In 1999 the movie Anna and the King, starring Jodie Foster and Chow-Yun Fat, was released in theaters, and while it only grossed several million dollars domestically, it is a fine movie, an epic really, and I recommend it to everyone.
I've always thought the soundtrack was so beautiful, but never really felt an urgency to purchase it until I saw that the manufacturer had discontinued its production. So I went to Amazon and ordered a used CD for very cheap, and it came in the mail a few days ago.
The history of music in movies is a good one. It actually begins in the era of music history known as Romanticism, when "program music" burst onto the scene thanks to Berlioz and his Symphonie Fantastique, which premiered accompanied by a paper program for audience members detailing the story behind the work. Music had been set to a story before, of course, in the form of opera, but this was something new. Whereas before, the music of Haydn and Bach and Mozart and Beethoven found its purpose in perfecting the classical composition, program music tells a story.
So even though in the grand scheme music has moved from Romanticism to Modernism, movie music, as it tells a story, still clings to that old tradition of taking the listener through an experience by setting a mood and highlighting action.
What truly made music in the post-Beethoven era Romantic, however, was its obvious beauty. And some of the best movie music today still gives us that. John Williams was once the master of the form, though his recent works have declined in creativity, in my opinion. Jerry Goldsmith passed away several years ago but left absolute gems, including his work on First Knight. Hans Zimmer should be heralded as the current master, beautifying everything from The Lion King and Crimson Tide to Gladiator and Kung Fu Panda.
The soundtrack to Anna and the King is another perfect example of how "program music" both elevates a cinematic work of art, and stands alone as a composition worthy of high praise. Unfortunately there's no way to post snippets, but trust me when I say that the themes George Fenton created are among the absolute best (and most beautiful) I've ever heard.
How can something like this not be nominated for an Oscar for Best Score? I know the Oscars aren't truly the be-all end-all, but I watch like a fan every year and it's still an immense honor to be nominated. In the same vein it's ridiculous for Patrick Doyle's incredible score for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire not to have been nominated, or a certain Harlequin-haired crooner's work on one of the best movie songs of the last few decades ("Remember" from Troy). But, this isn't the time to air grievances. *grr*
I think, at the end of the day, what makes music so fulfilling and universal is its ability to convey the profound. Whether you're listening to a movie soundtrack or a jazz piece or a classic rock tune, every now and then you're just struck with the overwhelming notion that not only is this what music was meant to be, but that it's trying to tell you something, and no matter how hard a wordsmith may try, the message is still best conveyed in the mind and heart; felt, rather than uttered.
And that's how I felt listening to the soundtrack to Anna and the King; that the music meant something beyond the theme of the movie, that it relayed truths and ideas that lie too deep for mere mortals...try as we may to unlock the secrets.