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Must See TV

We’re binging on some famous TV themes this week! (Photo credit: Pixabay)

Don’t touch that dial! This week, our theme is television on the radio. We’re looking at classic music used in classic television. It’s a show we’re calling “Must See TV.”

Warm up those TV dinners and grab the remote for our playlist below:


  • Theme music for Monty Python’s Flying Circus: John Philip Sousa (1854–1932), The Liberty Bell March – In 1969, a new comedy show hit the BBC airways that would change comedy for years to come. That show was Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The first few episodes of the show were created on a very tight budget, so choosing a theme song for the show was a challenge due to tough British copyright laws. In the end, the members of Monty Python found a recording of Sousa’s Liberty Bell March that was in the public domain. Thus, we have a fitting theme song that cleverly catches the absurdity of Monty Python’s signature brand of comedy. The show’s off-kilter antics immediately sparked a huge following both in Britain and in the US. From that show spawned several larger works, including touring shows, several films, comedy albums and the Broadway musical Spamalot, that came to the IU Auditorium last year.

 

  • Theme music for Firing Line: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F major, BWV 1047: III. Allegro Assai – Bach’s second Brandenburg concerto in F major is still to this day considered to be one of the most difficult pieces for the trumpet, especially considering that Bach originally wrote it for the clarino, a natural trumpet that’s even harder to play than a modern-day trumpet. All three movements have shown up in television, movies, and even in outer space. The first movement was used as the theme music to PBS’s Great Performances for many years, and is also featured on the Voyager spacecraft’s Golden Record. For over 30 years and 1500 episodes, this third movement was used as the theme music for William F. Buckley’s famous political talk show Firing Line. Buckley retired in 1999, and just last year the show was revived on PBS with new host Margaret Hoover. This revival also uses Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, but updated with synthesizers instead of a trumpet.

 

  • Theme music for Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Charles Gounod (1818–1893), Funeral March of a Marionette – You might think of Charles Gounod as the composer of operas like Faust or Romeo and Juliet, but he also wrote several shorter character pieces, like the Funeral March of a Marionette. The work was originally a piano piece all about a marionette who is killed in a duel and the mourners at his funeral. It’s a silly concept that’s equal parts macabre and absurd. It was a natural fit then as the theme music for the television program Alfred Hitchcock Presents, hosted by the macabre and absurd director Alfred Hitchcock. The music plays during the title sequence, as Hitchcock’s silhouette walks into frame, merging with a caricature of himself (which he drew!). Although Hitchcock seems to be the creative center of the entire television series, it was his frequent collaborator, film composer Bernard Herrmann, who chose the Funeral March of A Marionette as the theme music.

 

  • Theme music for WingsFranz Schubert (1797-1828), Piano Sonata in A major, D. 959: IV. Rondo: Allegretto – Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A major, D. 959 was one of the final pieces he wrote in the summer of 1828, just before his death at age 31 later that year. This final movement shows some influence from Beethoven, and its lyrical melody actually borrows heavily from a piano sonata movement that Schubert wrote about a decade earlier. Fans of 90s sitcoms will instantly recognize this tune as the theme music for the long-running series Wings, all about the employees of a small regional airport in Nantucket. In the opening credits, a short arrangement of this movement is heard, accompanied by the sound of airplanes whizzing by. The series was created by Cheers producers David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee. Tragically, Angell died in a plane crash several years after the show ended: he was one of the victims of the September 11th attacks.

 

  • Richard Rodgers (1902–1979), score for Victory At Sea – During World War II, the U.S. Navy used motion pictures to document its activities more thoroughly than any other military force in history up to that point. A few years after the Allied victory, NBC television aired a remarkable documentary series, cobbled together from the almost 13,000 hours of footage and it was set to a rousing score by Richard Rodgers. The series Victory at Sea provided a firsthand look at every major naval engagement of the war via the new medium of television. It marked one of the first opportunities for average Americans to have such major world events beamed directly into their living rooms. In 1953, only a year after the documentary premiered, Oscar Hammerstein wrote lyrics to “Beneath The Southern Cross,” an excerpt from Victory At Sea, and renamed the piece “No Other Love.” RCA released the song as a single that same year with Perry Como, and the song hit number one on the pop charts.

 

  • Theme music for Masterpiece Theatre: Jean-Joseph Mouret (1682–1738), Fanfare-Rondeau, from Suites de Symphonies – The name of Jean-Joseph Mouret doesn’t ring a bell anymore these days among music lovers. But during his lifetime, Mouret enjoyed a very respectable career both as a singer and court composer in his native France. He primarily wrote for the opera stage, and his works helped to establish the French Baroque musical style. However, his reputation was challenged by the rising stardom of another great French composer, Jean-Philippe Rameau. As Mouret became increasingly bitter and jealous of Rameau, his career floundered and he was even driven mad from jealousy! While hardly any of his works are performed anymore, his famous “Fanfare and Rondeau” helped to keep his name alive as the opening theme to the long-running PBS series Masterpiece, formerly known as Masterpiece Theatre. The theme was chosen by the series creator Christopher Sarson, who thought the music sounded “British,” probably not realizing Mouret was actually French.

 

  • Theme music for the De Beers commercials, Karl Jenkins (b. 1944), Palladio: I. Allegretto – Englishman Karl Jenkins was trained as a classical musician at Cardiff University and the Royal Academy of Music in London before spending most of the 70’s playing with a number of Jazz and Jazz-Rock fusion projects.  He scored a huge hit with his 1994 album “Adiemus: Songs of Sanctuary” which sold over a million copies. “Adiemus” was quickly appropriated for a marketing campaign by Delta Airlines, but it was another tune that cemented his popularity in the states. Namely, the first movement of a baroque styled concerto grosso called “Palladio,” aka: the “Diamonds are Forever” theme, which has been featured in advertisements for De Beers Diamonds over the past ten years or so. The tune harkens back to an earlier musical style, but in fact, it was composed only in 1994.

 

  • Basil Poledouris (1945–2006), score for Lonesome Dove – Composer Basil Poledouris always knew that he wanted to compose for television and film. His first big influence was the great film composer Miklos Rozsa. Later, he attended the University of Southern California to study composition and filmmaking, placing himself in the center of the action in Los Angeles. Poledouris wrote many powerful film scores throughout the 1980s, including Conan The Barbarian, Red Dawn and Robocop. His crowning achievement came instead on television, when he wrote the score for the 1989 Western miniseries Lonesome Dove, starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones. Poledouris’s score to Lonesome Dove even earned him an Emmy Award for outstanding music. He continued to write for television throughout his life, composing part of the music for the opening ceremonies for the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996, heard by millions of people across the globe through their television sets.

 

  • Theme music for Ken Burns’s The Civil War: Jay Ungar (b. 1946), “Ashokan Farewell” – PBS has aired many documentaries over the years, but Ken Burns’ 1990 documentary mini-series The Civil War holds the distinction of the most-watched program ever aired on PBS, with an average of 14 million viewers tuning in for each of the six episodes. The opening theme song for the series has long been mistaken as a historical Civil War folk song. Columbia Records even included it on a compilation album from 1990 titled Songs of the Civil War. But “Ashokan Farewell” was actually composed in 1982 by folk musician Jay Ungar, who composed the piece as a closing number for the Ashokan Center music and dance camps in the Catskill Mountains. When Ungar was hired with his band Fiddle Fever to record period Civil War music for the film, they decided to include “Ashokan Farewell” because of its deep sense of loss and longing, making “Ashokan Farewell” the only piece of modern music to appear in the documentary.

Music Heard On This Episode

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