Bartók on the Planet of the Apes

The prominent film composer Jerry Goldsmith quoted the opening of the Adagio of the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta at the beginning of the Main Title cue of Franklin Schaffner's Planet of the Apes (1968). This soundtrack is often considered a difficult one to like among Goldsmith aficionados (such as myself) precisely because it is firmly lodged in Bartok's modernist register. I have sought (without success) an explanation for Goldsmith's choice of Bartok, but perhaps it is not so difficult to puzzle out.

Schaffner's PotA was a satire on contemporary American society, but what made it palatable was our ability to cast judgment on the nonhuman society of the apes, and of course the protagonist Taylor observes several times in the movie that it is a world turned upside down. Goldsmith took this theme and translated it in musical terms into the (for many) alienating modernism of Bartok. I envision an audience member accustomed to fairly accessible music in the cinema hearing Goldsmith's soundtrack, shrugging his shoulders, and saying "that's crazy!"

Of course, there are, or will have been people of all social classes and tastes who understood precisely what Goldsmith was doing: education is pretty widely spread these days. But it's worth remembering that 1965's The Sound of Music had been the world's most popular movie for several years by the time Apes came out. "I am sixteen, going on seventeen . . ." is an example of what mainstream audiences going into PotA will have been primed with!

The craziness of midcentury modern music to people with average tastes thus parallels and gives voice to the similar craziness of a world with apes on top and humans as animals.

I wrote the above in May 2004. Now (July 2004) I find that Film Score Monthly 9.4 (April/May 2004) had an article which excerpts pertinent comments from the composer's commentary on the 35th anniversary DVD edition of Planet of the Apes.

Goldsmith, at about 36:15 into the commentary:

"When we first see the shot of the horse, and the rider turns toward us, and we see that he is a simian, the music has this organic feel which is a ram's horn actually being played, which has two notes on it, but they're effective. I think the idea is given that we're dealing with a strange race and an upside-down world; that's what we're dealing with here."

The article continues: Goldsmith points out that he never read Pierre Boulle's book, but gathered a great deal of the film's intended sociological statements from the screenplay. Goldsmith continues:

"Again, always I wanted to keep this primitive feel within the music and yet the style of the music is quite modern--it's written in a serial technique, the 12-tone system, so it's not for your normal diatonic harmony that it's written in. It's not in any way abstract, but it's very studied and carefully structured. Not too many scores had been written in this style before."

The article reports Goldsmith's comment at 42:45 (when Taylor is in the cage with Nova--the cue is "New Mate"): "[Goldsmith] points out that he and Schaffner always referred to the eerie, Bartók influenced string writing in this scene as the film's "Love theme" . . . ."


Bazelon, Irwin. 1975. Knowing the Score: Notes on Film Music.(Esp. pp. 103 and 151-152.)
Bond, Jeff. "Comment of the Apes. Jerry speaks, we listen." FSM 9.4: 2004 10-13.
Deutsch, Didier, ed. 2000. Music Hound Soundtracks. The Essential Album Guide to Film, Television, and Stage Music. P. 454.
Walker, Mark. 1998. Gramophone Film Music Good CD Guide, third ed. P. 94.