An undated picture of Richard Wagner, holding movie music prisoner in his left hand
Re-posted by Nicholas Stix
Wagner's Influence on Movie Music
By R.A. McDuff
December 13, 2013
Every man or woman in charge of the music of moving picture theater is, consciously or unconsciously, a disciple or follower of Richard Wagner– Stephen Bush, film critic, 1911
Please write music like Wagner, only louder– Sam Goldwyn to a film composer
If my grandfather were alive today, he would undoubtedly be working in Hollywood—Wolfgang Wagner
(Note: When I mention a film composer in this post, the film listed next to his name is the one–or more–he wrote that is listed among the 25 best film scores of all time, according to a survey by the American Film Institute. More on that below.)
There is no area in which Wagner’s musical influence is felt more broadly and deeply than in film music. It was very clear to the early Hollywood moguls, and their film composers, that Wagner’s music was the perfect model for the newly created industry. He is widely credited for developing the musical language that was self-consciously adopted from his works for the movies. For example, the man who is often called “the father of movie music,” Max Steiner1 (King Kong, Gone with the Wind), denied he was the “inventor” and deflected that title to Wagner:
“Nonsense. The idea originated with Richard Wagner. Listen to the incidental scoring behind the recitatives in his operas. If Wagner had lived in this century, he would have been the No. 1 film composer.”2
The influential 20th century composer, and teacher of several film composers, Arnold Schoenberg, said that Wagner “bequeathed to us three things: first, rich harmony; second, the short motive with its possibility of adapting the phrase as quickly and often as required to the smallest details of the mood; and third, at the same time, the art of building large-scale structures and the prospect of developing this art still further.”3
All three of these bequests were adopted by film composers, though at the base was usually “the short motive,” a.k.a. leitmotifs – what Wagner called “motifs of memory” – whose purpose is “to represent or symbolize a person, object, place, idea, state of mind, supernatural force or any other ingredient in a dramatic work.”4
Wagner used them in a sophisticated way to create or deepen our emotional reactions when these memory-motifs were repeated and developed within a dramatic work. Films often used them very simplistically, but the best film scores integrate them in a more Wagnerian manner; that is, they are developed and modified and transformed as the drama unfolds without viewers’ immediate consciousness of the fact.
In you want to read more, this article by Gustavo Costantini goes into depth about the use of the leitmotif in film scores. Here is the author’s summary of why they were adopted as the principal means of creating a score:
[Wagner’s] flexible way of using musical themes enabled musicians to resolve a lot of problems when films began to include sound. Firstly, to find a structure for organizing musical material. Secondly, to link characters and situations by means of music. And, finally, to avoid duplication (image / sound / musical onomatopoeia, having sound and music do the same thing). Romantic music entered the film sound field associated with all these technical, psychological and formal aspects, helping narrative film to aim higher. People were aware of the musical code, and the associations with characters and situations allowed directors to delineate and complete plot ideas through sound. And because cinema was not as demanding as opera - at least in those days - the musician’s task was simplified by the use of leitmotifs.
As well, Wagner’s concept of gesamkunstwerk (the total work of art) was explicitly on the minds of some of the composers. For instance, film composer Miklos Rózsa (Ben-Hur) said,
My generation tried to establish the serious motion picture score with a symphonic background. I personally believe in the form of motion picture derived form [sic] Wagner’s book Opera and Drama.
He discussed the gesamkunstwerk, an all-encompassing art of drama, writing and music. What could be closer to this description than motion picture? 5
Echoing Rózsa, the composer Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Vertigo) said a similar thing:
Cinema is a great opportunity to create a remarkable kind of music in the sense that it is music of the theater, and at the same time, it is music that becomes part of a whole new artistic phenomenon which is known as cinema, which is a combination of all the arts—and music is cinema.6
Herrmann believed that, “it is not possible to create a film without music, but you can create a film without good music.”7
This is actually not true, as there have been good films with very little or no score. See this for instance. But they are rare.
