5 of your all-time favourite film scores

By Stephanie Eslake

We all love watching an epic movie in the cinema. The companion experience is listening to an epic film score in the concert hall.

The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra is presenting a concert for lovers of movies and music alike. Hear your favourite cinematic themes from Nigel Westlake, Ennio Morricone, and Howard Shore as they boom against the walls of the Federation Concert Hall.

Before the big event this April, we’re warming up with five of your all-time favourite film scores. You’ll get to hear each one played live when you come to the show (and a few more, too!).

#1 John Williams – Jurassic Park: Theme

If you expected to see John Williams on this list, you were dead right. Sixty-six million years dead, to be exact. In case you’ve been living under a rock so big that it sheltered you from the film Jurassic Park, here’s what it’s all about: scientists Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and Alan Grant (Sam Neill) investigate a theme park where dinosaurs have been revived through cloning.

This big-budget feature ($63 million, albeit returning $1.046 billion at the box office) is a bit terrifying, but mostly awe-inspiring. John Williams’ monumental score evokes all the wonder of humans who set their eyes upon creatures that defy laws of nature and time.

Williams’ Jurassic Park theme is bursting with Hollywood optimism. Spielberg’s science fiction film allowed its 1993 audiences to ponder what could be made possible through modern science: the reversal of extinction – big time. Williams opens this majestic theme with solo French horn; a feeling of tension as we question the ancient-turned-present world we’re about to confront. Then it all comes together as flutes hint at the glorious melody to come, and strings take it away.

Almost three decades after this score was released, Australia voted it number 8 on the ABC Classic 100 countdown – Music for the Screen. Like Spielberg’s dinosaurs, a good score never dies.

#2 Nigel Westlake – Babe Concert Suite

In 1995, Babe was introduced to the world, and that little piglet stole our hearts. This endearing soundtrack captures all the warmth of the wannabe sheepdog as he trots around the countryside, fellow barnyard animals frolicking at his curly tail. Farmer Arthur Hoggett (James Cromwell) can see great potential in Babe, and Nigel Westlake’s score brings these two characters together for a delightful tale. It’s cottage-core at its finest.

The Australian composer achieved Best Film Score at the 1996 APRA Awards for Babe. (Westlake would later win another for 2003 comedy feature The Nugget.) But what few listeners may know about this quaint soundtrack is the range of source material underpinning its central theme.

The music is a cover of Scott Fitzgerald and Yvonne Keeley’s 1977 reggae hit If I Had Words. (You might recall it was sung by animal-like voices in Babe.) That song was itself a reference to Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 – a masterpiece for organ. Westlake reimagined the main melody, and infused it into his charming Babe score.

Westlake conducted the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra through his Babe score, alongside a screening of the film, just a few years ago. The TSO is also set to perform another Westlake composition in Tarkine/Takayna on 4 May 2023.

#3 Howard Shore – Symphonic Suite from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Ever heard of a leitmotif? This term describes the recognisable melodies attached to individual characters or events in a production (and we can thank Wagner for the concept). Howard Shore’s The Lord of the Rings score is filled with them.

In the 2001 music for the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, we hear leitmotifs thar remind us of the grassy hills of Hobbiton. We root for our Middle Earth team as they scale mountain peaks, backed by that unforgettably heroic theme uniting them in their quest. Even Saruman and his evil orcs get their own leitmotif – industrial clanking of percussion against laboured brass as they prepare for battle.

Shore won an Academy Award for Best Original Score for his Fellowship music. He took home another Oscar for The Return of the King, but the Fellowship was where it all started – and it topped the charts right across Australia, Europe, and the United Kingdom. In 2022, Australia voted the soundtrack in at number 2 on the Classic 100 – Music for the Screen (after, you guessed it, Star Wars).

#4 John Williams – Three Pieces from Schindler’s List

While Jurassic Park might be a good dose of ‘90s nostalgia, John Williams’ score for Schindler’s List should be taken far more seriously. (In fact, both were produced in 1993. Anecdotally, director Spielberg narrowly missed out on attending the recording session for the former soundtrack, because he was in Europe filming Schindler’s List.)

The gut-wrenching violin melody achieved an Oscar for its ability to speak to the atrocities of World War II. John Williams told a live audience at a concert in Boston that after watching the first cut of the film, he needed to “walk around the room for four or five minutes to catch my breath” before telling the director there should be “a better composer” hired for the score. “I know,” Spielberg told him, “but they’re all dead”.

The themes of Schindler’s List may have felt close to home for Spielberg; his own father had lost close to 20 relatives in the Holocaust. Spielberg’s latest collaboration with the 91-year-old John Williams is The Fabelmans, which tells the semi-autobiographical story of the director’s Jewish upbringing and experiences of antisemitism in mid-century America. Their soundtrack was nominated for Best Original Score at the 2023 Academy Awards; it lost to another World War II drama – All Quiet on the Western Front composed by Volker Bertelmann (Hauschka).

#5 Vangelis – Chariots of Fire

Whether you’re in the Blade Runner or Chariots of Fire camp, you’ve got to admit: Vangelis knows how to write an iconic score. The Greek composer was famous for using electronic instruments in his film music – not that unusual now, but a pioneering move when he first started writing for the movies.

There’s scarcely a filmgoer today who doesn’t know the melody to Chariots (even if they haven’t seen the film). The simple but stirring music doesn’t try to revive the 1920s era in which the sports epic is set. It was recorded with a few acoustic instruments – namely piano and percussion – but its originality shone through the use of a Yamaha CS-80 synthesizer.

The movie is based on the lives of sportsmen Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, who competed in the 1924 Olympics. Vangelis’ music was also performed during the 2012 Summer Olympics (the London Symphony Orchestra playing it under the baton of Simon Rattle), and the composer dedicated the score itself to his father Ulysses Papathanassiou who, while not quite an Olympian, was a passionate sprinter.

Australia voted Vangelis’ Oscar-winning Chariots score at number 7 on the Classic 100 – Music for the Screen.

Listen to each of these scores and More Music from the Movies with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. Dan Golding presents and Vanessa Scammell conducts this concert at 7.30pm April 21 in the Federation Concert Hall.