Born in Vienna in 1896, Hans J. Salter began making his living as a musician immediately after completing his education at the university of that great musical city. His first jobs were those conducting small theatres in Vienna and in neighbouring towns, which gave him a solid grounding in operetta and in the business of supplying music for all manner of theatrical presentations. At the age of twenty-three he was hired by a film company to conduct accompaniment to filmed operettas. A few years later Salter was in Berlin scoring films under contract to UFA. With the rise of the Nazis he decided to return to Vienna and when the political climate there became similarly tainted he made his way to America.
Salter's American film career started when he was hired by Universal in late 1937, and it was with that studio that he spent the next twenty years, arranging, composing and conducting. In the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, mostly those years stretching from the early 1930s to the late 1940s, Universal produced more horror movies than any other studio. They began their cycle with Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931 and in the following years they devised many scary variations on those two classic films, in addition to adventures for such other characters as The Mummy (1932), The Wolf Man (1941) and a variety of monsters. Films of this kind rely to a great extent on the effectiveness of musical scoring, and the man who scored more Universal horror movies than anyone else was Hans J. Salter.
The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) was Salter's first major horror score, and the one that registered him as a master of this genre. The score is complex and richly descriptive, to say nothing of essential. Indeed, fully forty-seven of the film's sixty-seven minutes is supported by Salter's pulsating music. The House of Frankenstein [mp3] (1944) also deals with a mad doctor, one named Niemann (Boris Karloff), who escapes from an asylum with his hunchback companion Daniel (J. Carrol Naish) and pretends to be a travelling circus-of-horrors showman.
Salter became, somewhat to his own surprise, a specialist in scoring horror pictures. It is perhaps the area of film composition by which he is best known, although it is unfair to think of him only in that regard. Salter's numerous credits include musicals, dramas, comedies and westerns. In fact, there is no kind of film he has not scored. Looking back more than forty years Hans Salter says, "We regarded them as just current product and had no idea they would be of such interest all these years later. I certainly didn't set out with the idea of specializing in them . . . These so-called horror pictures were a great challenge because when I looked at them before scoring they didn't seem to have much fright about them. The challenge in those days at Universal was in creating the sense of terror and suspense, and that is something music can do.
--TONY THOMAS, from the liner notes
Hans J. Salter: Music For Frankenstein.
A striking variety of creative forces were involved in Universal's ever-popular horror pictures. But of all these creative forces, none proved as consistently crucial to the success of the Universal monster movies as the marvelously macabre music of Hans J. Salter and Frank Skinner. If one horror score best typifies the team's considerable success as collaborators, it's the moody, often aggressive score for The Wolf Man (1941). While few film music historians have done so, the highlights of Salter, Skinner and Andre Previn's music for The Wolf Man deserve mention alongside Bernard Herrmann's Psycho (1961) and John Williams' Jaws (1975). Too, music from The Wolf Man turned up in many ofhter Universal films, ranging from Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) to The Mummy's Curse (1944).
And while Salter has won understandable praise for his music for westerns, his work on films such as Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), The Mole People (1956) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) remains far more inspired. Of all this work, though, the macabre music of Frank Skinner and Hans Salter for Universal's horror-film heyday in the late 1930s and 1940s ranks as their finest work. Even with today's ever-changing tastes and perspectives, this music is likely to find favour as long as the films themselves do--maybe even longer.
A few years after Salter's death passed largely unnoticed by the Hollywood press, filmmakers producing a documentary about Universal's horror films passed up the brilliant notion of rearranging Salter and Skinner's music for the occasion and instead tapped James Bernard to compose a new background score for the project, ironically evoking Hammer's own distinctive horror films . . . The use of Bernard's music--however well-written it might have been--only proved again how very little insight even today's film-makers possess when it comes to the art of film scoring and the singular magic of the cinema.
--BILL WHITAKER, from the liner notes
Monster Music of Hans J. Salter & Frank Skinner.