No.1 – Conrad Salinger
(Conrad Salinger at MGM, c.1940)
Well here we are then, the final post in this past orchestrators blog. Over these past 5 mini biographies I’ve looked at only a small handful of talented orchestrators who have contributed their supreme talents to Broadway music during the 20th Century, yet there are many more which I wish I could discuss, maybe in the future perhaps? With this last blog of this series, we take a trip east to California and to the backlots, sound stages and writing rooms of MGM. That’s right, film musicals of the once ultra dominant Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio that was the dream factory during the Golden age of Hollywood, churning out a film a week from its well oiled production line. Amongst the maze of corridors and offices at the studio worked our man, widely considered as one of the greatest orchestrators ever to have put pen to paper, Conrad Salinger.
I admit that the previous blogs have focussed on the work of prominent Broadway orchestrators, but I feel it only right to discuss this mans legendary contribution to music. Though his career did start to blossom on the ‘Great White Way’, it is his legacy in film that would go on to influence a host of new orchestrators throughout the 20th century and the present day. Yet, it has only been in the past decade that he has received the recognition he has always deserved, thanks to the likes of John Wilson and other musicologists and contemporaries. When you think of an MGM musical, 9 out of 10 times you will start whistling a song from its huge back-catalogue of songs, but you can bet that Salinger contributed in some way to most of them, with classic credits such as: Singing in the Rain, The Bandwagon, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, Brigadoon and countless others, over 75 in fact! Salinger’s velvet and glossy arrangements created that MGM sound of MGM studio orchestra in the 40’s and 50’s. His complex and richly textured style of writing, that was both unorthodox yet flawless at the same time made him a star amongst his music colleges and highly sort after by other studios. I only scrape the surface of his work today, so I encourage all of you to definitely follow up and listen to his arrangements, they still continue to astound me.
Born in Brookline, Massachusetts 1901. Salinger established himself as a bright music student graduating from Harvard University in 1923. During his time there he also dabbled in acting, but music was his real passion. He followed up his degree with a voyage to Paris where he spent the next seven years studying classical composition and orchestration at the Conservatoire De Paris under Andre Gedalge and the formidable Nadia Boulanger, whose former pupils have included Aaron Copland, Quincy Jones, David Barenboim, George Gershwin and broadway orchestrator, Robert Russell Bennett. Asides from learning to speak fluent french, he would have been profoundly influenced by French classical and street music which is evident in his orchestrations for An American in Paris. In 1929 Salinger arrived back in New York eager to begin his musical career in the Big Apple.
He found work at the dominant music publisher TB Harms as a staff arranger receiving his first professional credit for his work on the Broadway show The Laugh Parade in 1931. In fact over the next decade, Salinger contributed orchestrations to 12 broadway shows including minor arrangements for Anything Goes. Sadly these shows were produced before commercial recording took flight in the mid 1940’s, but a number of his scores are preserved in American public libraries. During his time in New York he was guided under the wing of famed Broadway orchestrator, Robert Russell Bennett, who thought Salinger as a prodigy. It was here on Broadway that Conrad began to refine his sensational style in writing for small orchestras. Composer David Raskin who worked with Salinger during this period commented that “Connie did wonderful things with them [the pit orchestra]…they sounded as rich as you can imagine. I saw one of the tempo and style indication that said ‘Gently, like my black hair'”.
(A young Conrad Salinger in 1923)
Importantly, whilst in New York, Salinger began to take orchestration lessons from a man called Joseph Schillinger who had developed is own system of composition and orchestration based on mathematical principles. Now I won’t bore you with the details of this, but I once attempted to read a journal on this system, and to say it was like trying to read mandarin whilst nursing a hangover is a severe understatement! I found it unfathomable and incomprehensible, but as will be evident it was what made Salinger’s orchestrations stand out, they were mathematically perfect yet completely free, organic and unique at the same time.