Most films do have music, and it clearly can help provide a more intense, emotional experience when done well, just as the orchestral music does in opera, particularly from Wagner’s era on. Take the music out of the Herrmann-scored Psycho, for instance, and the scare factor would plummet. Take the music out of the “silent” film The Artist, and it would have never got close to garnering an Oscar, much less distribution.8
One current film composer who has followed the Wagnerian model is Howard Shore in the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit trilogies. My wife Leslie loves literature; I don’t. She had contributed the posts for this blog on Joyce and Tolkien, as I couldn’t do them justice. Since Tolkien is one her favorite authors, I asked her to comment on what the music brought to the film version of the Hobbit, which she found lacking in many other ways. Leslie writes:
To my mind, movies rarely come close to capturing the emotional impact of the books they’re based on. This is largely because reading a book takes far longer than watching a film; one has many hours—often days or even weeks—to live inside the heads of the characters, to learn to empathize with them, to anticipate and share in their desires, fears, anxieties. For this reason, I tend to prefer literature over movies—I revel in the time it takes, and the satisfying payoff at the end.
Music, however, can act as a shortcut to these same emotions. For reasons I couldn’t possibly explain, music has the ability to evoke the deepest feelings in a matter of seconds—especially if the listener has been properly set up in advance. (Just hearing the few chords that accompany Rodolfo's cry “Mimi, Mimi” at the end of La Bohème, for instance, can instantly cause tears to well up in my eyes.)
So using music effectively in a film can give the work a far greater emotional impact than it would otherwise possess. One of the greatest examples of movie is Howard Shore’s scores for the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. Truly, his soundtracks come closer to Tolkien’s poetic language than any other aspect of the films.
Here’s a perfect example. I had some serious problems with Part One of The Hobbit, in particular the seemingly never-ending chases and battles. But one scene saved the movie for me: when Bilbo contemplates killing Gollum, but then pity stays his hand. At the beginning of the scene the music is ethereal and suspenseful and just sort of floats there, as we watch Bilbo’s frustration at not being able to get past Gollum to escape from the underground passageway. Then the music starts to change: We hear snatches of heroic, pastoral lines, as Bilbo imagines the world outside of Gollum’s dark caves. Determined, he holds his sword up to Gollum’s neck. The strings and tension intensify as Bilbo grits his teeth and brings the sword back, ready to strike. But then he looks Gollum in the eyes, and sees, what? A shared humanity (hobbitity?). The music becomes more complex, questioning (and very Wagnerian, I might add). And then the payoff. We hear strains of folk music—the music of the Shire. Our Bilbo lowers his sword, and we truly feel his empathy for this piteous creature. No, he cannot strike him down. I cried like a baby the first time I saw it in the theater. Watch below.
Robin once said to me that she loves music because she doesn’t want to do all the work it takes to read a whole, long novel. But listening to music—or watching a movie with a terrific soundtrack—it’s like mainlining literature.9
The soundtrack to the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit films sounds Wagnerian, and not just because Shore uses leitmotifs in a manner similar to Wagner. The music itself is strikingly reminiscent of Wagner’s music. As the music critic Alex Ross says in this analysis of the two Rings (both musical and literary):
Shore manages the admirable feat of summoning up a Wagnerian atmosphere without copying the original. He knows the science of harmonic dread. First, he lets loose an army of minor triads, or three-note chords in the minor mode. They immediately cast a shadow over the major-key music of the happy hobbits...
The minor triad would not in itself be enough to suggest something as richly sinister as the Ring of Power. Here Wagner comes in handy. He famously abandoned the neat structures of classical harmony for brooding, meandering strings of chords. In the “Ring,” special importance attaches to the pairing of two minor triads separated by four half-steps—say, E minor and C minor. Conventional musical grammar says that these chords should keep their distance, but they make an eerie couple, having one note (G) in common. Wagner uses them to represent, among other things, the Tarnhelm, the ring’s companion device, which allows its user to assume any form. Tolkien’s ring, likewise, makes its bearer disappear, and Shore leans on those same spooky chords to suggest the shape-shifting process.10
In the movie A Dangerous Method, Shore’s score uses Wagner with less subtlety, using the “descent into Nibelheim” as the rhythmic background of what I assume is an implied descent into darkness. (I haven’t seen the movie.) The film also make [sic] use of Wagner’s Idyll.
Of course, the use of Wagner’s music has been common since the beginning of cinema. In the silent era, about 5% (excluding the “Wedding March,” which was ubiquitous in any scene of a wedding at that time) of the cue sheets recommended various Wagner pieces.11
When sound entered, many films used Wagner’s music as part of the score. The book Wagner and Cinema gives a list of about 170 direct uses of Wagner’s music in English-language cinema, and this blogger notes—with some screen examples—that the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) lists over 500 such titles.
If you then add in film scores written in a Wagnerian manner, as well as allusions to his music within scores, this would make many hundreds of titles; the most famous scores of all time are particularly likely to have Wagner's influence.
