Top 50 Favorite/Best Classical #46 – Poledouris Conan the Barbarian

The classical music world needs to rekindle a debate about what music should be considered classical. When you take music history courses anywhere, by the time you get to the 20th century, a strange thing happens. In classical music analysis, we’re trained to observe and appreciate composers who introduced some new feature, discovered a new way of exposing the possibilities within the musical spectrum. So what happens is we tend to ignore a whole ton of composers and fixate on only a select few. And yes, it is ironic that I say that as I’m fixating on a select few. But within the classical world, what happened in the 20th century is that, as some composers began focusing strictly on composing for film, including expanding possibilities within that framework, they were ignored by the academia scholars who, instead, chose to follow the “avant-garde” composers, such as Varèse, Cage, etc. For me, the composers that follow in that tradition just don’t interest me, mostly because I really prefer more structured music that tends to say something in a relatively tonal way. I don’t completely dismiss everything from that branch, because there are interesting pieces to be found.

But, I find that academia does completely ignore composers who go into film. Over the last 30 years, in all the classes I’ve taken, and in all the books I’ve studied, rarely is there a discussion of Max Steiner or Bernard Herrmann, and especially very little at all toward today’s composers, who are household names much like the 19th century composers of classical music were; names such as John Williams, James Horner, Jerry Goldsmith, Hans Zimmer, and Thomas Newman. Many people may not necessarily know their names, but they’ll know their music. 

Academia also only skims the surface of black and female composers, particularly in the 20th century. In the 19th century, there were a number of female composers who were actually quite successful, such as Cécile Chaminade, who I have on my list twice. She has gorgeous music, but because she didn’t “push the boundaries,” she is avoided in discussions, or even examples in textbooks. Clara Schumann has seen a resurgence recently, which is great. Fanny Hensel, Felix Mendelssohn’s amazingly talented sister, does not get enough attention, in my opinion. Ethel Smyth is another great composer. In the 20th century, there is Germaine Tailleferre who has gorgeous music worth people’s attention. And of course, today, there are a whole host of female composers that are making great music, from Missy Mazzoli, to Caroline Shaw, to Julie Wolfe. They are, thankfully, successful, but how will they be remembered in academia, in the history books? 

With regard to black composers, William Grant Still gets some attention, but so should Florentine Price, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Scott Joplin, George Walker, and a whole host within the jazz world, such as Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. I think they make far more enjoyable, unique and adventurous music than Stockhausen or Xenakis. 

When it comes to film composition, one of my favorites comes from Basil Poledouris, a Greek-American composer of film, who had a very successful career as a film composer. In my opinion, his best work is for Conan the Barbarian in 1982. Interestingly, that was a great year for film composition. John Williams composed the score for E.T. The Extra Terrestrial that year. It’s not in my top 50. James Horner also composed for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn that year, and that piece just barely missed the top 50. Really fantastic music. 

What makes the music for Conan the Barbarian work so well is the great collaboration between John Millius, the director, and Basil Poledouris. Millius hired Poledouris from the start, and so Poledouris got to work on the music during the storyboarding phase. Poledouris wanted this to be operatic, and he employed a huge orchestra and chorus. Poledouris borrows ideas from Wagner, Stravinsky and Prokofiev (there are a lot of parallels to Alexander Nevsky both in the film and in the music), but his music is his own and unique.

My favorite scene is from near the end of the film, when Conan and his friends steal in through Thulsa Doom’s kitchen to kidnap the princess back and take her back to her father. It includes an orgy scene that shows the depravity of Thulsa Doom’s snake religion. Here, Poledouris uses a bolero style waltz that is just amazing music, leading to the big battle between Conan and Doom’s two main warriors. This music has aged well over the years. For me, it’s in my top 50 favorites. 

#50 – Beethoven Coriolan Overture, Op. 62

#49 – Chaminade La Lisonjera, Op. 50

#48 – Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

#47 – Bernstein Trouble in Tahiti

#46 – Poledouris Conan The Barbarian

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