Tone Poem Tuesday

 Here’s a curiosity: a film music tone poem that’s actually a tone poem, and not a group of film music cues arranged into one. Composer Michael Kamen (much missed, he died too young and vibrant in 2003) scored the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, from which this piece comes.

The movie–which I quite like–tracks something like thirty or forty years in the life of Mr. Holland (Richard Dreyfuss), a young man at the start of the film who envisions himself as a composer of serious music. He quickly finds that he’s not going to be able to support him or his wife on that at the outset, so he does the reasonable thing that a lot of people do when they figure they need something to do until they attain artistic success: he becomes a teacher.

At first, his efforts at teaching are not encouraging. He doesn’t see it as his actual job, and it shows, to the point that his students hate the drudgery of his class and he hates the drudgery of teaching them and his principal (played wonderfully by Olympia Dukakis) has to call him out on his awful attitude, saying something like “You actually beat some of the kids to the parking lot when the final bell rings.” Eventually Mr. Holland makes a turn in his teaching when he decides to employ rock-and-roll in his lessons (this is the 1960s, so this doesn’t go over spectacularly well with some folks) and when he actually realizes that a particular student who is struggling with the clarinet is trying to reach him.

Mr. Holland discovers that yes, he can teach high school music, and teach it he does, for the rest of his career: through the Viet Nam War and through his own child’s birth and through the discovery that his son is deaf and through a strange attracted protectiveness he feels toward one very talented pupil who comes along and through the inevitable budget cuts to the music program that will cost him his job in the end. He does compose through all this, and at the end of the film, the school band, along with some of the many alumni he has touched–including that unconfident clarinetist from years before, who is now Governor–sets up to perform the last minute or two of this piece. (Asking questions like why does a high school and alumni band sound so good and when did they rehearse is churlish behavior that should be swatted down with great harshness.)

So Kamen wrote this roughly nine-minute work, called “An American Symphony”, which purports to be the serious composition that Mr. Holland has been writing for all his many years of teaching. Kamen’s music is always impressive, and I miss his film music voice. He tended toward the big and the dramatic (there’s zero doubt in my mind he would have scored at least one MCU movie), and his melodies don’t always exactly leave you humming them, but they reward repeated listening and become quite familiar as you do. For this piece he even paid tribute to Mr. Holland’s breakthrough as a teacher, the realization that he could use rock-and-roll as a means to bringing the kids into more serious music, by adding the electric guitars to his orchestral palate.

It’s an interesting piece, a long-form tone poem written specifically for a movie whose central message is along the lines of “Life is what happens to you when you have other plans.” Here is “An American Symphony” by Michael Kamen, from the score to the film Mr. Holland’s Opus.

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