Between Theater and Cinema: Silent Film Accompaniment in the 1920s

By John Pruitt, Bard College

Written for the concert Der Rosenkavalier: The Silent Film performed on Dec 19, 1993 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

For the first thirty or so years of the cinema’s existence as a medium, virtually all films were accompanied by musicians. This meant that film viewing was a distinctly uneasy marriage between the “live” and the “mechanical,” between the theatrical and the strictly cinematic experience; for, wherever theatrical presence is concerned there is a glorious, built-in tension between performer and audience, each being aware of the other, that the cinema can never hope to achieve. The rush of applause as a symphony comes to a close or the last curtain comes down, is in some ways a needed release of this very tension, as if to say that performers and audience have made it through yet another ever precarious experience without a mishap. Theater is about attentive wakefulness — while the peculiarly soporific power of film lies in the fact that the motion picture projector is a mechanical and therefore always perfect interpreter. Its very inanimate dullness lulls us into a purposeful state of imaginative “distraction” as we sit alone in the dark.

Art thrives on the embracing of such built-in oppositions and it is worth considering that the 1920s is an especially fecund decade with respect to the large number of innovative and compelling films it produced, in part, because the decade represented the apex of a unique confluence of dream-inducing, mechanical shadowplay and real theatrical presence–a confluence which the advent of the sound film would destroy in a way that could never be recaptured on so wide a scale.

From a strictly musical point of view, the trend towards a complex and sensitive approach to film accompaniment was, not surprisingly, a gradual, evolutionary process. The first projected films (i.e. not the “peep shows”) were accompanied by a solo piano player who usually improvised, often mixing snatches of popular songs and passages from “the classics.” Eventually, films were distributed with published cue sheets suggesting what the piano player (or possibly an organist) would ideally perform in this same “checkerboard” fashion. By the 1920s, a major film released in a large city might be accompanied by a full orchestra, but since orchestras can’t improvise, complete scores became a necessity. Yet again, these were most often a mixture of current hit tunes and classical favorites. Conductors who specialized in cinematic accompaniment would compile the scores and usually compose original “bridge” material themselves since synchronization was an immense tricky problem.

Eventually, serious composers began to see respectable possibilities in the new upstart “merely-for-the-masses” art form, especially after the general disillusionment in “high” cultural values immediately following the First World War. But most film producers, who were first and foremost businessmen after all, rarely commissioned orchestral scares from composers with a reputation outside of solely cinematic circles. despite the fact that some kind of effective music was desirable, the score itself was still looked upon as a merely secondary and functional consideration which any cheap hack could more than adequately accomplish, i.e. why hire a Rembrandt simply to paint your dining room? And legitimate composers naturally enough tended to be fussy about the integrity of their orchestration, an attitude which ran up against the fact that the wide and rapid distribution of films necessitated great flexibility with respect to just what kind of ensemble might be playing on any given night in any given town. If producers had to commission a number of optional, authorized performing versions of a single scare, hiring the real thing could be costly indeed.

The net result of these factors is that there were only a few silent film scores written by major composers and they were generally the result of special collaborations done outside of mainstream, popular fare. Camille Saint-Saëns is usually credited with the first “significant” one: a score for L’Assasinat du duc de Guise (1908), one of a series of French productions under the aegis “Film d’Art.” Other than Richard Strauss’s score for Der Rosenkavalier, others worthy of mention include: Arthur Honegger’s for La Roue (1923; Abel Gance, Director) and Napoleon (1927; Abel Gance); Darius Milhaud’s for L’lnhumaine (1924; Marcel L’Herbier); and Dimitri Shostakovich’s for The New Babylon (1929; Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg). There were two notable cases in which the idea for the music came first and subsequently a short him was commissioned to accompany it: Erik Satie’s score for Entr’acte (1924; Rene Clair and Francis Picabia) and George Antheil’s for Ballet Mecanique (1924; Dudley Murphy and Fernand Leger). These latter two examples illustrate quite directly how much more crucial a role music could assume during the screening of a so-called “silent” film than, paradoxically, might be the case in the later sound era. Indeed, the lack of major scores notwithstanding, some commentators on silent film insist that it is impossible to understand the experience of this “lost” medium without taking into large consideration the place of the accompanying music.

