Zimmer & Howard: maestros of movies

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Jillian Schroeder, Contributing Writer

We all participate in deadlocked arguments. Sports enthusiasts quibble over the ranks of their favorite quarterbacks and linebackers. UD students weigh the respective merits of the fall and spring Rome semesters, arguing which is the better of the two.

Black Hawk Down PremiereMy younger brother and I are at a similar impasse when it comes to our favorite modern film composers. We share many favorites, including Star Wars’ John Williams and Pride and Prejudice’s Dario Marianelli, but there are two composers whose rank we have yet to agree upon: Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard.

My brother faithfully backs Hans Zimmer, an Academy Award winner, whose music is imbued with a sense of majesty or grandeur. These scores suit epic battles and adventures, capturing the gravity and glory of human effort and achievement.

Consider “The Battle” from Zimmer’s most famous work, Gladiator. This tense piece is colorful and brassy (quite literally produced by the brass section), and its quick crescendo and decrescendo mimics the suddenness of battle and the jolty shots of the camera. It embodies the sound of two armies crashing upon each other, the soft echo of resounding blows.

But Zimmer’s compositions are not limited to the sounds of fierce battle and fear, such as in “The Kraken” from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. “Homeland” from Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, though it is a calmer piece with fewer violent crescendos, maintains this tone of grandeur, granting majesty to the simple act of returning home.

A defining characteristic of Zimmer’s work is his emphasis on percussion through the use of folk-like drumbeats. Thus the background drums in “… To Die For” from The Lion King use a grassland beat similar to that in “Guerilla Tactics” or “Breach” from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, both of which resemble Zimmer’s earlier work in Rain Man, “Leaving Wallbrook/On the Road.”

On the other hand, I am stubbornly partial toward a very different end of the film score spectrum. James Newton Howard, an eight-time Academy Award nominee, tends to compose music dominated more by stringed instruments and simple piano melodies.

Pieces such as “Prologue” from Lady in the Water and “White Hart” from Snow White and the Huntsman represent a central focus of Howard’s work: the expression of purity and wonder. The themes are straightforward and follow a joyful crescendo that is almost childlike. Though expressions vary, from Peter Pan’s exuberant “Flying” to The Water Horse’s thoughtful “The Children Laugh,” the integrity of innocence and awe are main concerns for Howard.

And Howard’s compositions for more mature films, still focused primarily on the strings, are acutely aware of the lyrical beauty of sadness. “Defiance Main Titles,” from Defiance, the story of Nazi-occupied Poland, emphasizes the sorrow of the time more than its cruelty or violence. Similarly, “What Are You Asking Me?” from the bleakest moment of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village presents lyrical hope within the sadness.

Zimmer’s grandeur and Howard’s lyrical sadness, however, find a strange meeting in the films Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster Dark Knight trilogy was scored jointly by both composers, and the music contains the strengths of both.

“Barbastella” from the first film and “A Dark Knight” from the second contain Zimmer’s trademark vocals and tribal drumbeats, and yet are permeated with the lyrical sadness of Howard’s string and piano melodies, the blend of the two styles suiting the dual identity of a superhero.

These two composers have truly distinct styles, but each unique focus complements the other. In truth, they stand as equals, twin maestros of film music.

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