In 1937 Conrad headed east to Hollywood, in the beginning working freelance for the composer Alfred Newman. By 1939 he had worked his way up,his reputation and fame had spread and he caught the attention of Arthur Freed and Roger Edens, both in-house composers/song writers come producers at MGM. Edens arranged for Salinger to be contracted to the MGM ‘Freed Unit’, a hand picked unit of composers, designers, directors etc, responsible for creating spectacular Technicolor musicals of the 40’s and 50’s. Offered with a long term contract with money he couldn’t dream of making in Broadway, Conrad was here to stay.
His first assignment was on The Wizard of Oz. ‘The Jitterbug’ was the only number he orchestrated for the film but ultimately fell victim to the cutting room. Luckily a full recording has come to the surface including the full instrumental section and has been cleverly edited into archive footage of the scene being recorded on the studio lot.
During his first years at MGM Salinger orchestrated songs in way he felt most comfortable, instrumenting music for pit sized orchestras of around 38 rather than 90-piece orchestras that were being used at rival studios. Though this was unusual at the time, Salinger realised it favoured the recording technique of the time (A technique that involved photographing the audio onto the film, these were the days before even tape) due to the techniques limited dynamic range and the comparative difference between live performance and final release print. Not only did this reduce costs for the studio but made Salinger’s arrangements sound at their best and avoided the prominent tinny distortion on recordings that used larger orchestras.
(The MGM Music department 1955. Music Director Johnny Green at the head of the table with Conrad Salinger to his immediate left and partially obscured. The young Andre Previn is bottom right. Photo courtesy of Eugene Zador Estate.)
His first on-screen credit came with Strike up the Band (1940). During the number ‘Strike up the Band’, you begin to gain an idea of Conrad’s ‘lush sound’. The way he divides up the strings to create the close and rich harmonies is unique as are his flourishing woodwinds!
Conrad was now starting to smell success and from here on in he would play a major part in every MGM musical. And if Strike Up the Band wasn’t fame enough then his arrangement of ‘The Trolley Song’ from the film Meet Me in St Louis (1944) starring Judy Garland would catapult him to God status of orchestration! The day of the recording of this song is beautifully described in Hugh Fordin’s book about the Freed Unit and describes Salinger’s style perfectly…
“Even after the orchestra’s first reading of his arrangement…an excitement spread among those playing and listening. Then, when Judy came in with her dead-sure instinct of what she was to deliver, the ceiling seemed to fly off the stage…..Salinger’s arrangement was a masterpiece. It conveyed all the colour, the motion, the excitement that was eventually going to be seen on the screen. With the remaining numbers and the background scoring for this film as well as all the work he was to do thereafter, Salinger always maintained sonority and texture in his writing, which made his a very special sound and style that has never been equalled in the American movie musical”
Just have a listen to it…
And to fully appreciate the orchestration of this song, I found this great video with the vocals expertly removed (Although primarily it’s for people wanting to sing along, please be my guest, but it highlights Salinger’s orchestration so vividly)
(I personally love the rich, bold trumpets and the sonorous horns. 2.45 onwards, it is just brilliant!)
Ziegfeld Follies (1946) was Salinger’s next musical film. Here he creates colours and textures like never before as wonderfully demonstrated in the sequence ‘This Heart of Mine’. We hear Salinger’s almost over the top style orchestration with french horn obligatos which seem to soar in the stratosphere for eternity. This is not just a song, it’s 11 minute narrative sequence that can push any arranger over the edge. Craftsmanship at it’s best. I’m still astounded by this!
(I really suggest listening to the whole piece, but particular highlights: Horn obligatos at 6.45, when the rich brass take over the melody at 9.07 is just heavenly and the suave string writing throughout is gorgeous!)
Salinger’s arranging style was naturally suited vocalists. He was able to compose imaginative cantabile counter-melodies that would never derail the melody and yet give support and space to the vocalist, squeezing in little bars of magic between vocal phrases to fill in the gaps. ‘Love of My Life’ from MGM’s bonafide financial flop The Pirate (1948), gives testament to Salinger’s talent at ‘underscoring’ the singer, Garland in this case. Not only does he give room to the vocalist, he also displays his glossy and smooth string writing that became a trademark of his.
