The history of soundtracks

Last night, at a showing of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker that we were suddenly invited to, I got to thinking about music and the actions that are coordinated around it. As with any ballet, the music drives the product – the dancing is a product of the movement, creating a story to go with the music. It’s a merge of symphonic and kinetic. And it’s amazing that, with The Nutcracker, the connection between the dance and the classical piece has withstood the test of time.

It was then that I realized that The Nutcracker was like a movie, and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite, its soundtrack. More specifically, a soundtrack that has withstood the test of time, one that instantly brings to mind the action that it drives – in this case, a ballet.

This is not a new concept. I’m not the first to think of it, I’m sure. But before last night, I had never seen a classical piece of music as anything but that – a commissioned work of art, the predecessor to today’s music and an archaic look at music before records, before iPods – before any recording instruments, really. I never realized that some of these pieces don’t stand alone. They are, in fact, connected to a separate work of art – to an opera or ballet performance, paired forever like a movie and its score.

I considered today’s soundtracks. The Nutcracker Suite has been around for hundreds of years and is instantly recognizable. Are there any modern soundtracks – by which I mean a score or set of songs created solely for the movie they are featured in – that will still be popular in two hundred years? Will people go to the classical section of their music stores and find some of today’s movie soundtracks, performed by the 2145 Moscow Orchestra?

We’re talking about instantly recognizable, instantly hummable, perfectly matched scores and soundtracks. We’re talking the Star Wars trilogy, with its symphonic arrangements that musically personify good and evil. We’re talking about O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a soundtrack that not only embodies the film, but also brings to mind a dirty trek across the South.

What about Broadway? Phantom of the Opera? Les Miserables? Rent? What about iconic pieces that stand alone from the rest of the score, like those from The Godfather, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or The Graduate?

Which soundtracks will carry on forever? Or should we be asking: Will any of them?

This was lovingly handwritten on December 6th, 2006