This is the American Film Institute’s (AFI) list of the best 25 film scores of all time as picked by a jury of 500 “film artists, composers, musicians, critics and historians.” Within that list only a small percentage were not directly, and greatly, influenced by Wagner’s musical language and form.12
Max Steiner is given credit for the first great film score, King Kong, written in 1933. Blogger Michael Pratt writes here about Steiner's music, with emphasis on King Kong. He writes: “Utilizing Wagner’s leitmotiv system of assigning a theme for all of the main characters and events and using them developmentally in a symphonic fashion allowed Steiner to craft a film score which was both musically dramatic and story enhancing (to the same effect as Wagner’s usage in his Ring Cycle of operas).”13 Beyond that, Steiner also matched the sound to the dramatic developments, which became known as “mickey-mousing” because of Disney’s extensive use of the technique in cartoons. See this short clip of King Kong below for a clear example.
The term “mickey-mousing” is used derisively, but in this interview when he was 78, Steiner defends it, while distinguishing the film music art from opera:
In opera there is no click track and you can’t coordinate it [i.e. the sound with the action] unless you play a march for soldiers, like in Faust, and the chorus walks in tempo. But on screen the music has to fit, otherwise how are you going to play it? If you are in the middle of a love scene, you cut away to a barroom someplace where they have a hurdy gurdy or jukebox or fight, what are you going to do? Keep on with the love theme?... So you have to play the appropriate music to develop the action. If that is “Mickey Mousing” it’s all right with me.14
Steiner used these techniques of leitmotif and “mickey-mousing” in all his scores—all 216 of them—and won three Oscars, though he didn’t win for his Gone with The Wind score, number 2 on the AFI list. The score that won that year, for The Wizard of Oz, doesn’t show up on the list. (There were no Academy Awards [for music] in 1933, when King Kong opened.)
Herrmann and Hitchcock
Another celebrated film composer of that era, though he began his career a little later, was Bernard Herrmann. Unlike Steiner, he didn’t primarily use leitmotifs, but created his own unique musical structure for his scores, revolving around small musical phrases—which is similar to leitmotifs but used more to create an emotion, not necessarily an association.15 However, interestingly, in one of his most famous pieces, the “Scene d’Amour” from Vertigo (watch below), he did intentionally create an association with Tristan and Isolde, which works as a leitmotif to anyone who knows the Wagner music drama.
Music critic Alex Ross analyses the Vertigo film score here, and writes of this scene: “Herrmann’s use of Wagner, however, is a matter of deliberation and subtlety. The main melodic contour is his own; the harmony is still his idiosyncratic construction. He is jogging the memory of those who know Tristan and the subconscious of those who don’t. His veiled citations indicate in their own way the unstoppable recurrence of the past.” (For other examples of composers who subtlety used Wagner either to intentionally create the connection, or perhaps without such intention, see Jason Neal’s post here.)
Steiner and Herrmann’s style—and indeed the style of the vast majority of the soundtracks on the AFI list—was the “lush, impassioned romanticism of mid-Europe in the late nineteenth century.”16 In other words, it wasn’t just Wagner’s leitmotifs that were adopted, but also his mode, Romantic music.
While Romantic music had already given way to newer forms of orchestral music in concert halls—among them were music labeled Post-Romantic, Neo-classical, Impressionist, Modernist, and Expressionism—film music didn’t adopt those forms and instead continued Wagner’s own tradition: “Romantic music was not only a choice of style, it was the dominant model.”17
Of the 25 films on the AFI list, 17 were by Jewish* composers. Every single score on it that was written before 1960 was the product of a Jewish immigrant or a son of a Jewish immigrant. This is far from an accident. Most were trained during the period of Wagner’s predominance as a composer. Many were students of the men Wagner had greatly influenced such as Strauss, Mahler, and Schoenberg.
Max Steiner, Erich Korngold (The Adventures of Robin Hood), Franz Waxman (Sunset Boulevard), Miklos Rózsa, and Dimitri Tiomkin (High Noon) had all fled Europe during the Nazi era. This article summarizes the situation:
In a collision of circumstances, brilliant classical composers were fleeing Europe for their lives at the same time that Hollywood was maturing. Eager for employment and without any prejudice against this new popular art form, these immigrant composers found safe haven in sunny California, did some of their best work, created what came to be known as the Hollywood sound, and transformed cinema.