(Salinger unbelievably drew criticism from some of his counterparts for being excessive and over-the-top in his richly orchestrated arrangements. This song proves his critics wrong.)
By the time the 50’s had arrived, so had advances in sound recording and playback technology. Stereophonic sound was here, which is now something we take for granted, but this allowed MGM and Salinger to expand the size of the studio orchestra to a full symphony. There was now an orchestra size and sound that could match the widescreen, CinemaScope pictures now beginning to emerge. With the orchestra expanding, so to did Salinger’s creativity with critics and musicians alike regarding this decade as the epitome of Conrad’s work where he sculpted a luxurious brand of orchestral writing, displaying his innate touch of feeling, nuance, timbre, atmosphere and wit. All exemplified in the examples below.
(A Technicolour explosion of sound! Main title from An American In Paris (1951). With a larger orchestra at Salinger’s disposal, he was able to create some of the most ‘lush’ and extravagant sounds ever to be recorded at MGM)
(And who could forget this! Probably one of Salinger’s most memorable orchestrations. Gloriously complimenting Gene Kelly’s frolicking in the rain. From Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
(Original conductors score of Salinger’s arrangement of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’)
(Salinger also had a great knack at orchestrating lavish ballet sequences. They gave him a chance to show off and stretch his legs, the moods and tempos changing back and forth leading up to climatic finish. ‘Broadway Melody’ from Singin’ in the Rain highlights Salinger at his most exuberant and shows off his incredible use of orchestral colours and textures.)
(Salinger’s sensual, broody and dramatic orchestration for ‘Dancing in the Dark’ from The Band Wagon, 1953. Such deeply textured strings and brass! This is still considered one of MGM’s greatest musical films).
(Another pinnacle moment of Salinger’s career. The ballad ‘Heather on the Hill’ from MGM’s 1954 classic Brigadoon. Originally supposed to be filmed on location in Scotland, they soon realised it was a bad idea due to the unpredictable nature of the weather. Production was bought back to the sound stages of MGM. This song features all the trademarks of Salinger; Stratospheric horns, rich and fat vibrato strings, expert use of woodwind colours and brass support)
(MGM Studio Orchestra recording the score to Showboat, 1951 on the MGM Scoring Stage. Salinger was nominated for his only Oscar for his work on this film, but lost out ironically to Johnny Green for An American is Paris which Conrad worked on too. Injustice!)
(The MGM Scoring Stage as it is today. Now known as the Sony Scoring Stage.)
One would think that Salinger orchestrated these masterpieces with relative ease. This is far from the truth. Saul Chaplin, who was a music supervisor at MGM and also Salinger’s flat mate recalls Salinger’s struggles…
“When you hear his arrangements they are so smooth, so beautiful and velvety, yet if you heard him working you wouldn’t believe it. He would suffer them out through a piano, he used to bang on the piano and play these chords which the next day with the orchestra sounded glorious, but I would keep thinking ‘no way, this is never going to work’, and it always did work.”
The now legendary composer John Williams also recalls being amazed by Salinger’s work (Williams had started his career playing piano in the MGM studio orchestra at the age of 12…12!!)
“I spent a lot of time with Salinger. I learnt a tremendous amount from him-mostly from looking at his scores. He was the architect of what you might call the ‘MGM sound’- that marvelous glow the orchestra had. And it really came from his writing. His scores were highly idiosyncratic: He’d have the third trombone way up in the tenor clef, and the trumpets low down doing funny things-as if some Chinaman had written the score! And then you’d go on the sound stage the next day and hear the result…it was like a wonder! No one quite had his touch”
As the 60’s drew ever closer, musicals were beginning to lose popularity and MGM itself was beginning to fall apart. Producers were no longer under contract and the number of key contract stars such Judy Garland, Gene Kelly were waning also. With the loss of production output at MGM, Salinger had to find a means of income from other music channels. As a composer, he found work composing music for TV series such as General Electric and The Wagon Train. Aside from orchestrating the lavish set ballet sequences and buoyant songs at MGM, Salinger was equally talented in composer of background scores such as On the Town (1949) and Show Boat (1951).