One notable score I have yet to mention was ArnoldSchoenberg’s Begleitungsmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene (1930), written for an imaginary film as a characteristic act of radical idealism on the part of the composer and one which today shows the considerable impact of cinematic form on the other arts in the 1920s. The titles of the three, brief, seamless movements in Schoenberg’s piece “Danger Threatens” – “Panic” -“Catastrophe” – illustrate his grasp of a principle of film accompaniment which was at first not self-evident to practitioners. That is, an effective score should aim at producing interiorized psychological moods and feelings and not necessarily aim at displaying specific external “visual” effects, i.e. as if somehow literally to make up for the image’s lack of naturalistic sound. By the former means, a generalized emotional weight and dramatic depth could be given to the flickering, ghostly image on the screen; in the latter case, the music would, in effect, compete with the image and only serve to remind the audience of the inadequacy of the cinematic illusion in the first place. This explains why silent film did not take advantage (except in its infancy) of one obvious and easily achieved representational device: live actors who would speak lines behind or beneath the screen. The gap between the space of theater and that of cinema would seem unbridgeable but for the fact that a great tradition of musical expression stood for largely abstract, non-representational forms of flowing emotion and thought-process which seemed perfectly compatible with the ever-moving dreamscape of cinematic continuity. By being true to itself, so to speak, musical accompaniment had a unique capacity for being bath present and yet “somewhere else” at one and the same time. Thus could a potentially uneasy marriage ultimately prove successful.

Of course, the terms of effective accompaniment could work both ways. Sergei Eisenstein, perhaps the most aesthetically sophisticated of silent film artists, and an ingenious theorist, was one of the first to understand that the silent pantomime of the cinematic image demanded a studied, rhythmic –to wit, a musical –treatment, one that was executed through mastery of highly formalized, photographic composition and so-called metric editing. Although Edmund Meisel’s score for Eisenstein’s Potemkin (1925) was not of musical interest in its own right, it is not surprising that it achieved the strange distinction of being the only film score which was ever banned. Presumably, it made Potemkin‘s revolutionary theme simply too volatile; having worked with the director himself during its preparation, the music was sensitive to the consciously operatic design of the film as a whole. Indeed, Eisenstein himself subsequently wrote a famous analysis of his own film in which he divided the narrative into five acts (identified as such in the intertitles), each of which ends with a stirring “curtain closing” finale. In other words, by way of brilliant architectonic strokes, Potemkin was made to be accompanied. Incidentally, even less musically sophisticated filmmakers in the silent era were enough aware of the value of musical rhythm and mood in their craft that it was a common practice to have musicians actually play on the set during the shooting to help the actors shape a scene.

For those of us who hold the silent film era in high regard, it is ironic that just when these experiments in film and music were really getting under way, the silent film was doomed to extinction. In the very year, 1926, that Der Rosenkavalier came out, Warner Brothers distributed its first feature, don Juan, with a recorded soundtrack. The forging ahead of popular fashion is a ruthless enterprise. So quick and complete was the total abandonment of the silent film, that many important works and scores from the era were simply neglected and then irretrievably lost. Or, like Der Rosenkavalier, they only exist now in fragmented form. Yet it is important to consider that the reconstruction and performance/screening of Der Rosenkavalier brings with it more than the obvious historical interest, as momentous as that might be. Given the recent video/music experiments of Steve Reich, say, among others, or the frequent use of slide and film projections in the major opera houses, It is clear that the experience of live music along side a mechanically reproduced image is an ongoing aesthetic enterprise and concern which may still bear fruitful results.

Der Rosenkavalier: The Silent Film

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Der Rosenkavalier: The Silent Film performed on Dec 19, 1993 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

This performance of the reconstructed film Der Rosenkavalier is a tribute to the tenacity and enthusiasm of many individuals, both here and in Germany. Credit goes to Berndt Heller for doing the painstaking work of putting together the most complete version of the film possible. I am grateful for the efforts of Mark Loftin of the Bard Music Festival two years ago, when an unsuccessful attempt was made to bring the film to the United States. Most of all, I thank my colleagues at the American Symphony Orchestra, Eugene Carr and Lorna Dolci, who stopped at nothing to make this complicated project a reality.

