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Concert III, 2018-19 Season

Magical Movie Music

Music has been connected to film since its earliest days. In the first silents, the music was intended to mask the noise of the projector, but it also suggested a kind of smooth continuity that the jerky succession of images in early film could not achieve by themselves. That smoothness also enhanced the sense of reality represented onscreen, as well as providing both gestural and emotional context. (Try watching the 1910 silent movie Frankenstein on YouTube with the soundtrack both sounding and muted to get a sense of these effects.) Unlike in modern talkies, silent films typically did not have music composed especially for them, designed as an integral part of the experience. There were exceptions, of course, like D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, but even in these cases the specially composed music had to be played by a live orchestra, band, organist, or pianist, and it was always possible to substitute completely different music at any given showing. Many early films were distributed with cue sheets—pamphlets noting particular points in the film (e.g., “Wally sneaks into barn”), giving the beginnings of appropriate tunes for those points, the relevant publication information for those tunes, and the duration of the segment. These excerpts were a mix of popular songs, favorite or well-known bits from operas, folksongs, and newly composed mood music. The previously composed and well-known music could add another layer of meaning to the movie, as spectators remembered the words of the song or the dramatic situation in the source opera. However, what the musicians actually did with the cue, and even whether they used it at all was entirely up to their discretion. Especially in smaller venues, where the cinema could not afford (or find) an orchestra or band, a pianist, or organist would use a collection of generic musical fragments (“chase music,” “love scene,” “catch the villain” etc.) flipping furiously from one to the other as the movie progressed. Some cinema musicians simply improvised, using the musical stereotypes found in the generic sheet music.

Charlie Chaplin continued to make silent movies well after talkies had been introduced, and he exercised an unusual amount of control over the whole process, including writing many of his own scores. The music we’ll hear in this performance was all written by Chaplin himself. That said, his compositions are, like the cue sheets of typical silent movies, a rich mixture of well-known tunes which he arranged for the occasion and newly-composed music. His scores usually have very clear emotional content—sentiment, grief, agitation, humor, etc.—and occasionally include “realistic” sounds like police sirens, door knocks, or church bells. The music is always keyed to the kinds of physical action we see on the screen, though it does not usually engage in “Mickey Mousing” (exact rhythmic coordination between music and action). It does not, on the whole, offer a view into the souls of the characters; rather, by using well-understood musical conventions (waltz rhythms for love, motoric music for chases, fanfares for important arrivals), it prescribes the kind of attitude that the audience should take to the onscreen action.The use of well-understood musical conventions like these shades easily into the use of well-known tunes, which, as we’ve seen, Chaplin used, and which have remained a feature of film scores up until the present. “As Time Goes By” was one such. Composed in 1931 by Herman Hupfeld, its use in Casablanca both lent the film a richness of association and made the song much more famous than it might otherwise have been. Some films, of course, had an original melody that came to symbolize the movie itself—the “theme song”—and Tara’s theme from Gone with the Wind is an example.

The qualities of emotional or situational “legibility” and lack of interest in psychological insight that we noted in Chaplin’s film scores persist in Erich Korngold’s soundtrack to Robin Hood. There’s battle music, heroic music, sentimental music, comic music, all deployed to match the mood of the film at the time. But unlike Chaplin films, the same themes recur several times in the course of the movie, and some of these are the ones that appear in the suite we’ll play today. They aren’t attached to particular characters or situations; rather, as in Chaplin’s scores, they delineate the general context of the action onscreen.

Film music got more “psychological” in the middle of the twentieth century. By that I mean that in addition to intensifying a mood or context already evident onscreen, it began to present a mood that undercut or twisted what you might be seeing, giving a sense of inner complexity, often repressed anxieties or terrors. Unsurprisingly, the horror film was a place where this technique was developed, and Psycho was a prime example.

Modern “classic” film composers like John Williams, Thomas Newman, and Howard Shore, use all the techniques from earlier movie scores—themes that identify characters, events, and things music that suggests something more than might be visible onscreen, music that fills out and intensifies what’s already happening visually. Soundtrack “suites” arranged for concert performances are typically structured as medleys, with a selection of favorite tunes arranged either in film-order or in an order that makes emotional sense out of the context of the film. They are typically designed as listening experiences for people who have already seen the movies they reference, to relive favorite parts or remember special characters. But hearing these works out of the context of the movies also reminds us that film has provided work for some of the most inventive and talented composers around.

 

© Mary Hunter