Thankfully however, his talent was still in partial demand and he worked on small number of dwindling musicals; Paramounts Funny Face (1957), MGM’s High Society (1956) and Gigi (1958). All contained absolute gems of Salinger’s skill…
(Although a Paramount Pictures production, most of the crew on this film were from MGM including Astaire, Edens, Salinger, as Paramount refused to release Audrey Hepburn for any film except one made at Paramount . A bold kaleidoscopic orchestration by Salinger, still proving he had could add his own unique style to the dying art of film musicals. Interesting fact: Kay Thompson, the one with the short, blonde hair and long brown coat in the clip, was actually a prominent vocal arranger at MGM and had arranged all the vocals in The Pirate and acted as Judy Garlands vocal coach during her time at MGM. No idea how she ended up in this film)
(One of my favourites… ‘Overture’ from High Society (1956). Orchestrated by Salinger and Lloyd Skip Martin, another MGM principal orchestrator who was a jazz/big band specialist. From 2.53 is just superb!)
Gigi (1958) and Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962) would mark Salinger’s last work orchestrating MGM musicals. Hollywood had lost it’s appetite for musicals as a generation of young audiences were now more interested in rock and roll, and the influence of The Beatles. Times had changed, the MGM Freed Unit had now completely dissolved, yet Salinger managed to establish a successful career in TV, composing 65 episodes for the show Bachelor Father between 1960 and 1962.
Unfortunately, the impossible deadlines of TV music were a far cry away from the luxury he had at MGM, where he would sometimes orchestrate just 8 bars a week. He wasn’t able to cope and even drafted in John Williams to help him with the deadlines. Things only got worse for Salinger, the LA bush fires of 1961 destroyed his luxury Bel-Air home along with all his personal papers, scores and other items of sentimental value to him. This tragedy never left him and Salinger was found dead aged 59 on a Sunday morning in 1962. The circumstances around his death are ambiguous, with reports saying he died in his sleep from a heart attack, but it is generally agreed he took his own life via an overdose of barbiturates.
(Salinger’s last ever orchestration. It reunited him with Broadway composers Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, who he had worked with on the same show in New York in the 30’s. A touching tribute I think)
Sadly an obituary in the local newspaper at the time, only mentioned him as TV composer and his memory and legacy thereafter descended into obscurity, almost forgotten. His and MGM’s music department legacy were delivered the final nail in the coffin when MGM was subject to a corporate take over in the late 1960’s by Turner Entertainment. Eager to make cuts and savings, they saw the music library as a disposable commodity and on one morning in 1969, piled the whole music library into a truck where it was dumped and used as landfill for a new golf course. This is now viewed widely as the complete and utter destruction of a cultural vandalism. There were rooms and rooms of music at MGM, around 4,000,000 individual pieces of sheet music which made it one of the largest libraries of it’s kind in the world! Years and years of hard work, graft and painstaking talent, all lost in a single morning.
Thankfully over the 50 years since his death, the likes of John Wilson and others have note by note transcribed MGM’s decadent music by ear, which came to a forefront at the 2009 BBC Prom, ‘A Celebration of Classic MGM Musicals’. Luckily, the task of reconstructing the orchestrations were made easier due to conductor reduced scores being located at various libraries in America, initially saved from the ‘destruction’ for copyright reasons.
(Conrad Salinger with friend and MGM colleague, Johnny Green c.1930. Green was the Music Director at MGM, conducting most of the musicals from 1949 -1959 as well as arranging music too. Along with Salinger, he was partly responsible for that MGM sound, by re-seating some of the orchestral players.)
So rest assured, Salinger’s orchestrations live well and thrive as much today as they did back in Golden Age of Hollywood. Lots of orchestrators have tried to imitate him over the years, yet none are or have been able to grasp Conrad’s unique take on orchestration. He was able to create the most lush, rich and velvet like sounds by bending the rules of traditional orchestration and almost throwing them out altogether, adding in his own wit, sense of humour and an uncanny knack of musicality. What an incredible man!