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The Fountainhead Sings

The Fountainhead Sings

By Chris Matthew Sciabarra


It has long been said that when twentieth-century "serious" music adopted noisy traffic horns or long periods of silence as stand-ins for composition, genuinely Romantic themes went "Hollywood." In the lush film scores of composers such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Alfred Newman, and Miklos Rozsa, the Romantic impulse was preserved and extended.

Maximilian Raoul Walter Steiner was among the greatest of these composers. Born in Vienna in 1888, Steiner came to maturity in a musical family that counted Richard Strauss (his godfather) and Jacques Offenbach among its friends. He studied piano instruction with Johannes Brahms and composition with Gustav Mahler. By the age of thirteen, he had graduated from the Vienna Imperial Academy of Music, winning the Gold Medal of the Emperor. Before he turned sixteen, he was composing music and conducting orchestras.

Steiner left Austria in the years prior to World War I and made his way to London and Paris, and eventually to Hollywood. He was a pioneer in the creation of integrated film scores, in which characters and settings found expression in unique themes that were aspects of a wider whole, and his contributions to the medium were prolific. He composed memorable and deeply melodic scores to match his iconic subject matter—King Kong (1933), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), Gone with the Wind (1939), Now, Voyager (1942), and Casablanca (1942) are among his greatest achievements. Steiner himself believed in the "lasting worth" of "movie music," and his work is a testament to this. Nominated for more than two dozen Academy Awards and a three-time Oscar winner for film score composition, Steiner was a veritable film score architect. As James D'Arc, curator of the Brigham Young University (BYU) film music archives, tells us:

Architecture embraces lines and forms, and, notwithstanding the various creative movements in its history, there should be balance and symmetry. Music, especially film music, contains many of these same elements. Effective film music must communicate emotion, delineate characters and also contribute to the pacing of a film. All of this, of course, requires a level of skill and concentration from the composer who normally operates within a very restricted timeline. Max Steiner was accustomed to compressed schedules and short release dates and it can be safely deduced that these challenges brought out the best in this Viennese-born prodigy who first entered film work in 1929 when he was hired by RKO Radio Pictures. From that time, Steiner made film music history and has been regarded by many as the father of film music.

Or, perhaps, the "fountainhead" of film music.

And how apropos that this musical architect would compose the score for the 1949 film version of Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead.

That "rhapsodic" soundtrack has just been released with splendid packaging, a production of BYU, in cooperation with Screen Archives Entertainment. Produced from acetate discs retained in Steiner's personal collection, this CD is a virtually flawless rendering of this classic score, composed and conducted by Steiner himself. Superb technical restoration provides listeners with nearly an hour of aural pleasure, featuring twenty-nine dramatic cues that immediately call to mind the story of Howard Roark.

Most enlightening is a truly lavish thirty-two-page deluxe color booklet, which, in addition to D'Arc's preface, includes a detailed discussion of the novel and its film adaptation by Glenn Alexander Magee, a philosophy professor at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University. Magee is the author of a superb book, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, but it is his work on Ayn Rand that holds out great promise for scholars and fans alike. His liner notes for this CD are actually derived from a forthcoming book entitled Ayn Rand and Hollywood, which promises a long overdue exploration of Rand's profoundly important relationship to films and the film industry.

Magee gives us an indication of the extent of his research in an essay, "The Fountainhead: A Great, Flawed Film." It's a sympathetic portrait of the difficulties that Rand had in transposing her epic novel of individualism to the screen. As the film's screenwriter, Rand first had to grapple with delays due to various wartime restrictions. An inevitable tug-of-war between Rand, director King Vidor, and the cost-conscious Warner Brothers Studios left the principals concerned over how the film would be received. Though the film was enthusiastically embraced by preview audiences, Magee describes the overall response upon release as "tepid." Critics, however, were downright "brutal" in their assessment of the film. "In part," Magee argues, "these attacks were ideologically motivated." Still, the film "was a modest financial success" and put "the novel back on the bestseller list." Whatever its flaws, or its "controversial, philosophical content," Magee believes that the film version of The Fountainhead "is remarkable for its time, or for any time."

Magee then summarizes the film's plot through a track-by-track analysis. In this meticulous section on "The Music," he accentuates the various themes that Steiner evokes in his score. He writes:

Steiner's score suggests that he felt a strong affinity for The Fountainhead. There is, to be sure, no documentary evidence to prove this (indeed, all that we have on paper are Steiner's notes to his orchestrator, Murray Cutter). However, the music, especially the heroic Roark theme, so perfectly conveys the feel of a Rand novel, it is hard not to think that Steiner was personally moved by the story, and its message. Steiner uses his music to convey important information to the audience. For example, he establishes subtle "links" between characters through the music.... Steiner demonstrates an insight into the metaphysical nature of the "evil" that opposes Roark.... His use of the "redemption theme" is carefully placed and always conveys what Rand intends. There is even a musical link made between Dominique's malevolent sense of life, and Wynand's tragic flaw. All in all, the evidence suggests that Steiner had a strong, intuitive insight into what Rand was up to.

This wonderful CD is a tribute to both the composer and the novelist. In Steiner's Romantic score, Rand's "novel of ideas" is given a heroic musical voice. The score sings of "redemption" and "renewal" and is an achievement of lasting worth.

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Chris Matthew Sciabarra is the editor of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. He is also the author of the Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy that began with Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, continued with Ayn Rand:  The Russian Radical, and culminates with Total Freedom:  Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism.  He is the coeditor with Mimi Reisel Gladstein of Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, and a founding coeditor of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.  He is also the author of two monographs:  Ayn Rand: Her Life and Thought and Ayn Rand, Homosexuality, and Human Liberation.  He maintains the regularly updated "Notablog."  In 2003, he was also named an Assistant Editor for The Free Radical (he's also a featured "personality" at SOLO HQ, with a featured profile).  He was a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Politics at New York University from January 1989 through August 2009.

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