The silent film Der Rosenkavalier presents a unique opportunity to reflect on the continuities and discontinuities between nineteenth-century and twentieth-century cultural traditions. The film also offers us an opportunity to see how two great artists, Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, reinvented their own work when confronted with a new theatrical medium. Their decision to make a silent film of Der Rosenkavalier almost fifteen years after the premiere of the opera in 1911 was, no doubt, a tribute to the opera’s unbelievable commercial and critical popularity.

In terms of Strauss’s music, the opera Der Rosenkavalier occupies a special place. After the powerful and seemingly modernist Elektra (1909), Der Rosenkavalier appeared to be a retreat to a more conventional, if not neo-Romantic and historicist, style. Strauss’s virtual disappearance after Der Rosenkavalier from the official story of twentieth-century music –a story that charts the progress of music from the rich, tonal, romantic vocabulary of the late nineteenth century (e.g. Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler) to the astringent modernism of the 1960’s (e.g. Pierre Boulez and Milton Babbitt)–is a consequence of Strauss’s music in Der Rosenkavalier. At the same time, Der Rosenkavalier marked the beginning of a rich period of collaboration with the Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Too often, modern audiences think of opera as being exclusively the work of a composer. For example, the name Lorenzo DaPonte is remembered only because of Mozart. However unfair this is in all cases, it is entirely wrong in the case of the Strauss/Hofmannsthal collaboration. After Der Rosenkavalier they completed four great operas and worked together on several smaller projects. Critics have belittled Strauss’s music from the 1920s and 1930s, but in recent years, owing in part to our so-called “post-modernist” sensibilities, we now listen to the mature Strauss–the work from the period in which this film was made-with new appreciation.

The re-making of Der Rosenkavalier, therefore, was an act of exploitation of a smash hit, much the way a best-selling novel today is turned into a movie. The particular “hit” in question, the 1911 opera, was a symbol of the special problems facing art and music in the twentieth century. Der Rosenkavalier became a battleground for competing critical viewpoints. Supporters hailed Strauss’s so-called conservatism. Others, using the modernist claims of Schoenberg and his followers, trashed it. At stake was the question of how to reach an audience and which audience to reach with the musical and theatrical conventions of the past. By 1925 this debate included the question of whether the film medium would become an instrument of the elevation of mass taste or a new means of expression that would spark an aesthetic conflict with traditional nineteenth-century practices.

Given this context, what we see and hear in this film from the 1920s is astonishing. First of all, Hofmannsthal rethought the opera. In the film version he allied himself even more powerfully with Mozart than he had in 1911. That allegiance was implied by the opera version. In the heat of the debate about modernism in the 1920s, Hofmannsthal took further refuge in the world of the eighteenth century. If modernism in the twentieth century can be understood as a reaction to the romanticism of the late nineteenth century, then one plausible route to take was neo-classicism, a retreat beyond the nineteenth century back to the seemingly pure, graceful, and light, but at the same time profound, achievement of the late eighteenth century. Mozart was regarded as having achieved the most powerful synthesis of words and music. The power of opera was realized in a way sufficiently intimate and transparent so that the listener could follow language and music together. The sheer scale of the Wagnerian music drama and the particular character of Wagner’s language seemed to demand for Hofmannsthal a radical reconsideration, which took the form of a return to the eighteenth century.

Many listeners may be familiar with the Strauss/Hofmannsthal collaboration Ariadne auf Naxos in which the commedia dell arte and the example of Moliere are present. The entire end of Der Rosenkavalier was changed by Hofmannsthal for this film. The indoor ending of the opera is transformed here into a direct evocation of the last scene of The Marriage of Figaro, tempered by the last scene of Don Giovanni. The technique of a play within a play is utilized in the use of theatrical reenactment of the presentation of the rose.

But at the same time, Hofmannsthal was fascinated by the unique properties of the cinema. In the absence of words delivered by the voice, Hofmannsthal utilized flashbacks and cinematic means of silently communicating the emotional essence that sung words had communicated so powerfully in the opera. This silent film project inspired Hofmannsthal to approach in a new way an issue that had plagued his entire life and career. In his adolescence he had become lionized and world-famous as a lyric poet. Then he experienced a severe crisis about writing. For the remainder of his career Hofmannsthal struggled with the question of how language might function in the modern world. His enthusiastic collaboration with Strauss was in part an admission of the insufficiency of language alone. In the Rosenkavalier film, language retreats even further as a medium of modernity, leaving musical sound, pantomime, and image alone to work together.

