The Mancini Touch
The music of Henry Mancini—sprawling across a forty-year filmography, written in a profusion of modes and moods—can be easy to misapprehend as the pinnacle of style over substance. It’s easy because he makes it so, enchanting generations of moviegoers with the appealing shape of his melodic line, the steady glide of his harmonic movement, and the faceted sparkle of his orchestration. Like so much of the postwar American cinema he helped bring to life, Mancini embodied a dawning age of new freedoms and anxieties, but always with a breezy air of self-possession. He worked tirelessly to make it seem as if his scores had just magically emerged, sensuous and guileless, like Botticelli’s Venus.
But Mancini’s stylistic command, with its magical balance of effortlessness and extravagance, was rarely indulged in for its own sake. What makes him such an exemplary film composer is the adroitness with which he used style as a catalyst, conspiring with directors to illuminate crucial elements of character, tone, and plot through the expressive resources at his disposal. His most iconic pieces—from the mod-burlesque intrigue of the Peter Gunn and Pink Panther themes to the wistful reflection of “Moon River,” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s—all share this subtle insight along with a strong personal flair. The films with the best Mancini scores are unimaginable without them, because that synthesis runs so deep.
The outsize impact of his career in the 1960s, a decade when he not only won his first three Academy Awards but also logged considerable time on Billboard’s Top 40, can obscure the fact that Mancini came up in the old Hollywood studio system. He also came out of the big band era, befriending members of the Glenn Miller Orchestra during his Army service and later joining a legacy version of the band led by Tex Beneke. But before all that, Mancini was a self-propelled musical savant in blue-collar western Pennsylvania, a son of Italian immigrants. His early training on flute and piano quickly yielded a fascination with arranging, as he recounted in Did They Mention the Music?: The Autobiography of Henry Mancini, written with Gene Lees.
“In those days people used to go out a lot to dance,” Mancini recalls of his teenage years, prior to the war. “There were thousands of bands all over the country, with anywhere from four or five to fifteen members. And there were many music stores that sold sheet music, with entire departments devoted to stocks.” Referring to these so-called stock arrangements, he adds: “It was the arranger’s job to create flexibility in these charts, to make them playable by any number; the stocks were written in such a manner that parts could be omitted.” By tinkering and experimenting in this way, he gained a practical understanding of how orchestration worked, and how it could be endlessly modified to suit one’s needs. (I’m reminded of the automotive legend Mauro Forghieri, who started out as an apprentice in Ferrari’s engine department and went on to become one of the most revered Formula 1 designers in history.)
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