such music as this, one has only to remember other nightmare music he has heard, replete with divided strings, woodwind roulades, harp glissandos, and brass clusters – all of it adding up to much sound and little music.

No one would contend that Friedhofer’s music is austere or objective, and I do not suggest this when I say that its expressiveness is disciplined. He once commented on the difference between Tchaikowsky and Brahms in these terms, when Tchaikowsky cries, “How unhappy I am!”, Brahms says, “How tragic this is!” Friedhofer is of the Brahms persuasion in these matters. Tenderness, which might be called the masculine version of sentimentality, is his outer limit of expression. Generally he avoids sentimentality, the exceptions being dictated mostly by the industrial requirement that love scenes have “luv themes.” On the other hand, he has effectively used ‘sentimentality as a dramatic device, as he did in BEST YEARS with his handling of “Among my Souvenirs.” This popular tune, characteristically scored by Friedhofer, did more than anything in the script to give to the Myrna Loy-Fredric March menage the tone of middle-class pseudo-gentility and smartness.

In the same way, Friedhofer’s best humorous expression keeps well within the realm of writ and rarely touches on buffoonery. To be sure, both were present in THE BISHOP’S WIFE. But certainly the witty use of the concerto grosso style to characterize the lightly ecclesiastical atmosphere was far more effective than the mickey-mousing in the varnished chair sequence. The latter must be regarded as a lapse in taste. But the whole scene was that, not only the music.

From the point of view of musical craft, the most satisfying quality of Friedhofer’s music is the integrity of its line. There is never, for instance, an error of calculation in the movement of the bass. Amateur composers (even those in the ranks of the professionals) are apt to let their basses move from one chord-root to another; but Friedhofer’s always emphasize motion, direction, and a basic tonality. His inner voices, too, always speak in sentences complete in shape and content. You see this on the score-page and you hear it on the recording stage. The music always “plays”, and the instruments are never frustrated by an absence of meaningful phrases.

Friedhofer is, in short, a master craftsman in his field. This does not mean that he is a great composer. Films have not yet produced a great composer; and the great composers who have produced film music have not in this medium matched their achievements in the larger and more sustained forms. It seems to be not in the nature of film music, at least in its present state where its functions are definitely limited, to make the large, sustained utterances characteristic of great music. The functions of film music will have to be considerably expanded before composers will be able to say in this medium what they are able to say in the grander formulas of symphony and opera. Friedhofer has not composed in these forms; practically all of his music has been directly stimulated by films. But if film music ever expands to the point where large, sustained pieces will have a place within the medium, then Friedhofer‘s feeling for line and form and discipline will keep him in the front rank.

Lawrence Morton
Originally published in Film Music Notes Vol. IX/No.4, 1950
Official publication of the National Film Music Council © 1950

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