Richard Strauss’s view of this film version has long been a matter of debate. Conventional wisdom has it that he undertook this film merely to mollify Hofmannsthal and to earn some money. But the mid-1920s was not an easy time for Strauss. From 1919 to 1924 he had served as co-Director of the Vienna Opera. He also was engaged in a variety of projects that turned his attention, like Hofmannsthal, to the eighteenth century. He arranged Beethoven’s Ruins of Athens. Later, in the 1920s, he began to re-write Mozart’s Idomeneo. In both his composing and his art collecting, he demonstrated a deepening respect for the French eighteenth century. Strauss was worried about his own creative energies. In the midst of the ferment of the 1920s, he already had taken on the aura of a figure from the past. His most-well-known works dated from between the mid-1880’s and 1911. It was said all too frequently that Strauss was beyond his prime. Furthermore, new developments in both high art and popular culture seemed to make him irrelevant.

The opportunity to achieve success in the most modern medium-film-therefore, was not lost on Strauss. Like Hofmannsthal, he was not content merely to make a film version of the opera. He included new music and followed Hofmannsthal’s lead in recasting the story. Strauss was possessed of a sense of humor, and both he and Hofmannsthal used the film version to respond to quirky elements of the well-known opera plot. They knew that many film-goers would know the opera and smile at how the Marshallin knew that Octavian had fallen in love with Sophie. Could better sense be made of Annina and Valzacchi? The famous handkerchief at the end of the opera becomes Octavian’s cuff in the first of the film.

Like Hofmannsthal, Strauss used the opportunity of writing for the film version to explore questions central to his work. First, as the scores of Ariadne and particularly Intermezzo and later Capriccio reveal, Strauss was in search of an economy and lightness and transparency uncharacteristic of, for example, Death and Transfiguration and Elektra. Here in the film medium, the utility of the eighteenth century as an aesthetic model for the twentieth again could be tested. Second, the relationship between words and music, or the competition between theater and opera, was never far from the composer’s mind. In the film the question becomes not only about the relationship between words and music (as in opera) but also between the visual and the musical. We too often forget that among Strauss’s passions was narrative and landscape painting. The cinematic virtues of this film version provoked Strauss as both composer and conductor to think about the visual and the musical together and how music functions without words with a visual dimension. Could music and pictures achieve the impact of opera?

The visual dimension of opera was a significant issue for Strauss. The cinematic version of Der Rosenkavalier gave him an opportunity to explore the relationship between music and modern techniques of visualization, particularly those that trade in the illusions of visual realism. The cinema offered new opportunities to experiment with time and memory as mediated through pictures and sound.

Strauss conducted two performances of the work, one in Dresden and one in London. One ought not exaggerate the claims of his disappointment. The director of the film was among the most famous Directors of his time. The actors included the leading film stars and one of the great figures of the Viennese Burgtheater and therefore the classical stage, as well as personalities from the operatic world. The film offers us a nearly comic amalgam of different acting styles.

When one watches the film, one thinks about the transition the great figures of the nineteenth century had to make when faced with modern technology. The great Austrian Director Max Reinhardt, a friend and colleague of both Strauss and Hofmannsthal (whose production of the play Elektra inspired Strauss to write the opera and who worked with Strauss in the production of Der Rosenkavalier and later Ariadne), also made a transition to film. Reinhardt produced many Hofmannsthal plays and, together with Hugo von Hofmannsthal, founded the Salzburg Festival. Reinhardt made a film version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the 1930s. In both that Reinhardt effort and this Rosenkavalier film, the desire to make the artistic legacy of the past vital and render it effectively to modern audiences through a distinctly contemporary medium and therefore create an audience of otherwise inconceivable breadth should be viewed as having triumphed.

Der Rosenkavalier: The Silent Film

12/19/1993 at 08:00 PM – Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center

    Concert Notes