I am going to contend that these selections are examples of what music schools ought to be teaching the composition and conducting classes instead of relying on stale, out-of-date absurd music like Bartok, Hindemith and Shostakovitch; that is music that salutes chaos. And chaos is the heart of negative quiddity. Classic music audiences are slowly but surely needling the various symphonies into performing soundtracks instead, a trend that has fully taken hold, apparently, only in Prague.
Perhaps the most startling thing about my list is that I contend that John Barry is the greatest living composer. I've felt that way since I first heard my first Barry soundtrack. I went to the movie poster on the way out of the lobby and memorized the composer's name, something I'd never done before that evening.
The most startling thing to me in this list is the intellectual triumph of Max Steiner, who studied under Gustav Mahler and yet, at age 71, composed a genuine instrumental rock song, the young lovers theme from "A Summer Place." A non-rock, pop version of this song arranged and conducted by Percy Faith was the number one selling instrumental of the 1960s, but the original (as assembled by Kunzl), also used with the trailer for the movie, is unique, hypnotic, innocent and yet complete rock and roll.
Thus the roots of this high-positive-quiddity list go both to the roots of jazz (boogie woogie from dixieland from ragtime) and, just barely but certainly, to classical romanticism (Gustav Mahler and to Rachmaninoff, the inspiration for John Barry's "Somewhere in Time.")
One more thing. Half a century ago there were many instrumental bands. The 1930s big bands weren't performing and touring in the 1950s, but they were still cutting albums. Percy Faith, Les Baxter, Jackie Gleason, Hugo Winterhalter, Nelson Riddle, Frank Chacksfield, Joe Harnell, Kenny Ball, Walter Wanderley, Perez Prado, Xavier Cugat and many more were getting airtime with their instrumental music.
Henry Mancini and John Barry stopped all that. They took over the instrumental audience and moved it from "easy listening" to something more intense and, for the listener, more demanding.
Today, if you want fresh instrumental music, you buy a soundtrack. It's that simple. The victory is that complete.
But among academic musicians and critics, a fog descends and obscures this truth. They are loathe to face reality. The reality is that audiences won't dress formally and pay high prices to hear absurdist, atonal music. The reality is also that a live orchestra is an enormously expensive form of entertainment that few can afford -- and the few that can afford it are motion picture production companiues.
I used to think academic musicians disliked this high quiddity music because it had no continuous musical tradition and was somehow deficient in pedigree. But that explanation was ruined by digging into the instrumental music of the 20th century. Something else has been going on -- a denial of excellence (the next post).
I have limited my list to 40 selections (all that Listmania permits). The pre-war bridge from the romantic era is under-represented because I haven't listened to it all or ranked it. Please feel free to suggest additional titles as comments to this post.