This excellent article on these composers emphasizes that they were among the most talented and well-trained composers of their generation:
“They were neither students nor pioneers, but rather established, active European composers, among the best of their generation. And they created what many consider to be the finest scores ever written for the film industry.”
The other prominent film composers of the day–Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Newman18 (How the West was Won) and David Raksin (Laura)–were all the sons of Jewish immigrants and, interestingly, all three studied with the most famous and influential of all the musical emigres from Nazi Germany, Arnold Schoenberg.
The most famous film composer of the modern day, John Williams (Star Wars, Jaws, E.T.), has continued in the same Wagnerian path—particularly for the Star Wars series—though he is not Jewish himself. However, he says, “Anyone growing up in music as I have done has so has many teachers who are Jewish; it’s so much a part of what we know and what we do.” (Howard Shore, on the other hand, is Jewish.)19
Some later composers, who grew up after Wagner’s influence had waned significantly, were still asked to write in a Wagnerian style because the older producer wanted the style. Such was the case for Elmer Bernstein (To Kill a Mockingbird) who wrote the score for Cecil DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. Bernstein relates in this interview, “De Mille had his own concepts of film scoring. He believed in narrative. All the characters had to have themes. There had to be philosophical themes, a theme for good, a theme for evil and so on. I composed all those fragments and he approved, so I went ahead. It’s very Wagnerian, all those leitmotifs.”
While it might seem ironic now that it was Jewish composers, and the Jewish moguls who hired them, who brought Wagner’s musical legacy to the masses, I don’t believe they would have found it so.
First, the prevalence of anti-Semitism in Europe was already extremely high even before the rise of Hitler—comparable to racism in America in the same era—and the fact that any particular human being was anti-Semitic was just not a deal-breaker for Jews. They had to develop very thick skins to be able to make their way in an often hostile society (as was the case for women, gays, people of color, etc. in the same period.)
Even in the United States, which was noted for not having the depth or extensive history of anti-Semitism that Europe did, prejudice was high. For example, in a 1938 Gallup poll, 50% of Americans said they had a “low-opinion” of Jews.20
Secondly the idée fixe that exists today that Wagner was a proto-fasicist [sic] and greatly influenced Hitler just did not exist then.21 Jews of that era would have found that concept foreign if not absurd, since Wagner had long since been dead, and his anti-Semitism wasn’t considered to be of Hilter’s ilk at all (and, of course, it wasn’t). The Wagner as Jewish boogeyman is of a very modern construction, and did not arise until well after World War II and only became a leitmotif, so to speak, from the 1970s on in American and Europe.22 I have read several interviews with the composers where they were asked about Wagner, and not one of them raised the issue of his anti-Semitism.
An example of the disconnect between now and then is an account by the conductor John Mauceri about his angst over a concert he had planned with both Wagner and Korngold’s music, to be preformed [sic]—he realized to his horror—on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in Germany. He contacted the Korngold family to clear it with them, and, far from having a problem with it, they were thrilled that Korngold was paired with such a genius.23
As another example, this informative L.A. Times article about Wagner’s influence on movie-music addressed this issue from the point of view that it was a particular irony. The author approached Franz Waxman’s son for a quote. Unfortunately, he trotted out Wagner’s “association with Hitler” as a given, which rather muddies the water, but John Waxman answered, sort of sidestepping the assumption, “[t]hey recognized Hitler for what he was and despised him for what he did to their families, but they also recognized Wagner’s genius and embraced his music. After all, they grew up on Wagner.”
The same Jewish composers and movie moguls who were victims of the Nazis had no problem embracing Wagner’s music, yet many Israelis not even alive in the era now want to maintain a ban on his works? It is ironic and hypocritical that Israel bans his music in the concert hall – which reaches but a tiny segment of Israeli society – while it is regularly heard by millions, both directly and through musical allusions to his works, in hundreds of films that are not banned.
The bottom line is that I am very thankful for the Jewish composers and moguls who brought Wagner’s music to the masses. Now, it would be nice if Israelis could actually hear the music in context to see why it so inspired them to emulate it.
* Who is a Jew is, of course, historically a fraught topic. Obviously there is no question for anyone who is religiously Jewish. But what of those folks who aren't religious? As I said in another post, I like Woody Allen's construction: “I’m not a real Jew - I am Jew-ish.” The men I am writing about in these post were, for the most part not religious, just culturally Jewish, i.e. Jew-ish.