Traditional Irish Tune
Our Film of the Week this time around is John Ford’s masterpiece, How Green Was My Valley. So I’ve chosen for today song one of the three controlling themes from the movie’s beautiful score by Alfred Newman. Unlike most of the composers we have met so far at Sometimes a Song, Alfred Newman was not primarily known as a writer of popular songs. The eldest child of immigrant parents from Russia, Newman was a musical prodigy. He became a professional piano accompanist at age thirteen, sought out (and was sought out by) excellent musicians and composers and conductors as his teachers, and rose from humble beginnings to become one of the most sought-after composers, arrangers, and conductors in Hollywood. He scored over 200 films and was nominated for forty-three and won nine Academy Awards during his 40-year career in the film industry.
Creating musical themes to help set the proper mood and to underscore the action and story lines in films was an important feature of Alfred Newman’s work. In fact, his scoring innovations came widely to be known as “The Newman System” — a way of synchronizing music with specific action on screen and of associating special musical motifs with particular characters in a film. We take this approach to film scoring for granted now, but Alfred Newman perfected his system over the twenty years he served as music director at 20th Century Fox. (In his role as music director, Newman composed and conducted the famous 20th Century Fox fanfare which appears at the beginning of the studio’s films to this day.)
I could say much more about Alfred Newman and his work, but for this week at Word and Song, I want to point out one other of his trademarks, his talent for adapting folk music to a film score. For How Green Was My Valley, Newman drew from over forty folk tunes and Welsh hymns, fitting music from this treasure trove of songs into his score to suit various scenes, to establish a range of moods, and to help audiences follow the progress of the story. A musical connoisseur, Newman had a clear idea of what sort of melody he needed for the third of his controlling themes — the “Love Theme.” And as it turns out, he chose for this theme not a Welsh tune, but an Irish one. Newman arranged his version of “The Sixpence” for strings to lend a wistfully sweet but rather melancholy mood to scenes featuring Huw Morgan’s sister, Angharad, and Mr. Gruffydd, the minister.
Listen below to Alfred Newman’s “Love Theme” from How Green Was My Valley, lyricized by Paul Francis Webster and sung by Gordon MacRae at the peak of his career (1957).
Wonderful song. Long ago I started to take note of the credits of the movies I watched. Prominent among them were the composers. Alfred Newman came up in so many. In praise of him I could only speak in cliches, so I'll stop here.